On the importance of being transparent…

Interesting piece in the Irish Times today by Fionnuala O’Connor, on the need for greater accountability on the part of our politicians. She notes the fair sized storm in Britain over David Abraham’s attempt to channel money anonymously to various figures inside the Labour party, and points out that in Northern Ireland there is no obligation to disclose anything much. Given our politicians actually have some power to change things, this matters more than it has ever done before.

Unfortunately, muddling through is the more likely scenario, which will bring inevitable disgrace. In that the unlikely Stormont arrangement is still new enough to retain the potential for a fresh start, disgrace would be doubly disappointing. Think of the scorecard. One of the leading parties has been part of an organisation involved for decades in murderous violence, destruction, robbery and financial crookery. The other has a reputation for bigotry and obstructiveness. By coming this far, the most prominent figures have confounded many critics and some supporters.

Turkeys voting for Christmas? Well maybe, but as she points out:

…it is in their own interests to set up keen oversight of their dealings, since there is bound to be temptation from lobbyists for commercial enterprises of all kinds. As long as all contact is logged and no favours are done, business of course has a right to lobby and politicians may properly take up cases. (Ideally, of course, workers laid off by multinationals would have as much access as developers.) Yet the necessary and even desirable interface between business and politics is perilous territory, as bigger political societies repeatedly discover. The scrupulous should lead the way by demanding transparency to protect themselves from the greed of some.

The payoff for propriety is public respect for politics, or a fighting chance that respect can develop. In post-Troubles Northern Ireland, that would be hugely valuable.

There are two quite separate routes that can be gone down. The British, where propriety actually matters:

new millennium Stormont can draw different lessons from the bigger, immensely more powerful legislatures in London and Dublin. The medium-size current British controversy over disguised party funding through proxies creates a London buzz, mainly by revealing that there is public interest in, potential official disapproval of and sanctions against funding which might turn out to be a backhander, a sweetener for some deal. By contrast, the seemingly interminable tale of dodgy doings in the Republic appears to interest only the pedantic few. British Conservatives are still struggling to recover even the appearance of electability, largely because the last Tory government sank under allegations of what came to be called “sleaze” – for the most part trivial by Dublin standards.

Or the one in the Republic, where talking it out until the public has had too much endless detail to keep it interested:

The Southern State knows only too well how trust is abused, propriety winked at. Yet a generation on from the Haughey saga, the chief lesson learned seems to be that spinning out denial of details generates enough boredom and confusion to swamp indignation. The electorate, for the most part, seems remarkably unmoved. Is the smallness of Ireland a big part of the problem? A State where everyone knows everyone else is perhaps bound to make for a cosiness that discourages stringency about public servants.