Ireland under scrutiny in EU corruption report

 Judge Alan Mahon: Not all recommendations in tribunal were acted on by the government.

A European Commission report looks at corruption in EU member states. Unsurprisingly Ireland faces particular scrutiny, writes European Correspondent Ann Cahill .

IT PROBABLY comes as no surprise that just 7% of Irish people say they trust the courts and tribunals to tackle corruption — and they would much rather prefer to go to the national ombudsman with a complaint.

The findings come more than a decade after millions were spent mainly on lawyers arguing allegations linked to the rezoning of land and the awarding of mobile phone licences.

But not enough changes have been made to alter the culture of cronyism and kickbacks, according to an EU report which suggests that the kind of corruption exposed by the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals could easily happen again.

Political donations, ministerial appointments to jobs, senior civil servants moving into the private sector, no lobbying law, and few sanctions attached to some of the laws introduced to clamp down on corruption lead to questions of whether there is any political will to tackle the problems, the study suggests.

The report into corruption in EU member states — the first released by the European Commission — is partly based on the perceptions and personal experiences of individuals and businesses on corruption in their country, and partly on a detailed look at laws and reports.

In its 12-page report on Ireland, the commission picks out several issues raised by the Moriarty and Mahon tribunals and reports on whether the main recommendations have been implemented. While laws have been put in place, it found that punishments were missing — which leads to the question of whether there is real political will to tackle such problems.

The commissioner responsible for the reports, Cecilia Malmström, suggests this political will is lacking in many countries. Few could be unaware of the areas of corruption in their country since so many bodies regularly report on it.

While the survey could be considered as simply people’s opinions and perceptions, Ms Malmström insists that perceptions were real — and points out that the facts tend to bear out the views in the report.

It did not rank countries in terms of the most or least corrupt, but few, if any, would be surprised at the findings that put Greece, Spain, and Italy at one end of the scale under most headings, and Denmark and Sweden at the other.

The report on Ireland highlighted three main areas: Payments to politicians and their political parties; land rezoning at national and local level; and the influence of lobbyists, especially business and industry, on the State.

The question of how ready and able politicians are to tackle the problems has been raised several times. Specific examples are not given but over the past few months there have been three examples that could lead to questions about how balanced the relationship is between political leaders and business:

* The meeting between the Taoiseach and some of his ministers with the tobacco lobby came against international advice and at a time when Ireland, as president of the EU Council, was playing a role in new laws on tobacco;

* The recent visit by Enda Kenny and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, where they did not raise the myriad human rights abuses on the basis that it was a separate issue to trade;

* The long-running saga of the financial services industry having its own committee that meets in and is serviced by the Taoiseach’s department, with the majority of its national budget proposals adopted.

When it comes to the State abiding by international treaties to which it has signed up, the OECD was recently criticised Ireland’s failure to investigate evidence that companies, including a semi-state body, had been involved in bribery in Third World countries. Now, belatedly, one of these is being investigated and three more are being assessed.

The EU report says the economic crisis has increased corruption, and had a negative impact on action against it. The banking collapse exposed the extent of the buddy culture between the State and the financial services industry that resulted in light-touch regulation or simply looking the other way.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, whose job it is to investigate such cases, has no time to do so as it prepares for court cases. As a result, while the number of white-collar crime has increased, convictions have fallen, the report says.

The Standards in Public Office Commission is responsible for regulating conflicts of interest but the report says it cannot initiate investigations and its request for greater powers have been ignored since 2004 — again raising questions about the political will to tackle such issues.

The workings of An Garda Síochána are continuously under the spotlight but the report noted that a tribunal criticised the Garda’s reluctance and even failure to investigate issues when politicians were implicated.

Public procurement contracts were worth €23.5bn in 2011, 14.6% of Ireland’s GDP, making the State the single biggest investor in goods and services.

The Moriarty tribunal investigated Ireland’s biggest procurement award at the time — the sale of the mobile phone licence. The EU report notes that no criminal action was taken on foot of the report, and the then government did not distance itself from those involved in the case.

It also comments that while many of the conflicts of interest identified by the Mahon tribunal were acted on, the system where ministers appoint people to boards and bodies has not been changed for the better. It warned that “an analysis of the network of persons involved within these boards revealed risks relating to favouritism, cronyism, and patronage”.

The report quotes the Mahon tribunal into land rezoning: “Corruption affected every level of Irish political life — and those with the power to stop it were frequently implicated in it.” Despite the extent of corruption on zoning of land, not all recommendations to prevent it have been taken, the report finds.

The close ties between politicians and industry “continue to be a cause for concern”, with risks for corruption. But the country still has no law on lobbying and a proposed bill emphasises the responsibilities of lobbyists rather than public officials, the report states.

Tighter rules on the funding of political parties are praised but loopholes remain, despite being identified by the Mahon tribunal; for example, a donor can give money both to a party and to each individual member of said party, adding up to a large sum. The report also warns that because there is no deadline by which parties have to disclose their funding after an election, it is difficult to identify which contributions are a donation and which a kickback.

The media played and continues to play an important role in exposing corruption allegations but the report warn that there is a move towards too high a concentration of media in the same hands.

The Government generally and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have begun to review and reform some of the systems but the report points out that the laws need to include sanctions, as some do not have punishments for breaches, and it warns that large-scale corruption cases must be dealt with more quickly.

The report recommends that: The gardaí, the Standards in Public Office Commission, and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement be given powers to initiate investigations that lead to prosecutions for corruption; limits be placed on the amount of money anyone can give a political party and its candidates; and that an independent urban planning regulator be appointed with the power to investigate problems and implement plans to prevent fraud and corruption, especially at local level.

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