- Meanwhile Back at the Ranch: The Politics of Irish Beef by Fintan O’Toole
Vintage, 292 pp, £6.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 09 951451 6
I bumped into my brother in the street and we talked about Fintan O’Toole’s book on the beef tribunal. I told him to read it immediately. I myself had stopped both reading about the beef tribunal and eating beef in 1991, after a two-line thing in the Irish Times about cirrhotic calves’ livers being packed by someone, somewhere in Ireland. My brother is a civil servant. He did not reel, gag, or clutch his throat. He said: ‘Come on. You can’t get cirrhosis by eating it in beef.’
He is right, of course, but like most civil servants, entirely mad. Like all civil servants, he lives in a kind of syntactical slaughter house where the difference between accuracy and honesty, between information and truth, between probity and, for example, justice, depends on how you phrased the memo. It also depends on where you filed it, and on whether you filed it there on purpose, but let that pass. It is, as we all know, in the dead space created by this separation of the facts from the truth that the human business of government is conducted; it is through these gaps that it is corrupted, because greed is liquid and finds a way. It is inside this vast, linguistic abattoir that Fintan O’Toole is happiest, anatomising the clause, the memo, the precedent and protocol, in the time-honoured interest of nailing the bastards to the wall. One of the differences between the facts and the truth is the way that the facts are arranged and he has arranged them with glee. He is his libel lawyer’s pride and joy.
The tribunal of investigation into the beef industry in Ireland was provoked by scandals of alarming magnitude. We all knew that. If someone asked, ‘So what’s it all about?’ we would say: ‘scandals of alarming magnitude’. The problem was that the tribunal itself seemed like the biggest, most expensive and reprehensible exercise in obfuscation that the state had ever seen. For two years, we saw politicians, beef barons, civil servants, beef packers, beef stampers, customs officers and lawyers walk past the camera into a strange and important room. Bizarrely, they were never filmed walking out of it again. And when it came to the crunch, key witnesses like Charles Haughey said things like: ‘It is certainly very mysterious.’
Fianna Fail was forced into setting up the tribunal in May 1991, when Desmond O’Malley, their partner in coalition, withdrew his support for a motion of confidence in the procedures then regulating the beef industry. There were two reasons O’Malley did this: one was the uproar in the Dail caused by a World in Action documentary the night before, alleging that corruption and malpractice were rife in Goodman International, Ireland’s biggest beef exporter, and that EC money was being fiddled on a daily and casual basis; the other was the fact that Goodman International had taken him, as Minister for Industry and Commerce, to court, for refusing to honour a promise to underwrite the bill for beef if the Iraqis defaulted. When the Iraqis did default, O’Malley said that he wouldn’t and couldn’t pay up, because the beef that was exported was not Irish in the first place.
The meat was part of that great bureaucratic abstraction, the beef mountain. Some people within the Goodman group realised that pieces of paper can have anything you like written on them, but that beef can be really nicked, really sold and really eaten. Shame to see it go to waste. So we find boxes full of low-grade beef, boxes of ‘trimmings’, boxes that are lighter than they should have been, and boxes carrying bogus stamps, all heading for the perma-frost, while prime cuts head to the supermarkets. The EC subsidises the beef mountain at every stage, so at every stage – de-boning, storage and export – there’s a subsidy to be picked up, whether or not the beef exists as described, or at all.
You might say, who cares? No one was going to eat it anyway. But, in fact, the Goodman company was contracted to can a part of the surplus beef as EC food aid to Russia. They creamed off 10 per cent of the quality meat for sale to supermarkets and made up the rest with frozen hearts and bits of old cows. ‘According to the workers who mixed the meat,’ writes Fintan O’Toole, ‘some of the hearts going into the enormous stew were green.’ It was a tough winter in Minsk.
Disgust depends, to a certain extent, on surprise, and no one is surprised by tax evasion, denials to journalists, or interesting ways with EC subsidies, no matter how extravagant the scale. What is surprising is not what Goodman International fiddled from the exchequer but what it was freely given, in terms of export credit insurance and state grants. It is this issue that Fintan O’Toole lifts clear out of the confusion.
