Dec 5th, 2010 by Conor McCabe
And the big difference in twenty years? Money. Lots of it now. Back then, not enough.’ (Aine Lawlor, May 2006)
On 31 May 2006 RTE broadcast a ninety-minute documentary entitled That Was Then, This is Now. It consisted of nine personal reflections on Ireland and the changes the country underwent from 1986 to 2006. The contributors were John Waters, Ger Kilroy, David Ervine, Diarmuid Ferriter, Emily Hourican , Fr. Brian D’Arcy, Luke Clancy, Hugh Wallace, and Mary Robinson. Each segment was prefaced by Aine Lawlor, journalist and broadcaster.
The main thrust of the programme, clips from which are below, was that Ireland had experienced fundamental change in the twenty years since 1986, it had become modern, that as a nation Ireland had ‘arrived.’ In the course of ‘arriving’ the nation had lost part of its soul. It was more materialistic, and noisier, but the comforts and advantages outweighed the losses. Not all the contributors held this view, but the overall sense was one of a nation where the fundamentals had changed.
The previous year an organisation was set up which took a far less dazzling view of Irish society.
In February 2005 the Centre for Public Inquiry, an independent body which set itself the task of investigating corruption in Irish society, was established in Dublin. In September of that year it published a report on the planning procedure surrounding the Trim Castle Hotel. This was quickly followed by a report on the Corrib pipeline.
However, in December the centre was fatally undermined by a series of attacks on its executive director, the investigative journalist Frank Connolly. These were led by the Irish Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who accused Connolly of association with the narco-terrorist organisation, FARC.
The accusations, read out in the Dáil under special privilege and so exempt from libel, were without foundation, but caused enough controversy as to lead the centre’s financier, Chuck Feeney, to withdraw funding from the centre.
In April 2006 the chairman of the Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI), retired High Court judge Fergus Flood, announced that the centre had ceased operations, that it would not be publishing any more reports. It had just completed an investigation into the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and Anglo Irish Bank, but was unable to publish its findings due to threats of libel and a lack of financial cover should such a case be brought against them.
Looking back now on That Was Then, as well as the reports of the CPI, it is quite clear as to which one provided insight into the true nature of Irish society, and which one didn’t.
Yet this is not just an error on the part of the film-makers - at least not a conscious one.
That Was Then captures with some skill just what the film-makers and their friends, and the class to which they belong, thought about Ireland and its economy.
The documentary is a scan across the surface. The focus is on the flashy lights, not the mechanism.
It is a great example of the self-regarding banality of Irish middle-class intellectual discourse.
Here is the introduction to the documentary, with suitably reflective piano music to let us know that what is being said is deep and profound.
It’s not only the music which gives the documentary the sense of profundity. The presenter is Aine Lawlor, who is the voice of Morning Ireland, the show to which Ireland wakes up - at least, those in Ireland who consider themselves informed and abreast of things.
For them, the Irish chin-rubbers - the ones who type ‘hmmm’ into comments - it is only a sleepy yawn and a blink of the eyes from Morning Ireland to the Irish Times, and they are set for the day.
You know. The usual.
It is not surprising, then, given such a set-up, that the first contributor to the documentary is the Irish Times journalist, John Waters.
In a wonderful display of ignorance and self-deception, Waters lays out in nine short minutes his complete inability to understand the world around him, to see the forces which shape the world he inhabits.
Here are two minutes where Waters looks back on himself in 1986, wide-eyed with amazement at how he could get things so wrong when he was young and angry and on RTE.
The piano music is still playing in case you forget that this is, well, profound and insightful.
Gay Byrne used to say ‘banjaxed.’ We were banjaxed. We really were! Remarkable really. Twenty years. From banjaxed to… bonanza.” (John Waters. May 2006)
Waters struggles to explain to the audience that, back then, we had emigration. The country was broke. We were governed in the interests of bankers. He’s like Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner, telling us how in 1986 he saw IMF attack-ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. He watched dole queues glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments are now lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to sigh.
Two days after That Was Then was broadcast, John Waters wrote in the Irish Times that he welcomed the closure of the Centre for Public Inquiry. ‘The idea of a foreign philanthropist sticking his nose and his dollars into the affairs of a sovereign nation, as Chuck Feeney has done in funding the centre, is to my mind deeply unhealthy’ he said. ‘If Mr. Feeney wished to fund Frank Connolly in his investigative efforts, he might more properly have financed a newspaper or magazine to take its place in the marketplace of ideas, rather than instituting a watchdog body which could cloak itself in an aura of objectivity and claim a higher ground than the merely journalistic.’ (2 June 2006).
So what was it about the Frank Connolly and the CPI which drew the ire of the Irish State, and John Waters?
As stated, the Centre’s final, and unpublished, report, dealt with ‘the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and its links to Anglo-Irish Bank whose then chairman, Sean Fitzpatrick, was a board member of both organisations.’ (The following long quotes are all from Frank Connolly’s article for Irish Central, republished here by ShelltoSea.)
the report due for publication in March 2006 revealed how the DDDA had been financially, and ultimately fatally, compromised through its relationship with Anglo-Irish Bank whose then chairman, Sean Fitzpatrick, was its most influential board member.
