Where citizens have bemoaned private influence on public process but do little about it

Over fifteen years ago in the spring of 2000 both the then Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, Bertie Ahern, and the leader of Fine Gael, John Bruton announced they were appointing high ranking party committees to ascertain whether any party members received illicit payments while serving as county councillors after sensational evidence given by Frank Dunlop to the Flood/Mahon tribunal.

Beyond the mildest of rebukes no action was taken against any serving office holder in either party notwithstanding the fact that many had received significant monies from Dunlop. In fact many of those investigated by both political parties stood for office in the 2002 general election.

Now fifteen years later through the RTE Investigates programme of Monday 7 December 2015 we find that 40 per cent of Irish public representatives have failed to make proper returns in their registers of interests and three councillors seem clearly to be in breach of the code of conduct for councillors.

The Local Government Act under the heading Conflict of personal and private interest clearly prohibits a councillor from influencing or seeking to influence a decision of a local authority in any matter with which the local authority is concerned in the performance of its functions and in which, or related to which, the councillor has actual knowledge that s/he or a connected person has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest.

In the wake of Monday’s programme a lot of public angst has been on display as to whether anything in Ireland has changed in regard to undue influence.

Michael Lowry topped the poll as an independent in the general elections of 1997, 2002, 20007 and 2011, polling over 29 per cent of the first preference vote in three of those elections. All were held after the revelations of the McCracken tribunal that he had literally been in the deep pockets of Ben Dunne.

The Moriarty tribunal in its final report noted that the relationship between Ben Dunne and Lowry was ‘profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking’ (Moriarty Tribunal Report, part one (PDF), 2011: 419). Moreover it was also revealed that Lowry had misled the Dáil in relation to a number of offshore bank accounts he had held.

Since the final reports of the Moriarty and Mahon tribunals in 2011 and 2012 a type of collective amnesia has befallen on Irish society. Both reports were welcomed by the political elite but the reality is very little has been done to act on them.

In the Dáil in March 2011 the newly installed Taoiseach Enda Kenny resoundingly declared

…for the sake of our democracy, and in the context of the national misery caused by weak and reckless administration and corrupt, self-serving politicians: we must return both government and parliament to the people. We must rehabilitate the idea of civic virtue – the idea of the duty and nobility of public service. We must. And we will.

Very fine words indeed but the reality is that the tribunal reports have had little impact at all on either the ordinary citizens of the Irish state or on their elected representatives.

Fianna Fáil’s election meltdown in 2011 owed nothing to any perceptions of corruption associated with the party but was the result of the economic tsunami that hit the country as a result of economic mismanagement. Tribunals of inquiry were of no practical relevance to the voters in any Irish election since 1987.

Tribunals did some good. Of that there can be little doubt. The rumours and innuendo that passed for political gossip and tittle tattle in polite Irish society for decades about payments to politicians were shown to have actual substance.

And yet, I have suggested in a forthcoming book that Ireland is now a society where political corruption in planning and payments to politicians will not be accepted. If the RTE Investigates programme caused me to reconsider that view, I still hold to it.

Yet those councillors who stated they’d be conduits for would be investors and demonstrate clearly that Irish citizens are aware of the importance of ethics in public office and know the value of the view that public representatives cannot seek private gain from public office.

In that context we might be reassured that Irish citizens will demand that their politics is clean. And to be fair we should recognise that the Irish state has put in place significant measures to seek a clean politics.

Various Ethics in Public Office acts, the establishment of the Standards in Public Office Commission (woefully resourced as it is), freedom of information and protection of whistleblower legislation, and the regulation of lobbying legislation has all gone some way to providing a robust framework for clean politics.

But Ireland is a society where the past is indeed a foreign country; a foreign country where citizens bemoaned the private influence that riddled the public policy process but did very little about it. Perhaps they will do so now but perhaps we should not hold our breath.

Gary Murphy featured in the RTE Investigates Programme and is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.

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  • Robin Keogh

    The inaction of the government is pretty startling considering their promise of a democratic revolution after they came into office. Both FG and Labour had spent so many years on the opposition benches while Fianna Fail slowly tore the country to shreds, the public actually believed Kenny when he spoke of a seismic shift in the way politics is conducted and how corruption is tackled.

