A doubtful start to political “transformation” in the Republic

 They do things differently in the Dail. I’m not surprised that a fine old row has greeted the news that in the debate on Moriarty and political reform starting today, TDs won’t be able to question FG ministers about the Report’s blunt criticism of political donations. I doubt if critics will get any further in questions to Labour Communications minister Pat Rabbitte. I’m sure the convention applies in Dublin that one government is not responsible for the doings of another. Party business however is a different matter altogether, as Fintan O’Toole reports.

From February 1998, John Bruton knew that Fine Gael had received $50,000 from Telenor, which was part of the Esat consortium. To his credit, he ordered that it be returned.

The payment was, the tribunal reports, “secretive, utterly lacking in transparency and designed to conceal the fact of such a payment”. Fine Gael knew that an utterly unacceptable donation had been made in a decidedly fishy manner. Fine Gael kept this knowledge entirely to itself. It took media disclosures in 2001 to bring the episode to the tribunal’s attention. Otherwise, as Moriarty concludes, “the matter would have remained hidden from public knowledge”.

 Given that  the money was returned this may not be a hanging offence. And while it is true that the present government are not collectively responsible for the deeds of the rainbow coalition, Enda Kenny himself is but one common thread between then and now and he should wipe the slate clean in the floor of the House . Today he should also seize the opportunity to commit the government to wholesale political reform  including that of party funding and the appointment of a powerful independent Electoral Commission.

Another anomaly is the wrangle over allowing Michael Lowry any time at all at this stage to defend himself in the Dail, while the Moriarty report is being considered by the DPP and the Gardai. This would appear to breach the  normal parliamentary sub judice convention of not debating matters which are under investigation by  police or prosecutors and is  bound to be seen as prejudicing any slim chance of prosecutions. It would I think be inconceivable at Westminster.

The  handling of the new coalition’s first big set piece debate on political reform will  feed suspicions that the whole political establishment are embarked on a damage limitation exercise rather that laying everything out in the open in the interests of  the ” transformation” promised in the campaign.

 Let’s hope they prove this is an unworthy thought, but this is not the best of starts.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London