The stench of scandal seeping out from Britain
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The apparent indifference of many in the UK to allegations facing the prime minister is not shared elsewhere. Especially in Ireland, which has a recent history of indulging political corruption.
Looking over from Ireland it’s astonishing to observe just how little concern vast swathes of the British political and media establishments seem to be showing about the various latest revelations about Boris Johnson’s behaviour.
If he were a leading politician based in Ireland then it is almost certain he would never have gotten away with the stories that have emerged about Jennifer Arcuri – who claims, with considerable evidence, to have enjoyed a four-year affair with him – or his current partner Carrie Symonds.
The sexual behaviour would not have been issue – at least not in public discourse, even if many privately would disapprove of a man who won’t answer questions as to how many children he has by different women, or conducted one of his most recent affairs while his wife was battling cancer.
For years in Ireland we pretended that nobody in this country – especially people in power - had extra-marital sexual affairs because it was accepted that everybody was observant of the prevalent mores dictated by the dominant religion of Catholicism.
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By the time we abandoned that pretence we had apparently become so liberal that we decided that it didn’t matter what people did in their beds and with whom. But that ignored something: evidence of excessive sexual abandon may be a good guide as to the other behaviours of political participants that is relevant to public disclosure.
However, even if we in Ireland turn a blind eye to sexual carry-on most of us retain a degree of ethics and good sense when it comes to money. That’s especially the case when our elected rulers are perceived to be spending ours for their personal benefit, or to be using their positions to take cash or assets to which they are not entitled.
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The idea that Arcuri would have been given preferred status on three separate UK trade missions when Johnson was in a position to personally confer favour and would be the beneficiary of a six figure contract for the provision of “technology services” (leaving aside the subject as to her qualifications to do so) would be considered outrageous… and would lead to action.
That Johnson has billed the Conservative Party for some of his previous legal bills in defending himself from allegations about his Arcuri affair should only add insult to injury.
That Symonds would be indulged in an estimated £200,000 plus makeover of the four bedroom flat at which she, Johnson and his latest child reside at 11 Downing Street, when the already generous state provided limit is £30,000, would provoke fury and again require action in response. The use of a “charity” to gather the money would raise immediate questions about who would get what in return for this supposed generosity.
Instead Britain apparently merely shrugs and insists it is not of any great importance.
This indicates a casual acceptance of potential corruption – and should alert any state, or corporate citizen of foreign states, who considers doing business with the United Kingdom under such leadership.
Ireland has had its own problems in the past with indulging such political corruption but the UK could do well to learn from some of our experiences and eventual willingness to deal with them.
Charles Haughey, who served as Taoiseach in various periods between 1979 and 1992, was the greatest crook of all, a populist with many similarities to Johnson, albeit one who tried deliberately to display himself as more sophisticated than he actually was, dressing up rather than dressing down in the Johnson way.
He played the nationalist card relentlessly and cheaply, giving succour to terrorism in doing so. His tricks to make himself look like a man of the people included free toothbrushes for every schoolchild and free travel for old age pensioners.
This happened at the same time as pin-stripe suited intermediaries held out the begging bowl for him, money delivered secretly to off-shore bank accounts. Domestic banks were lent on to write down his massive debts. Haughey used his political clout to live a lifestyle that was utterly removed from his public pay and his supporters demanded the Irish public to take on trust that his wealth was based on unspecified successful investments.
Haughey got away with the con for years on the basis that he had a charisma and style that was rarely in evidence in Irish public life and a way with words. Even better, he was said to be able get things done in a way that others couldn’t – although the reality was that he didn’t do much. Those who saw through him and tried to make the public aware of his many deceptions were shouted down. His well-known affair with the wife of a High Court judge was never reported until she provided photographic evidence herself long after he had been disgraced.
It was only after he left office – when a public tribunal examined an unfolding series of claims and evidence that started with events outside his control – that it was confirmed that he had been on the take for years. It was estimated the current day value of the political graft he received was in excess of 50 million euros. He stole party funds and even diverted gifts meant to pay for a transplant operation for his closest political associate. He died in disgrace although he never saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone a person cell.
Bertie Ahern led a simpler existence and, in fairness, did more for the Irish state as prime minister than Haughey ever did. Ahern on his way up through the Fianna Fail party ranks however signed party cheques in Haughey’s favour.
He got away with that but not with the revelation that he had received considerable financial gifts in cash for himself and that, as minister for finance, he apparently had no personal bank accounts.
Public appreciation for his essential role in securing the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and maintaining it afterwards evaporated quickly, even though he, like Haughey, always had his supporters who claimed these matters were trivial by comparison with their political achievements.
A tribunal found against Ahern even though he had left the office of Taoiseach prior to its report and he resigned membership of his own party just before it went through the motions of kicking him out.
Many in Ireland are not immune to Johnson’s apparent charms, it should be admitted. Two years ago, when he was waiting on the backbenches for Theresa May to fall and provide him with an opening for personal advancement, Johnson used the hiatus as an opportunity to hoover up the cash. He came to Dublin to speak at a motivational conference called the Pendulum Summit. Previous speakers had included Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Deepak Chopra and Conor McGregor.
To shift the remaining tickets (which sold for prices of up to 3,000 euros each), the conference organiser arranged from Johnson to come and speak. The deal cost him 75,000 euros, which he regarded as money well spent. For his 58,000 euros fee, Johnson flew in, spoke for 25 minutes and then tried his not uncommon trick of trying to grab the list of questions from his on-stage interviewer as he floundered under the intellectual pressure of being required to know the answers.
The audience lapped up the entertainment and those who bought the most expensive diamond tickets then bound onto the stage afterwards seeking selfies with the man who later that year would become the UK prime minister.
Since his elevation Ireland has experienced his deceitful approach to this island many times. Examples of how the personal overlaps with the political and cannot be separated. He tried unsuccessfully to renege on an international agreement with the EU over the border on this island, one that he had agreed with then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar near Liverpool in October 2019. He lied to the people of Northern Ireland as to the effects of a border in the Irish Sea. Now he gives the impression of trying to walk back from that position, but not quite. In doing so he has inflamed sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland with potentially disastrous consequences. Few in Britain seem to give a damn.
When faced recently with questions about Arcuri a Downing Street opined that Johnson had “acted with honesty and integrity”. It should be a concern to every British citizen that they are being gaslighted with such outright lies. That the British public is not been served by relentless political and media pressure about such important revelations is a deeply worrying development for the proper conduct of democracy in the UK.
Matt Cooper is a radio and television current affairs broadcaster in Ireland. A former newspaper editor he is a weekly columnist for the Business Post and Irish Daily Mail. He is the author of five best-selling books including Who Really Runs Ireland?
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