It would also have revealed the deeply unethical business behaviour of Fitzpatrick who has since become the chief focus of blame for Ireland’s collapsed banking and financial system, and of its once booming economy.
Fitzpatrick’s close links to the wealthiest and most successful Irish developers – almost all of whom were key donors to Fianna Fáil – placed him at the centre of the most powerful golden circle to emerge in the history of the Irish state.
Many of them were funded by his bank, Anglo-Irish Bank, and many also were investors in the high rise, real estate, opportunities that flourished from the late 1990’s along both sides of the river Liffey at its estuary into Dublin bay.
Here’s Emily Hourican, giving her slant on Ireland in 2006.
This is NOT an ad for a bank loan. This is part of her contribution to That Was Then.
Set up in 1997 the DDDA enjoyed special planning powers which allowed it to grant lucrative planning permissions (known as Section 25 certificates) on lands it controlled along the city quays without the developers having to go through the transparent, if lengthy, procedures involved in facing objections and appeals from residents or city planners.
After 2002, when Fitzpatrick joined the board of the DDDA, the pace of development intensified and the rate of Section 25 certificates issued accelerated to the extent that most of the country’s small, but hugely wealthy and influential, number of developers were taking options on land in the docklands area.
The major investments, most notably the massive Spencer Dock development on the north quay, were funded by Anglo-Irish Bank although the other major banks, Allied Irish, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank were also quick to join the queue of lenders to a seemingly ‘no brainer’ investment opportunity with land values leapfrogging year on year.
It became an obvious area of investigation for the newly formed CPI set up with five year funding by Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies in late 2004. Feeney had first suggested to me that such an agency might help expose some of the obvious corporate and political wrong doing in Irish public life.
[The Docklands report set out] to identify the ownership of every site in the DDDA area, the developers involved, their banking arrangements and their links to the political establishment. The reason was simple – it was the single biggest commercial development in the history of the State, the area where property prices were rising at the fastest rate and where a substantial number of the country’s first crop of billionaires were investing and profiting with the aid of a Government agency.
The CPI got early guidance from well placed sources within the DDDA machine, public servants who were concerned at the way in which a State body was easing the path for the wealthiest business interests at the direction of one the country’s most powerful bankers. Fitzpatrick sat on the board and on the key finance committee of the DDDA while the chairman of the agency, Larry Bradshaw, was appointed to the board of Anglo Irish Bank in late 2004.
This coincided with the information that Anglo-Irish was to back the Spencer Dock scheme on the north quays, involving a ‘national conference centre’, residential and commercial space and developed by Treasury Holdings, by advancing 50% of the then €300 million construction cost.
The CPI investigation did not go unnoticed as the questions submitted by its researchers to the DDDA and various Government departments under Freedom of Information legislation triggered political defence warnings at the highest level in cabinet…
[The] justice minister, Michael McDowell, raised questions about an allegation that I had visited Colombia using a false Irish passport in 2001. This story first surfaced in the Irish media in 2002 and in early 2003 the Irish police said there was no basis for my prosecution on any charge nor has there been any since.
In November 2005, McDowell then took the unprecedented step of using (or abusing) Dáil privilege to denounce me, again, with a series of unsubstantiated claims. These otherwise libelous allegations were made in a written reply to a parliamentary question concerning the CPI. The reply was faxed to a board meeting of Atlantic Philanthropies in New York within minutes of its deposit in the library of Parliament in late November 2005. With this intense official pressure the fate of the CPI was sealed and its funding immediately withdrawn.
Just weeks later the members of the CPI board were sent a letter issued by prominent solicitors, Arthur Cox, on behalf of Treasury Holdings which threatened that their family homes would be pursued in damages claims if its clients (Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett) were written about in any report by the CPI that was libelous or defamatory.
… Had the report into the DDDA been released in March 2006, as planned, it would have exposed the corporate excesses of Anglo-Irish in the docklands and elsewhere.
The skills to investigate and analyse - key skills to any documentary worth its salt - are completely absent from That Was Then. It is a collection of trinkets, catching the eye of the narrator, who calls such flashy lights the events which shape us.
At the same time, a team of investigators who were following the money in Ireland, were set upon and shut down by the State itself, with hardly a peep from the mainstream media.
This was not out of fear or self-preservation.
The Irish media did little about the Docklands, did little about Anglo-Irish, did little about the attacks on Frank Connolly, mainly because if they were so inclined in the first place, well, they wouldn’t be working in Irish media.
The Irish media make documentaries like That Was Then, because that is all they know.
Today, when you turn on the radio, pick up a newspaper, or watch the TV, all you see and hear is screaming. Blind, mindless panic.
They didn’t know what was going on back in 2006, and they sure as hell haven’t got a clue as to what is going on today.
They don’t understand. Their way of seeing the world is out of step with the way the world works. And while it was possible to ignore the world while there was credit to paint over the cracks, no such luxury exists today.
And that is why from 6.30 in the morning to 11.30 at night, all you get from RTE and the Irish Times is screaming.