    But, none of it; it is down to the so-called looney left to keep the heat turned up on our establishment politicos and uncover the nationwide abuse of position as highlighted in the recent RTE report. Sinn Fein and others have constantly harrassed the government to deliver commitments such as producing a planning regulator but to no avail.

    The economy is spinning like a top with hundreds of millions of unexpected revenue landing on the floor of the tax office with not a penny going to establish an appropriate forum to oversee the conduct of local reps particularly in the area of planning. Its a joke, we get the government we vote for.

  • technopolitics

    I’m not sure if ‘Ireland is now a society where political corruption in planning and payments to politicians will not be accepted.’ Eddie Hobbs put it best when he said that Irish people like their public representatives ‘just a little bit bent’. The political establishment tacitly accept this too, as there are no penalties for breach of guidelines, codes or even ‘laws’ in some cases. There isn’t even an electoral penalty (see Lowry).

    In addition, councillors in particular need to be independently wealthy or married to an income generator in order to survive. We don’t pay them enough to avoid having them moonlight, and invariably that will involve some leverage of their public position. Every TD in the country was once a councillor. Every one of them knows what it’s like, who the corrupt ones are in their constituency, who to go to if you need something done.

    Leadership and vision are sorely lacking. Any attempt at cultured reflection, any genuine detached consideration of the future of the country, is mired in grubby power politics, just like the Constitutional Convention – barred from considering the electoral system – or the banking inquiry – gerrymandered from the start. There is no will to change in Ireland, just a will to power. And we’re all complicit in that.

  • Greenflag 2

    Theres at least one Dublin politician still making an effort . Mr Kenny he of the palm fist punching syndrome may not like the publicity .

    A Central Bank whistleblower, who has claimed he was told to delete critical findings in an audit report about the bank, has made a protective disclosure to Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald.

    The TD is to raise the issue at the Public Accounts Committee and with the Comptroller and Auditor General today.

    More at http://www.rte.ie/news/2015/1210/752529-bank/

  • technopolitics

    It’s funny, you know. The only time you _really_ want a democratic revolution is immediately after the democratic process has decided *against* giving you power. Not after you’ve just been elected. Otherwise you want to protect the system that’s in place, because it favours you to do so. So irrespective of what the politicians said at the time, they need to be judged on their actions – and they simply decided to preserve the existing order, because that, in turn, was the most likely way to preserve their seats.

  • Robin Keogh

    I agree, its common policy to abandon pre election promises. Thats what we have become accustomed to. Need to change gaurd asap.

  • steve white

    what is it that citizens didn’t do?

    robust framework? are you serious?

  • Anglo-Irish

    The sad fact is that corruption in politics is a fact, and always has been.

    Lord Acton said ” Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.Great men are almost always bad men.”

    I would argue with the opinion that it is the acquisition of power that leads to corruption.

    In my opinion it is far simpler than that, corrupt people seek power. What is the point of being a corrupt traffic warden or bricklayer?

    In the same way that pedophiles seek employment that brings them into contact with possible victims corrupt people seek employment that provides them with the opportunity to feather their nest.

    The problem is world wide and a part of human frailty.

    USA, Dick Cheney, Vice President of the USA. Former CEO of Halliburton, a company which made $39.5 Billion from the invasion of Iraq. He held 400,000 shares in Halliburton.

    UK. Tony Blair, who involved the UK in a war that many believed was illegal. An American financial company, J P Morgan made multi millions from being the company that took charge of the Iraq finance problem when the country was devastated by war. Tony Blair receives £2 Million a year as an ‘adviser’ to JP Morgan.

    UK. Margret Thatcher as Prime Minister signed the biggest contract ever for an arms deal with Saudi Arabia for £ 468 Billion and her son – the convicted criminal – Mark Thatcher received £12 Million as an ‘adviser’.

    Ireland. Charlie Haughey, he owned an island and had his shirts hand made in Paris.

    It’s a world wide problem, all of those in power are cut from the same cloth, it will not change, greed and the love of power rule.

  • steve white

    who wrote the headline/title to this?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, what choice do we actually have other than to vote in a different set of people to share out the spoils of patronage amongst themselves?

    What can anyone actually do about “it”…….