The Government’s lost opportunity

Voters gave the Coalition a clear mandate for reform. But from freedom of information legislation to protection of whistleblowers and regulation of lobbying, recent events expose how limited its implementation has been

Strategist:  Frank Flannery (right) with Richard Bruton and Enda Kenny in 2008, as Fine Gael’s director of elections. Photograph: Eric Luke

Strategist: Frank Flannery (right) with Richard Bruton and Enda Kenny in 2008, as Fine Gael’s director of elections. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00

From the moment Frank Flannery missed his appointment with the Committee of Public Accounts and sat down with Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, for lunch in the Oireachtas restaurant the die was cast. The strategist – a highly experienced one – had become the story, a cardinal sin for which there was only one possible outcome.

The episode is emblematic of the extent to which the Government has failed to deliver its much-trumpeted “democratic revolution”. A prominent lobbyist, with known close ties to the main Coalition party, was allowed to use his Fine Gael pass to take full advantage of unfettered access to the corridors of power to lobby on behalf of his clients at Rehab and Philanthropy Ireland, two organisations where he has held leadership positions.

It is not so much that something untoward may or may not have happened; it is the perception that matters, and the perception is not good – not quite Galway tent, but certainly in the same ballpark.

Senior Fine Gael figures were (or at least should have been) aware of the two hats Flannery was wearing, as key party strategist and as lobbyist for vested interests. They should not have allowed themselves to be blindsided like this. It is charitable to say that this latest episode is an embarrassment for Fine Gael.

Things were not meant to be like this. In 2011 we were promised a bold new politics. This was going to be a Government with a single-minded focus on openness and transparency. Three years later it would be stretching credulity to suggest that the democratic revolution has happened. On the contrary, a sequence of events in quick succession shows just how slow progress has been.

At the heart of the Government’s openness-and-transparency agenda were three key promises: the reinstatement and extension of freedom-of-information legislation, proper protection for whistleblowers, and regulation of the lobbying industry. In combination these reforms were supposed to propel Ireland to the top of the international league tables of best practice for modern, accountable government.


Foot dragging and obfuscation
The intent may have been to blaze a trail towards greater transparency and openness, but the reality has been much more one of foot dragging and obfuscation.

First there was the debacle over the freedom-of-information legislation, when the Government was roundly condemned for proposing an increase in the inquiry fees for freedom-of-information requests – a move completely at odds with international best practice – and for, bizarrely, excluding semi-State bodies from the remit of the legislation.

The debacle over millions of euro spent on Irish Water consultants forced a change of mind on the latter, but we have yet to learn the Government’s final decision on the fees. Experience gives little cause for hope.

The Government’s record on improving the protection of whistleblowers has been no better, as shown by the shenanigans over driving-offence penalty points. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan’s labelling of whistleblowers as disgusting and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s calling into question in the Dáil the veracity of Garda whistleblowers were of a piece, indicating a definitively cool attitude.

It was only with the release of the Garda Inspectorate’s report that the Government somewhat reluctantly had to accept that the Garda whistleblowers had provided a service in bringing to light the inappropriate practice of individual gardaí waiving penalty points. This is, after all, what whistleblowing is meant to do: to tell sometimes inconvenient truths so as to expose bad practice.

And now we have the debacle over lobbying, something that is supposed to be sorted out by legislation about to go through the Oireachtas. It may be churlish to suggest that the recent publication of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill, hot on the heels of the Rehab-Flannery controversy, appears as a belated effort to show seriousness of intent to deliver on the promise to regularise the lobbying industry, but the coincidence of timing is interesting to say the least.

In all three instances – freedom-of-information legislation, protection of whistleblowers and regulation of lobbying – the Government has come up short. The sense is of papering over cracks, of minimalist and reluctant steps, of reacting to events.

In 2011 the newly elected Government was presented with an unprecedented set of opportunities to change the way politics operates in the Republic. All the political parties were on the same page in calling for radical reform.

The Fine Gael-Labour Coalition was given a clear mandate and an unprecedented Dáil majority, so ensuring all the right conditions to make the bold steps that had been promised. Opportunities were there aplenty, opportunities that have in large part been missed – so far, at any rate.


David Farrell is professor of politics at University College Dublin

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