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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 15, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    Could Our Political Parties Organise a Booze-Up in a Brewery?

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Here’s a little saga that may or may not speak volumes about the political set-up in this country. The story begins with a news report by yours truly last week on a report from the Standards in Public Office Commission about the funding of political parties. flag-1.jpg

    By interesting coincidence the report was published the same week as a group from the Council of Europe (that’s what the Council logo looks like, above) was visiting Dublin to look at the system whereby parties here organise financing for their activities, principally elections.

    Having learnt about the Council of Europe factfinding trip from the Commission report, I decided to write a follow-up piece on the group, who it was meeting, etc.

    But when you start asking questions, you never know what you’ll find out.  The arrangements for the visit were being coordinated here by the Department of Justice who say that a letter was sent on May 22nd to the senior officials of six political parties, inviting them to meet the Evaluation Team, as it was called (incidentally, on that date The Irish Times published an opinion piece by columnist Elaine Byrne previewing the visit: to read it, click here.)

    Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens all accepted the invitation. Sinn Féin sent an email query as to the nature and purpose of the visiting group, which the Department says was duly answered on May 27th. After that, nothing from Sinn Féin.

    There was no response at all from Fine Gael or Libertas. When I phoned the Fine Gael press office last week, the initial response was that they knew nothing of the letter but would be “delighted” to meet the group (they were from the Council of Europe Groups of States Against Corruption, established in 1999 and called Greco for short: Ireland is a member, along with 45 other states.)

    Finally, FG located the letter and managed to arrange a meeting, at the last minute, for Friday morning. Sinn Féin, pointing to its record of transparency, also tried to arrange a meeting but it was too late as the team’s three-day visit was coming to an end. Libertas, still insisting it had no record of the letter, also tried to arrange a meeting, but also too late. Labour was originally due to meet the group on  Thursday but this was unfortunately postponed until Friday and that was cancelled because the Labour representative was ill.

    Obviously there was an election campaign on and party representatives were eager to point this out to me when I phoned. But consider this: the Council of Europe, under the auspices of the Department of Justice, invites the senior official in your organisation to a meeting (so we are told) and . . . what happens?

    Only three out of the six parties accept the invitation – although only two of those three would actually meet the group and two meetings arranged with the third party fall through.

    Two of the six parties don’t even respond, with one initially denying all knowledge of the letter only to find it later on, and the other still maintaining that it has no knowledge of the document. And another party still – SF, as mentioned – responds with a wary email query and then lets the matter drop.

    All this against the background of the Tribunals going back over the years and the turmoil that led to Bertie Ahern’s resignation, not to mention countless speeches in the Dáil,  several prairies of newspaper space and eons of broadcasting time devoted to the relationship between money and politics.

    Dear Reader, if a letter arrived in your door from the Department of Justice on behalf of the Council of Europe, you would take it seriously, would you not? No matter how busy you were, you would respond to it, would you not? If you were part of an organisation putting itself forward as the most efficient and reliable group to organise the affairs of this state, you would make sure to give the matter your full attention, would you not? If you were proclaiming the need to shine a light on the grey area between money and politics, you would be desperately keen to meet a respected international body which was examining the subject, would you not? At the very least, you would make sure the letter wasn’t mislaid, would  you not?

    The lesson seems to be that if you are organising a booze-up in a brewery, stay away from our political parties, or most of them.

    The pieces I wrote on this subject are available by clicking here and here and here.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Here’s the rub though what did the letter actually say to those it was addressed to? And why did the Council of Europe not send the communication itself?

      If the Department of Justice sent me some sort of circular telling me something was happening and if I was interested to drop along then I might go but only ‘cos I’m sort of sad that way.

    • Deaglán says:

      I have seen one of the invitations which was forwarded to the invitee by a civil servant in the Dept of Justice on behalf of the Greco group. It is my understanding that the Dept did not attend the meetings with the parties. It makes sense for a Government Dept on the ground to assist the visiting team, since Ireland is a member of Greco, and it certainly appears this was done in an arm’s-length fashion.

      The point is, really, that the last several years of controversy about “dig-outs” and backhanders to politicians by their cronies in the business world, the sentencing of Frank Dunlop and all the talk about the Galway Tent was either for real or it wasn’t. When a respected international body comes to Ireland to look into the matter, they fail to get a meeting with three out the six most prominent political parties and one of the parties that they do meet only turns up at the last minute, stating that the invitation was mislaid. In the case of another party, two arranged meetings did not take place – one completely and unreservedly accepts that people become ill but there are such things as substitutes. In three cases, the invitation did not even get a reply until this newspaper started asking questions about it. Surely all that talk about low standards in high places was more than grandstanding?

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      So was it an invitation like you get in the door about an auction on this weekend in your area or “would you like to come down to the station to help us with our enquires?”