The Fianna Fail government took every possible legal step to prevent the truth emerging in an inquiry of their own calling. In a protean display of astonishing neck, they bored and confused the country into a stupor of submission, maintaining all the while that they were the party of the beleaguered plain man. In this sense, at least, they were similar to Larry Goodman, who could never understand why his firm had been ‘identified, pulled aside and torn to pieces’. In an industry where ‘cowboy’ was a compliment, you feel he may have had a point. Through 226 days of the hearing, where every word uttered cost us £1.10, one word that wasn’t used was ‘liar’, though the coalition finally did break apart in 1992, when Dessie O’Malley got the strong impression that Albert Reynolds was calling him just that. His fury is understandable given that it was Reynolds, his predecessor as minister, who supplied the export credit guarantees in the first place. What everyone wanted to know was why. Why did Reynolds risk over £100m of taxpayers’ money to underwrite a deal to a country at war, in an industry known to be consistently on the fiddle, without checking the source of the meat to be exported? Was he corrupt or stupid or neither? ‘No cause,’ said Albert.
By this stage the tribunal had reached a kind of terminal insanity. If it were a person you would call it pathological, hyper-rational and subject to paranoia, the kind of pathological, hyper-rational and paranoid person who smiles a lot, who is quietly religious. Every serene piece of nonsense spoken by this lunatic was listened to, or read, by Fintan O’Toole, for which he deserves his own, personal straitjacket. But if he is to get the services to democracy award, it is not for his tenacity or diligence, but for the way he has put the narrative clock right. Justice is a story – he tells it as it happened.
He starts with Nobby Quinn, great name, shame about the eight containers of animal fat. Mind you, he didn’t mean any harm. South Africa banned beef imports even as eight containers full of Goodman beef were on the high seas, so they entered the country under the altered description of ‘fat’. It was only to get the money due to the company under the EC export refunds scheme that Nobby, as the judge said, ‘uttered forged documents’ purporting to be from South African customs, calling it beef again. He was only telling the truth, in a way. He was done. Three weeks later, his company, Goodman International, was told that ‘the government would be backing the biggest beef contract ever entered into by an Irish company, the export of beef worth $134.5 million to a country’ – Iraq – ‘that had been at war since 1980.’
This was in 1987. By 1991, the Iraqis had not only defaulted: they had invaded Kuwait. American foreign policy had gone into furious tilt and O’Malley was not playing ball. The thing to do is to concentrate, as O’Toole does, not on how the decision to issue export credit insurance fell apart, but on how it was made (by Albert Reynolds, against the advice of his civil servants); increased (by Reynolds at the behest of Larry Goodman); how the increase was got through Cabinet (by guess who, with the assistance of a ‘rewritten’ memo); and how it became pretty well exclusive, when Reynolds decided that to have other companies competing for the same market in Iraq was ‘against the national interest’.
It is also important to listen out for the recurring, ‘That morning Larry Goodman met Charles Haughey, in his home’, because that sentence, or a version of it, is pretty much all that you are allowed on the subject, though the timing, of course, is what makes it so funny. In the mid-Eighties, Goodman was Europe’s largest beef exporter and the largest supplier of beef to UK supermarkets. He personally controlled 5 per cent of the Irish Gross National Product. Asking yourself how he got lucky with politicians is a bit like asking how the small guy with the buck teeth gets lucky with women; in the first place, it’s because he is richer than you, and in the second place, it’s because he asks.
It is reasonable to say, however, that until the Fianna Fail Government came to power in the spring of 1987, he didn’t really get what he asked for. Export credit insurance to Iraq was not something that any Western government would countenance. Then, it appears, George Bush persuaded Eximbank to provide $200m worth of cover ‘for political reasons’. They couldn’t have been economic reasons because Saddam’s government had a history of not paying up – which did not stop Reynolds from chipping in our little bit for the covert causes of Western democracy. It did not seem to matter that the risk of Iraq defaulting was assessed at 50 per cent by the insurance agents (though Reynolds neglected to ask for such an assessment). It did not matter that the stated policy of the Government was to move away from dependence on intervention and towards a more sophisticated industry producing value-added products for the European market. In time, it did not even matter that the sheer bulk of beef shovelled from one corner of the world to the other meant that it could not possibly all have come from Ireland, and the risk, therefore, could not be the responsibility of the Irish taxpayer.
