Charlie Haughey, prime minister in the 1980s, lived way beyond his apparent means, and made Charvet shirts (from Paris, France, if you please), a byword for bourgeois vulgarity. Bertie Aherne, the last incumbent, was plagued by allegations of mysterious benefactors giving him 'whip-rounds' during his time in office.
MPs and county councillors had their greedy paws on the planning process and have been pocketing hand-outs from builders and developers for decades. Former government ministers and MPs even served time for corruption.
Everyone knew what was going on, if not how endemic corruption had become but, amazingly, these hoods still kept getting elected.
So what does surprise me is the rather small-time nature of the current scandal about MPs' expenses. You can imagine how it happens, the new MP being taken quietly aside by an old hand: 'Yeah, the salary is okay, I guess, but London is expensive and we have to keep up appearances, so this is how we sweeten the deal. What do you mean, you are not sure if it's ethical, this is the way it's always been done, it's quite legal. You are a duly elected member of the Mother of Parliaments, don't you deserve it?'
But there is nobody here who owns the grandiose vision, no Nick Leeson, no Fred Goodwin, no Charvet shirts (Paris, did I mention that?). Instead, it's a few grubby quid for a cleaner here, a few curtains there, clean out a moat here, change the light bulbs there. In comparison with Ireland, it's all rather shabby and squalid, furtive and venal.
Of course, it makes the rest of us look like real suckers. Here we are, busting a gut to ensure that the various meaningless targets imposed on us are met, in the certain knowledge that the pittance we earn will go straight back out again in practice expenses.
And, of course, our expenses are real, for employing staff and buying equipment, not, for example, for protecting young trees from the depredations of voracious rabbits, or watching porn videos. Though I must admit, those last two do sound rather plausible.
- Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com