Now That’s What I Call a Tribunal

Contributed by Myles Dungan

The Moriarty Tribunal can’t quite seem to make up its mind whether or not it has dialled the last number in its mobile phone contacts book. The Mahon Tribunal started as the Flood Tribunal and may well be called something entirely different by the time we get to read its report.

Lets hope when the distinguished jurists who have been listening to some of the most excruciatingly detailed evidence ever laid before four wigless judges is of more consequence than a Commission report laid before the Houses of Parliament in Westminster 120 years ago this month. Because the Report of the Special Commission into Parnellism and Crime – better known as the Times Commission in honour of the village idiot who paid the bill – set the bar for the anti-climax. It was as if Apple had promised the iPad but Steve Jobs had, instead, launched a new, but ground-breaking, electric toothbrush.

It began with a whimper on 7 March, 1887 with an anonymous piece in the Times promising startling revelations about the connection of the Irish party leadership to violent agrarian crime. Three articles later the series was fizzling out altogether in a welter of sheer tedium when the Times played its trump card on 18 April by publishing a facsimile of what purported to be a highly embarrassing letter from Charles Stewart Parnell. This signed and dated note seemed to offer succour to the Invincibles for the Phoenix Park murders.

Cut to the Commission itself. It convened in a Mahon-like format of three judges in October, 1888, interviewed hundreds of land grabbers, informers, bailiffs. Fenians, approvers, landowners, gombeen men, gobshites, politicians and frightened peasants over 128 public sessions, got bogged down in the lawerly detail we have come to love in our own tribunals and ground to a halt on 22 November, 1889. The main conclusion one arrives at from reading the 11 volumes of evidence (some of us are really sad people) is that a lot of the Land War seemed to be about settling scores with thy neighbour.

The Times, in whose incapable hands the entire case was left, failed dismally to stand up the authenticity of the facsimile letter (which I’m still not entirely convinced was a dud) when it put Richard Piggot, a well known Dublin newspaper proprietor, pornographer, and con-artist in the witness box to be eviscerated and exposed as the forger by Parnell’s counsel, Sir Charles Russell. The whole escapade (in which the Times had the enthusiastic co-operation of, but no financial support from, the Tory government) cost the newspaper £200,000  or £16.5m in 21st century values. Even in inflation-related terms it was the sort of money that wouldn’t pay for a para-legal at the Mahon or Moriarty tribunals but then again it didn’t go on for more than a decade.

Because Parnell was vindicated by the collapse and suicide of Pigott the received wisdom is that the outcome of the enterprise was the absolute exoneration of his party. That was not the case. The three judges absolved Parnell and his 60+ ‘co-accused’ of organizing violent crime but held them to be guilty of conspiracy and of presiding over a system of coercion and intimidation. So the Pope really is a Catholic after all.

When Parnell read the report he observed that it was, more or less, the verdict he would have arrived at himself. It’s hard to envisage such an insouciant response from Bertie Ahern when he studies the deliberations of the Mahon Tribunal, or Denis O’Brien (given his reaction so far) when he peruses the final conclusions of Justice Michael Moriarity.

Myles Dungan is a writer, broadcaster and PhD student in history at Trinity College Dublin. He will be delivering a free lecture on, and partial re-enactment of, the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime in the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson St. at 6.00 pm on 25 February.

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