The spring of 1987 was a good time for Goodman. In April, he met Reynolds, Haughey and others to discuss how to ‘kick-start’ a high-tech future for the beef industry. It was as the meeting broke up that Goodman took Reynolds aside and tackled the separate issue of export credit insurance for Iraq, asking for it to be reopened. Reynolds acquiesced within five days, apparently without the knowledge of the rest of the Government or of its leader, Charles Haughey.
By May, the Industrial Development Agency was offering Goodman £13 million worth of ‘kick-start’. Goodman wanted £90 million. He walked out of negotiations and phones started hopping that had no right to hop. Eventually, he got £20 million, and the illegal removal of a performance clause. He seems, at first glance, to have a forceful personal manner. The Irish Embassy in Iraq referred to him as a ‘visitor’, a harmless term until you hear the definition provided by an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs: ‘The visitors that were referred to orally from time to time in exchanges with the embassy normally referred to the shelling of Baghdad by the Iranians. In other words to missiles of, shall we say, hostile intent.’ This was the embassy, O’Toole points out, whose opening in 1986 was delayed by the previous government so as to ‘avoid any possible embarrassment for Goodman who was at the time signing contracts with the Iranians’. The same embassy whose staff arranged to have Goodman’s private jet land in Baghdad airport at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. So when Goodman heard that another, he thought competing, Irish company had applied for a visa to Iraq, it is not surprising that his ‘forceful’ reaction set in motion another little flurry of notes and phone calls, this time to people who didn’t usually fuss about visas. In the six-week delay he caused, Goodman pulled off the big one: $134 million worth of beef, the biggest export deal in the history of the state.
The only problem for Goodman was the limited extent of the cover that was available. The only problem for democracy, as O’Toole points out, was the amount of cover that he seemed to expect, and the fact that his expectation turned out to be a reasonable, or at least a rational, one. When things started looking good with the deal he telexed Brian Britton, one of his management team, with instructions ‘to phone Albert Reynolds at home, if necessary, and before next Cabinet meeting, as we understand the government decision will be given on his proposal to open up and increase facility for Iraq. Advise AR that we will need a very substantial amount for here i.e. if they are to give £50 million, we’ll require £50 million ... AR telephone numbers are enclosed ... Remind him of LG conversation when reinstating cover to us as only supplier. Do it diplomatically.’
‘Diplomatically’ is a good word. Did he mean: ‘Please be tactful about the fact that I know what is to be discussed in Cabinet, and that I expect to be able to book all available cover in advance?’ Or did he mean: ‘Don’t remind him that we are supposed to have a contract before we apply for credit insurance and not after’? (A good policy, you might think, given how desperate the Iraqis were for credit – more desperate, perhaps, than they were for beef.) Or did he mean: ‘Don’t rub his nose in it?’ And if so, in what?
Britton’s response was both funny – ‘When [Albert Reynolds’s] private secretary asked for your number, I declined to give it because of confidentiality’ – and teasing: ‘position on C&D and FVF on attached memo’. C&D is Reynolds’s pet-food company; the FVF was a venture capital fund from which it was seeking funding and in which Goodman International was involved. The memo is missing.
It is one of those rare missing memos that gets you all excited, and the fact that ‘nothing came of it,’ in terms of funding for C&D, is disappointing in its way. Also disappointing is the fact that the tribunal report stresses that Reynolds’s motives were in no way suspect. We don’t know why he did it: but he did it for quite a while, not only allocating export credit insurance, but going to extraordinary lengths to increase it and to make sure that competing companies did not get it, because their involvement would be ‘against the national interest’.
This book is salutary reading for all those who think that, if you’re making money, you’re good for the country. It also provides an insight into how the rich feel persecuted. On one occasion, when a correct allegation was made in the Dail, Goodman said that he was ‘disgusted that people of this left-wing calibre and element can do such things to our company, to our country. They are anti-private industry, anti-effort, anti-bloody-well-everything.’
It is, however, the detail of how politicians simply do things, how they make their way through the rules, that renders the book so fascinating; the differences between a silence, a phone call, a chance meeting, an arranged meeting, a meeting in front of civil servants. The differences between what is articulated, what is left unsaid, what gets written down and what gets done – until the balloon went up, all of it worked in Goodman’s favour.