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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