Last night I happened to watch the BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme on Tom McFeely, the former IRA hunger striker who acquired vast wealth as a property developer, and who has become the object of public opprobrium and suspicion since the debacle of his Priory Hall development, where hundreds of families were evacuated from their homes, with major financial and personal losses as a consequence, including the suicide of Fiachra Daly.
In the programme, McFeely came across as deeply intelligent and quick-minded. What made the programme interesting, if a little contrived to suit the arc of a pre-established story, was McFeely’s frankness about his predicament. Confronted with questions about avoiding tax, and his socialist and Irish republican principles, his answers were honest and hardly self-serving.
He grounded questions about his conduct in terms of a capitalist system. People are out to make money, and that’s what he did, and that’s what he does. Yes, it would be nice if Ireland was on the road to a socialist republic, it would have his full support. But it isn’t.
When it comes to paying tax, he said he paid a very large amount, but the nature of this system is that people try to pay as little tax as possible, and he saw himself as no different in that regard. He didn’t think his developments were of such a poor standard.
On the contrary, he said, they were of the same standard as a great deal of developments around Dublin. As for the matter of his Irish citizenship status, or his status as a British subject, he indicated he didn’t think he should be bound by either. Neither has any particular legitimacy, in his view.
‘Thug developer’ McFeely has been bestialised in the Irish media, but the principles –or lack thereof- he expressed in the programme are the stuff of everyday life in Ireland. As far as I could make out, McFeely was saying, hold me to account by all means, but I’m merely operating in keeping with the way things are set up.
Is he not right? How many people in Dublin, after all, live in dangerous shitholes that were not built by Tom McFeely? It wasn’t he who devised regulations concerning building safety and habitability, and it wasn’t he who designed the financial architecture of Ireland’s property boom, and it wasn’t he who drove people to spend progressively higher proportions of their wages on accommodation.
He may well be telling the truth when he claims he has been singled out on account of his IRA past. It’s a great deal more sensible, from the point of view of Ireland’s ruling elites –South and North- to point the finger at some singular demonic figure, some walking moral obscenity, than to allow any kind of of public critical evaluation of an economic model based on speculative crazes in housing and commercial property, or of the sectors –legal, media, financial- that benefit most from such a model.
How seriously, for example, should we take the demonisation of ‘thug developer’ McFeely by a media group owned by someone who declares himself Maltese for tax purposes?
McFeely’s point of departure, that capitalism is all there is and there is no prospect of a socialist republic and there is no point pretending otherwise, is a display of unalloyed cynicism.
But it’s also the same point of departure as most of political Ireland, with the difference being that for the latter, capitalism does not even need naming – it is the way things are, the indispensable condition for our existence, and that is that.
Witness the response, for example, of the Labour Party Minister for Social Protection to a Blanchardstown family dependent on rent allowance. The family’s rent had recently been raised by their landlord from €900 to €1300, a hike of 44%, and an indicator of the green shoots of recovery for financial speculators. Joan Burton said, in : ‘think anew about your family’s many needs, and how those needs can be met within the housing market as it exists at the moment’. It is ordinary people who must conform to the demands of ‘the market’ – code for property speculators- not vice versa.
Maybe the most striking bit of the programme was when Tom McFeely admitted, in relation to tax, that under capitalism, what is legal and what is not, is, in the final analysis, neither here nor there. It is about making money, end of. At least he did the honour of dispensing with the pretence of being on some righteous moral quest.