Caveat: Thank you for lobbying, now fill out the register

Ireland’s nascent lobbying regime is generally seen as robust

 

There is a brilliant scene in the 2006 film, Thank You for Smoking, where Aaron Eckhart’s character, Nick Naylor, a tobacco industry lobbyist with questionable morals, is collared by a schoolchild.

“My mommy says smoking kills,” says the kid.

“Oh, is your mommy a doctor?” replies Naylor.

“No.”

“A scientific researcher of some kind?”

“No.”

“Well, then, she’s hardly a credible expert, is she?”

The general public, perhaps fuelled by a media-driven cynicism that I would argue can be constructive, is often suspicious of the lobbying of public officials in this country. And it is deeply suspicious of lobbyists.

That’s not to say anyone really believes the country is stuffed with Nick Naylors, whispering dastardly sweet nothings into the ears of our politicians. This isn’t Hollywood. But . . . this is Ireland, a place not just of 32 counties or four provinces, but thousands of vested interests.

There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbyists and lobbying. But suspicion breeds vigilance, and vigilance is a good thing. If channelled correctly, it can help to protect the public interest amid the hazy nexus that exists between policymakers, lobbyists, businesses and other vested interests.

The more vigilant Ireland is, the fewer tribunals we will have.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the second set of quarterly returns for Ireland’s new lobbying register, which is overseen by Canadian-born lobbying regulator, Sherry Perrault. Ireland’s nascent regime is generally seen as robust, especially compared to the watery set of rules they have in the UK.

Rules of lobbying

The rules surrounding Ireland’s register, and who must disclose what sort of lobbying, are pretty tight. All paid lobbyists must record every communication with designated officials.

Also, all advocacy groups and representative groups that have staff, and all companies with 10 employees or more that engage in any sort of lobbying, must put it on the public register.

The Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) yesterday hosted a conference at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, where the impact of the new regime was discussed. There was a crackle in the air as PRII chief executive, John Carroll, asked whether all professions were adhering to the new regime as assiduously as his members.

All lobbyists are equal, but are some lobbyists more equal than others?

“All lobbying activity must be reported. . . irrespective of whether it is carried out by a public relations professional, lawyer, accountant or the CEO,” he said.

“While public relations professionals have stepped up to the plate . . . we are underwhelmed by the response of other professions, especially the legal profession, to date.” The poor old lawyers. Does anyone ever trust them at all?

At the time of writing, the latest returns were still whizzing into the public register ahead of tomorrow’s deadline. Some of the returns by legal firms and their representative bodies are, it must be said, very sparse indeed on details.

There is no return by Nick Naylor, but there is plenty of colour around meetings, letters and emails between the tobacco industry and State officials.

No meetings yet with junior health minister Finian McGrath, Ireland’s political puffing posterboy. But Vape Business Ireland, a lobby group whose members include e-fag sellers and some of the biggest tobacco firms in the State, appears to be seeking a meeting with the Department of the Taoiseach.

Gervaise Slowey, chief executive of Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp, wrote to the Government earlier this year looking for “proper regulation of RTÉ”. Erin Egan, one of Facebook’s top US lobbyists, seemingly met with Enda Kenny over EU data transfer laws.

Janssen, the pharma company that is part of the Johnson & Johnson group, appears to have spoken to Kenny about the importance of hurrying up the building of the N28 motorway upgrade between Cork and Ringaskiddy, where it operates a plant.

The Bar Council, meanwhile, arranged meetings with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The meetings were for “reviewing the arrangements” for barristers who prosecute cases for the State, which isn’t all that revelatory. The matter falls into, however, a category entitled “matters involving public funds”.

Even the wigs are feeling the pinch these days.

There is a review of the lobbying rules planned for September. So here’s a thing: the register doesn’t record any actions taken by designated public officials on the back of the lobbying to which they are subjected. If that were addressed, it really would be a new departure for Ireland in terms of building a culture of disclosure.

How about it, then?

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