Does anybody really believe ethics in public office will be an election issue?

Two of the councillors fingered on Monday night’s RTÉ Investigation Unit programme have resigned from their respective parties — Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — but in most developed democracies, the resignations would have been from public office, writes Michael Clifford
Does anybody really believe ethics in public office will be an election issue?

One of the most revealing details to emerge from Monday’s RTÉ Investigation Unitprogramme was the modus operandi of politicians who seek personal benefit these days.

Three serving county councillors secretly filmed indicated they would assist what they were led to believe was a company seeking to develop windfarms.

The undercover reporter, going by the name of Nina, claimed to be representing a London-based windfarm firm.

Donegal councillor John O’Donnell indicated that he would not be taking any personal benefit for his assistance. Instead, it would come through an intermediary.

He told Nina that a third party would be involved in assisting Nina’s “company”.

“Would we pay him for doing the work?” Nina asked in the secretly-filmed meeting.

“Yeah, you’d be paying him, I don’t want to be seen…” Mr O’Donnell replied.

“But, you’d get paid through him?” Nina asked.

“I’d get paid through him,” Mr O’Donnell confirmed, with a wink.

For Sligo councillor Joe Queenan, the benefit would take a more circuitous route. He suggested that at a future date Nina’s company might consider investing in one of his businesses.

Only Monaghan councillor of 40 years standing Hugh McElvaney was straight up: He wanted “loadsa money” if the venture was successful.

Just like the late TD Liam Lawlor, one of the great beneficiaries of Irish politics, Mr McElvaney offered to be a conduit between a company and the political system.

How far we’ve come. Back in 1973, when reporter Joe McAnthony first investigated planning corruption, he found a payment of £15,000 to Ray Burke was entered in the company accounts of a firm owned by builders Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan.

In the times that existed, the scandal was brushed over, and Mr McAnthony was forced to leave the country.

During the halcyon days of demented rezoning in the Dublin of the 1990s, Frank Dunlop had a system whereby political donations were paid to obliging councillors by cheque, while personal benefit was handed over in cash.

From Monday’s programme, it would seem that the only difference to emerge as a result of the likes of the Planning Tribunal is that benefit is conferred in a more opaque manner to ensure it is kept far from prying eyes.

That was one of the most shocking features of Monday’s revelations. Despite all that was uncovered through inquiries, such as the Planning Tribunal, some politicians — no doubt, a small minority — still feel that they can behave in the manner portrayed with complete impunity, once a few precautions are taken.

That assumption is rooted in the fact that there is a decades-old absence of the political will required to root out corruption or white-collar crime. In 1993, then environment minister Michael Smith declared that rezoning had become a “debased currency”.

At the same time, a series of articles in The Irish Times pointed to a corrupt culture of rezoning. Yet, the cabinet did not appear eager to find out why this was the case.

There was no commission set up to investigate whether this debased currency was as a result of personal inducements for votes. It was as if the national government preferred to turn a blind eye, lest they might upset either their own local representatives or the powerful landowners and developers.

The only reason there was a planning tribunal was the emergence of a whistleblower in the form of James Gogarty, who, for his own reasons, had a beef with some of the parties involved in making payments to Ray Burke.

The tribunals have resulted in a whole raft of laws being enacted, but, crucially, the commensurate powers or resources required to make the laws effective have been withheld.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) was set up in 2001, just as evidence from the Planning Tribunal was exposing wholesale corruption. Despite years of pleading for the right to independently investigate politicians, SIPO has for the last 15 years not been give the powers.

In 2007, when the smell was overpowering, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement pleaded that he simply did not have the resources to do the job properly. Then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, told the director Paul Appleby to get in the queue, despite the State being awash with money at the time.

A key recommendation of the Planning Tribunal was the establishment of an independent planning regulator. The current government severely watered down the proposed regulator’s powers and the legislation required won’t even be passed this side of the general election.

Just last year, senior counsel Remy Farrell told a conference that the regulatory agencies were so stretched by an “endemic” lack of resources that many reports into white-collar crime were not even being read by the authorities.

Political funding was another area where corruption found a space in which to rear its head.

Successive governments have brought in various laws that restrict funding.

Yet, the rules remain opaque. For instance, the main parties now declare little or no funding, because they ensure that it is all done below the limit at which declarations have to be made.

That is the background against which 40% of councillors were found in the RTÉ programme to have made incomplete declarations. If the national politicians are not taking corruption seriously, then why would these councillors take seriously their obligation to declare all interests that could potentially impact on their public duties? The culture of impunity will ensure that all those who have, in the last few weeks, rushed to correct the record, will not be subjected to sanction.

Most politicians are honest, certainly to the extent that honesty is interpreted in this society. Many of them are hyperactively careful as a result of the revelations over the last 15 years. It was notable on Monday’s programme that two councillors approached by Nina for a “confidential meeting” rebuffed the approach on the basis that confidentiality was requested.

Yet, the culture of “make us pure, Lord, but not yet” persists, and the political class are not acting in a vacuum in that regard. Two of the councillors fingered on the programme have resigned from their respective parties, Mr Queenan from Fianna Fáil and Mr McElvaney from Fine Gael.

The latter did so a fortnight ago, claiming that he couldn’t support his party’s stance on an energy matter in his native county, though he knew by then that the programme exposing his “loadsa money” request was in the offing.

In most developed democracies, the resignations would not have been from a party, but from public office. In most developed democracies, Monday’s programme might have involved a sense of shame, not to mention pressure from the general public to go.

Not so here. Instead of shame, we got bluster from Mr McElvaney, and a retreat into victimhood from Mr O’Donnell. Who knows, maybe either or both men believe, based on form, that their political careers can continue unabated.

After all, at a national level, does anybody really believe that ethics in public office will be a major issue at the next election?

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