FERGUS FINLAY: Why do we Irish favour so-called light-touch regulation, or none at all?

THREE of us who work in the community and voluntary sector went to Belfast the other night to meet a group that runs charities in Northern Ireland and to brief them about happenings in our sector in the Republic.

The group was friendly and welcoming, and interested in the crisis that has engulfed the charity sector in Ireland — how the behaviour of a few people has caused a widespread problem of trust, and how easy it is to do reputational damage.

I could see them looking at us with curiosity, as if to say ‘what’s wrong with you people? How could you let this happen?’ They were taken aback that in the Republic legislation had been passed in 2009, and nothing further had been done about it until a month ago.

In Northern Ireland, a charities commission was set up by law 18 months ago (until then, charities had been regulated by the Northern Ireland Executive), and it’s up and running already. It has a user-friendly website, clear guidelines and instructions, and it’s assembling its first register of charities.

Two other things apply. First, all this happened not because of scandal, but because good regulation was seen as the norm, as necessary.

Secondly, the heavens haven’t fallen in on the charities that are now being independently and transparently regulated. They’re adapting, learning and adjusting, recognising that it’s easier to build trust around higher standards — and that high standards for all are a level playing field.

As I drove home, I began to wonder. Is it just us?

Is there something in the Irish psyche that just hates the idea of regulating anything?

Look at what’s going on right now. We’re having public conversations about the urgent need for regulation of four different areas. There’s the community-and-voluntary sector, in which I work. There’s the vexed issue of the relationship between policing and politics, and whether we need an independent Garda authority. There’s the question of whistle-blowing and what legislation is necessary to protect them from intimidation, or worse. And, of course, there’s the issue of lobbying and the degree to which it should be controlled.

None of these conversations are new. But all of them are being driven by crisis. As the crisis recedes (if the crisis recedes), will the conversations fade away?

Remember Frank Dunlop. His approach to lobbying was simple and direct. If he needed the support of a public representative for any proposition favoured by a client, he would buy it. A few bob, in cash, in a neat envelope, handed over in a pub.

He went to jail. But he also gave lobbying a bad name. And that bad name was accentuated by the legend of the Galway tent — the assumption that if you were rich, and needed some political help to get richer, there was one place you had to be seen.

In short, we’ve known for years that lobbying needs to be regulated. It needs to be regulated in its own interest — because there’s nothing wrong with lobbying. Lobbying is whenever a citizen expresses a point of view to a public representative or a public official, or whenever a citizen asks the public representative or official to do something.

I’ve seen, or been involved in, dozens of examples of lobbying in the last couple of months alone — about medical cards, traffic flows in a residential estate, several pieces of draft legislation, the issue of play. I’ve always regarded lobbying as central to the democratic process, because without it policy gets made in a vacuum.

To describe lobbying: it is a spectrum — from the individual through the entire range of collective organisations that lobby (residents’ associations, trade unions, farmers organisations, sports bodies, and so on), to the professional, paid lobbyist, who acts on behalf of corporate interests.

There’s nobody who doesn’t have a right to lobby, and there’s no-one in public life who isn’t going to be lobbied. But if the lobbying is about any aspect of public policy, we all also have a right to know who is lobbying, who’s being lobbied, and what the objective of the lobbying, paid or otherwise, is.

Or, to put it another way — the kind of lobbying we need to worry about is the sort that is secretive.

It isn’t possible to ensure by law that people won’t operate in the dark. But legislation can have a powerful effect on culture — there are very few public servants in Ireland who would willfully flout a law that required them to operate transparently and to record meetings and discussions they had with lobbyists.

But we should have done this years ago. It’s not just Dunlop or the Galway tent, or the controversy involving Frank Flannery — we’ve known for two or three political generations about the unhealthy relationship between business and politics in Ireland. It featured in political debate and controversy in the 1980s and 1990s — and even further back, if there is still anyone left who can remember TACA, in the 1960s.

IF any controversy arises about any aspect of lobbying, there should be a well-established and respected body to which complaints could immediately be referred, and we’d all be confident about the outcome of any investigation they carried out. That’s how it should be.

But we seem to hate all that. It’s not that long ago since we prided ourselves on what we used to call ‘light-touch regulation’. We’d reassure anyone who wanted to invest in Ireland that they’d have nothing to worry about in that area.

And, of course, if we’re not going to intervene in their lives through pesky regulation, it follows that we’re not going to be too fussy about who they lobby or how they lobby.

And, naturally, we wouldn’t ever want them to have to worry about whistleblowers.

The odd thing is that we know precisely where all that culture got us, and yet we seem reluctant to change it. We insist on waiting for the crisis, and then we regulate — sometimes by going to the other extreme and surrounding everything with the sort of bureaucratic regimes that make life impossible for everyone.

But what they have discovered in other jurisdictions is the point I made earlier. Decent regulation creates a level playing field for everyone.

And the availability of online resources means that regulators can also be supportive. If you ‘Google’ the two charity commissions I mentioned earlier, for either Northern Ireland or the UK, and look at their websites, you’ll see what I mean.

The only people who have something to fear from regulation are the sort of people who need secrecy, and an inside track, to succeed.

The longer we delay, the more we’re facilitating their desire for secrecy. And that hurts the rest of us.


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