The dark arts of political lobbying
FOR A GROUP of people that the Government is determined to regulate, they’re surprisingly hard to find. There are plenty of “public-affairs consultants”, “advocacy” professionals and “policy directors”. And there are the trade unions, charities and multinational companies, all of which seek to influence public policy in their own interests. But where are the lobbyists? No one, it seems, wants to be associated with the label. The very word is tainted, conjuring up sinister images of brown envelopes, undue influence and unethical decision-making.
“Well, it’s a word people associated with Frank Dunlop, isn’t it?” says Paul Allen, managing director of Paul Allen Associates Public Relations, who has been involved in “parliamentary affairs” for many years. “He casts a long and dark shadow over everyone involved in this area.”
Lobbying has always seemed to exist on the murky edge of politics. Even before Dunlop used a war chest of bribes and political donations to win votes from councillors for planning decisions, lobbying has been seen as a way of advancing private interest, often at the expense of the public good. The political scandals of the past 20 years or more have reinforced this view.
The work of tribunals in uncovering links between the beef industry and politics, payments to politicians, planning corruption and the awarding of a mobile-phone licence exposed what to many seems like a golden circle of power, influence and access.
Yet lobbying is a legitimate activity. It is, in many ways, a cornerstone of our democratic process. Politicians and decision-makers are, generally, very accessible. Charities, nongovernmental organisations, farmers, sports groups and residents’ groups all have a right to try to influence policies and legislation that affects their legitimate interests.
But lobbying in Ireland remains secretive and closed to scrutiny, even as it exerts a major influence on the formulation of public policy.
As a result there’s a growing recognition that the right of groups to lobby should be balanced with the right of the public to know who is lobbying whom about what.
This week, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin announced policy proposals that, if enacted, could finally begin to shed some light on this mostly hidden world.
He said the moves to introduce a mandatory register of lobbyists, a code of conduct and sanctions would bring “greater openness and transparency” to the work of those who try to influence public policy. But it also raises a host of other questions. How vulnerable is politics to manipulation by vested interests? Who are the lobbyists and what do they do? And can a register, or regulation, ever hope to stamp out corruption and undue influence?
THE FIRST THINGthat strikes you about the world of lobbying is the sheer variety of people engaged in the business of influencing decision-makers.
Professional lobbyists are one group. They tend to describe themselves as public-relations or public-affairs consultants, and they sell their knowledge and understanding of how the political system works to advance the interests of their clients. Many are staffed by people with first-hand knowledge of the inner sanctum of decision-making. They include former TDs, such as Jim Glennon, chairman of Edelman PR; former government officials or advisers, such as Frank Flannery, a long-time adviser to Fine Gael who works for Insight Consultants; former journalists, such as Jackie Gallagher of Q4 Public Relations and Mark Brennockof Murray Consultants; and global financial advice firms, such as Deloitte and PwC.
A second group comprises full-time employees of big organisations who target decision-makers in their field of interest. They include trade or representative bodies, such as the employers’ group Ibec and the Irish Farmers Association; trade unions, such as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; and charities or nongovernmental organisations, such as Age Action and Barnardos.
Ironically, some of the most influential lobbyists are the least well known. It seems to be a rule of thumb that the more powerful you are, the less visible you are. Take the IFSC Clearing House Group. This body, chaired by the Government’s chief civil servant, Martin Fraser, has almost no public profile but wields extraordinary influence. The group includes representatives from a range of multinationals, such as KPMG, Bank of America, Citi, State Street and BNY Mellon. Its aim is to promote the development of the financial-services sector in Ireland.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show the extent to which lobbying by the group – and consultants employed by the group, such as Deloitte and KPMG – helped result in key sections and changes to the Finance Act 2012.
This included a controversial tax incentive that allows foreign executives who move to Ireland to take up key jobs in Irish-based companies to avoid paying tax on 30 per cent of annual income between €75,000 and €500,000. It also permits executives to claim tax relief on trips home and on school fees of up to €5,000 a year. (See Anatomy of a Decision, on page 2.)
While it’s hardly surprising that the Government is lobbied on behalf of multinationals that want to maximise their profits, the extent and detail of the lobbying are striking. In addition to submitting detailed proposals, they drew up draft legislation and kept in contact with civil servants throughout the process, helping to secure key amendments along the way.