      Not that I’m taking issue with the main point of the visit, I broadly agree with Elaine that we should be very American about this and have the parties declare every cent they got and from whom.

    • Deaglán says:

      Give me a break. It was neither a leaflet in the door nor a menacing missive but a formal, correctly-phrased request for a meeting to discuss a topic of public interest on behalf of a weighty international body which includes this State among its membership. I’m surprised you are making so light of it . . . bit out of character for you, Dan.

    • Deaglán, I may be wrong but isn’t GRECO the group that are due to provide an evaluation on the level of transparency in the way political donations are made in Ireland?

      Again, I may be wrong but isn’t Ireland a member of GRECO yet refuses to sign up to the important part of the GRECO rules (Articles 11 to13)? The very rules which would make our political system far less corruptible …

      And finally, haven’t the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) been harping on about how political parties should be forced to adhere to articles 11, 12 and 13 of the GRECO list since 2002? Haven’t they been saying that legislation should be part of the provisions of a Programme for Government for years … yet nothing has been done about it – maybe because (some would say) it’s turkeys and Chrimbo.

      A cynic would say they’re avoiding implementing the legislation and meeting the group because people might find out, ya’ know … stuff.

      Jesus t’would be great if someone had an aul’ disc or something with all the information we should really know about political donations. If only …

      Conor Ryan did great work on the opacity of our political donations system in the Examiner a few weeks ago, worth checking out.

    • Deaglán says:

      If there’s anybody out there with an “aul’ disc” of the type you mention, they should send it to yours truly!

    • Major Alfonso says:

      Nobody would be so foolish to collect info on aul’ disc in this country without making sure a cowshed of lawyers were fed and watered to appropriate standards. And even were it to emerge from the grossly distended systems of this State (legitimately or with a Telegraph style wodge of dosh), we’d still carry on stuffing the same names into the same boxes (Tony Fox, Michael Lowry, Stroke Fahey).

      What I mean to say is: They opened those letters and as much as said “Why bother?”

    • robespierre says:

      Keep your ear to the ground Deaglán, FG and the PD’s were known to throw all kinds of materials out when doing the spring cleaning – donor lists, PAYE tax avoidance etc

    • Deaglán says:

      Major Alfonso: It should be noted that Tony Fox denies the claims made in relation to him by Frank Dunlop.

    • Deaglán, ah no fair, I already ‘bagzied’ any such aul’disc! We freelancers are struggling, give us life!

      But, yes, on a more serious note and in reference to the Major Alfonso comment -

      I very much agree, if the Irish equivalent of the Telegraph disc had come into the hands of an Irish journalist there would not have been half as much outrage as there was on the other side of the pond. The people of Ireland [crass generalisation, yes] have an attitude that could be summed up with, “Ah, sure fair play to him, wouldn’t we all do it?” when it comes to fiddling holders of public office. Shameful.

      If certain former leaders of this nation had been British Prime Ministers they would have been run out of office and exiled. Our dodgy ex-Taoisigh are still considered lovable rogues.

      Still, I’d love to test that assertion.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, you did end the piece with an address to Dear Reader and I, partially at least, took my tone from that. I wasn’t seeking to make light of the entire series of events.

      It was as you say a fact-finding visit and if we’re all being very honest I suspect the Irish political establishment has compartmentalised its fundraising operations to such a degree that the political heads haven’t a notion what is coming in nor how. Just that they check every once in a while that it is legal and once they’re given the nod then they move on. Is that a suitable state of affairs? No.

      That said, it is not unknown for the hectic ‘all hands to the tiller’ nature of the later stages of an election campaign to cause people to temporarily mislay all kinds of material. The opposition parties do not the same resources paid for by the state as the government parties do.

      On a slightly-related note, in 2004 local election candidates had to file reports of their expenditure to their local authorities. There were no spending limits in place at the time but the reports themselves were mandatory. I filed my own by the due date and a few weeks after the deadline visited Dublin City Council to look at the reports of others.

      I was very surprised by what I saw, in particular the highly partial nature of the reports. One glaring example (though there were others) was that of a prominent Fianna Fáil candidate who claimed he had spent nothing on posters for the campaign and that his entire campaign had cost little more than that of the SWP candidate for Artane. Around €750 in total. This was an official document at a time when no spending limits were in place and not only did he not bother to complete it properly but nothing was made of it officially.

      I saw no coverage in the press of this at the time nor was it revisited when he was subsequently declared as an election candidate.

      If we’re not going to give due care to the regulations we have at present then what end if served by having new ones?

    • Deaglán says:

      Dan, thanks for that. Obviously, to employ the Taoiseach’s favourite word, things get hectic at election-time but this is a subject that has acquired sacred status in Irish political discourse and there should be no excuses.

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