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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Why it's okay to call disgraced Fingers and pals 'gangsters'

Michael 'Fingers' Fingleton has been accused of many things.

One year on since he stepped down as chief executive of Irish Nationwide, he has yet to hand back his controversial €1m bonus despite a public promise that he would do so.

Since then we've learned that the ex-priest fast-tracked a series of million-euro loans to leading politicians, including a €1.6m mortgage for former finance minister Charlie McCreevy who was buying a property worth just €1.5m at the time.

Up until now, the one thing Fingers has never been accused of is stupidity.

However, that's the only conclusion you can draw from the news that he's just lost his bid for an apology from the Fine Gael TD who publicly branded him a "gangster" in the Dail.



PRIVILEGE

Not only has the disgraced ex-banker drawn attention to his own failings yet again, he's underlined the importance of giving politicians the right to express the views of ordinary people in our parliament.

Every TD and senator in Leinster House enjoys a privilege that many journalists would kill for.

It's outlined in Article 15.13 of the constitution, which states that: "The members of each House of the Oireachtas shall not in respect of any utterance in either House be amenable to any court or authority other than the house itself."

What this means in layman's language is that our elected politicians can say whatever they want when they're sitting in parliament, safe in the knowledge that nobody can sue them for it.

During a Dail debate on the NAMA bill last October, FG's chief whip Paul Kehoe took full advantage of this privilege.

Comparing the treatment of one of his constituents, who'd got into mortgage arrears, with that of senior bankers, he said:

"At the same time Messrs Sean FitzPatrick and Michael Fingleton can walk away with golden handshakes...

"These are two of the biggest gangsters ever involved in banking institutions and because of them we have to bring forward the NAMA legislation."

If Fingers or Seanie Fitz had their feelings hurt by this relatively mild description, they should have heard what was being said about them around every bar counter, water cooler and dinner table in the country.

FitzPatrick, who was last seen scurrying away from the microphone of an RTE interviewer, had just enough sense to let it go.

Fingleton, however, showed himself to be even more out of touch with the popular mood than we'd imagined by writing to the Dail chairman and demanding a public apology.

Today the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, the Dail's in-house watchdog, has delivered the only verdict possible by finding that Kehoe was perfectly entitled to say what he did.

As Green TD Paul Gogarty's recent "F*** you" outburst showed, the standard of debate in the Dail chamber is often less than inspiring.

When more mature TDs use the national parliament to raise issues of genuine importance, however, they go a long way towards restoring the reputation of an institution that desperately needs to rebuild its relationship with a jaded and cynical electorate.

Alan Shatter provided the best example of this in years when he exposed the unpublished HSE report into the tragic case of 18-year-old Tracey Fay, who died alone in the gutter when she was supposed to be in the care of the State.



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If the FG TD had not used his initiative to put it on the Dail's official agenda, it would almost certainly still be hidden today.

Like all legal rights, Dail privilege must never be abused and should only be used in certain circumstances. In this case, however, it did exactly the job it was supposed to do.

As the Government prepares to write a massive blank cheque on behalf of every taxpayer to cover the mistakes made by Michael Fingleton and others, the Kehoe judgment represents a small but important victory in the ongoing battle for free speech in this country.

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