Corruption legislation - New laws only part of the answer

Ireland may not be corrupt in the way Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Putin’s Russia is — citizens don’t disappear if they challenge the incumbent autocrat, the majority don’t starve while a kleptomaniac dictator drains the public coffers — but that legislation as obvious and basic as that advanced this week suggests we have some considerable catching up to do if we are to at least confront corruption in Irish life.

That the draft scheme of the Criminal Justice (Corruption) Bill 2012 was brought to Cabinet while a deputy who knowingly misled the revenue commissioners, pocketed Vat rightly the property of this State, still sits in our parliament confirms the urgent need for legislative change. That Deputy Wallace and many of his Dáil colleagues enthusiastically encouraged people to break the law in regard to the household charge suggests that we need huge cultural change in this area too. That so many supported the call, a good number of them confusing convenience with principle, confirms that our attitude to corruption is at least ambivalent.

That individuals like Bertie Ahern, Ray Burke and Padraig Flynn, all former Fianna Fáil centurions, and others indicted by various tribunals, are still paid very substantial pensions from the public purse, pensions that insulate them from the reality of the betrayed world their behaviour did so much to create, suggests that we need legislation that makes it possible to sequester State pensions, even retrospectively, if a person is found to have abused their position while in office.

Bringing the blueprint to cabinet this week Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was succinct when he said that “those engaged in business and politics have nothing to fear and everything to gain from the maintenance of proper ethical standards”. What a different, happier and more independent place Ireland might be had those simple and obvious principles been the benchmark which we all observed in our business and personal affairs. These are fine and noble sentiments but the great challenge is to make them real and active, to make a break from a past — and possibly the present — littered with circumstantial evidence that could hardly have been reached through a fully honest and transparent process.

This is about more than fingering shabby individuals, it is about creating a public atmosphere of possibility, of creating a place where an honest businessman who loses out to a corrupt competitor does not have to become corrupt to stay in business. It is about creating a society where ideals are cherished because they represent the ideal.

Mr Shatter’s legislation may be an improvement, and as he brought it forward he reflected his frustration and the frustration felt right across the country at the slow pace of the investigation in to Anglo Irish Bank, but unless our mores, our behaviour, our day-to-day decision-making rejects corruption at every level, unless we teach our children about the consequences of dishonesty the corrupt will find a way to get their way in this country. If we look around, if we consider the consequences of the great bank debt that is rooted in corruption, as we look at pay and service cuts and, almost most of all, as we look at the 250,000 people out of work surely we must recognise that it’s time for real change, for real action against corruption.

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