Calling time on lobbying of Government

Tue, Jan 7, 2014, 01:00

The success of the drinks industry in dissuading the Government from banning their sponsorship of major sporting events, last year, is an example of the effectiveness of political lobbying. Representations at the highest ministerial level have been itemised in this newspaper by Arthur Beesley, secured under Freedom of Information legislation. But access to departmental deliberations was withheld. It is highly unsatisfactory that limited information should only become available after Government decisions are taken. Legislation on political lobbying needs to be enacted as soon as possible.

The Programme for Government undertook to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists with strict rules and penalties. Draft legislation was considered last autumn by an all-party Oireachtas committee. But progress has been painfully slow and there are concerns the proposed regime will not be sufficiently robust. Submissions were made to the committee by a wide variety of organisations involving commercial, voluntary and health interests.

But three of the best-resourced and most influential: the financial services sector, the tobacco and the drinks industries were notable for lack of direct involvement. Perhaps their views were expressed in private? Whatever the reason, it draws attention to conclusions reached by the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals that undue secrecy and influence can corrode confidence in the political system.

The porous nature of Irish politics and its decision-making process is clear from letters written by representatives of the drinks industry. They knew when official reports were due to be published and, in one instance, the contents of a memorandum that had not yet reached Government. Such information leaks cannot be guarded against. In such cases, however, it is important that the public is made aware of the extent of lobbying operations being conducted before political or administrative decisions are taken. Under proposed legislation, lobbyists will be required to provide updates of their activities on a quarterly basis.

While the success of the drinks industry in resisting a ban on their sponsorship of major sporting events may reflect its access at ministerial level, the campaign it waged to protect its profits was much broader. Sporting bodies, which stood to lose financial support, were encouraged to apply political pressure. Opposition parties were also lobbied. None of this activity was improper or illegal. But the fact that it took place behind closed doors and succeeded in derailing five years of work by an expert, government-appointed committee, should be of considerable concern. Alcohol abuse has been estimated to cost the State €3billion in related illness, absenteeism and crime. Profit, not public good, is the primary aim of vested interests.