I was a teacher for 30 years and I have always been proud to say so. I am not sure I can say the same about being a politician. It should be a badge of honour that one has been elected by one’s constituents to Ireland’s national Parliament, to do their best to help and to serve the people of Ireland; But we have had too many scandals and controversies which are undermining that, so public confidence is at a low. That accounts for the low turnout to vote in elections. We hear the mantra that politicians are all the same, there will not be any change and, as many people put it, that politicians are on the gravy train. For me the establishment of an Independent Anti-Corruption Agency is paramount.
“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall”
In view of last weeks events, and the RTE report, there were three points that struck me having watched the programme and the debate. The first, obviously, was the extent of the corruption that was revealed. Second was the pathetic quality of the excuses we heard such as that the forms were too difficult to fill in properly (my own experience of the Standards in Public Office Commission is of its readiness to answer any questions and assist on any points on which one might have a difficulty). The third point that struck me was the use of a sting operation employing actors and cameras to discover cases of corruption. What this showed up is the need for proper and independent investigation where allegations of wrongdoing are made.
How has corruption this been addressed in the past? We could look at the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals, for example. They cost a tremendous amount but what prosecutions, what tangible results came from them, apart from lining the pockets of certain professions? Despite all the tribunal findings, very few politicians or businesspeople were criminally convicted or charged.
In regard to Storm Desmond, while flood prevention measures have been put in place after other storms, much preventative work still needs to be done to address some of the difficulties that are now arising for people. Just like that storm and with corruption, so much is reactive instead of proactive. There is a need to address issues in a much more proactive way rather than waiting for controversies and difficulties to arise and then reacting to them.
Why are Governments not more proactive in eliminating corruption and cronyism? The Government are quick to condemn corruption and all other forms of white-collar crime; there is a list of Acts and the quote is that the Government is “committed to ensuring that the necessary measures are in place to effectively combat corruption” but if that were so, what was shown on RTE’s programme – I am not just talking about the three individuals but also about the other instances that were mentioned – would not be a reality. Legislation is not worth anything unless it is effective and it is clear the legislation to date is not effective. Therefore, for me, the need to establish a permanent, independent anti-corruption agency is paramount.
In 2014, Ireland ranked 17th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. Its definition of corruption was the abuse of public office for private gain. Private gain was not just confined to finances but also personal and partisan value for those involved. It was the tribunals of the late 20th and early 21st century that exposed the corruption in Irish public life. It was summed up in the phrase “shady dealings between businesses and political elites”. The common denominators in the findings of the beef tribunal and the McCracken, Moriarty and Mahon tribunals were improper dealings, tax evasion, corrupt payments and donations and gifts to Irish political figures by businessmen and corporations to win influence. The RTE programme discovered the same, that is, donations, gifts and corrupt payments.
All investigations must be independent and impartial. We have an unfortunate culture in Ireland of not taking responsibility for our actions. Responsibility means taking the difficult step of resigning from the position but we do not have that culture here. We also have the mentality of the loveable rogue but I see nothing loveable about somebody whose self-interest dominates everything he or she does. Some progress has been made in eradicating complicity between commercial business interests and elected and unelected officials but we still have quite a way to go before corruption is completely eradicated.