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.

Few, if any, say lobbying of this nature shouldn’t take place. After all, these firms have created thousands of jobs, and foreign investment is the bedrock of the economy. But there is unease within some sections of Government about how slavishly some of the advice is being followed.

ANOTHER LOBBY GROUPthat has been particularly effective is the drinks industry. It has managed to resist attempts to curb sponsorship of sporting events and legislative restrictions on advertising in favour of a voluntary code.

In fact some of its lobbying has been so effective that its policies have ended up being copied word for word – errors included – and published as Government policy. In 2005 it emerged that the voluntary code announced by the government for cinema advertising was copied from a letter sent by Carlton Screen Advertising, the largest agency for alcohol ads in Irish cinemas. In essence, a government commitment to legislate for controls on alcohol ads was scrapped and replaced by a code that gave the vested interests exactly what they wanted.

So what, precisely, do lobbyists do? And what makes a lobbyist particularly effective? For many in the trade it is simple: it’s about using knowledge of the political system to get results for clients. That means meeting the key decision-makers and communicating clients’ views effectively and credibly.

“Looked at in the broadest sense, it is communication. How do you communicate the message to [a decision-maker]? Will it be on TV, or by beating a drum, or by knocking gently on the door, or by buttonholing him in the [local pub]?” says Jim Glennon.

For Fergus Finlay, a former government adviser and lobbyist who is now the head of the Barnardos children’s charity in Ireland, says being rich and having prestige help to open doors and get an audience. Otherwise a lobby group needs to work hard to make itself heard.

“There are two kinds of effective lobbyist: the pesky ones and the powerful ones. If you’re not either, then you won’t be listened to. As well as being persistent, you need credibility. You can’t just complain all the time; you need to provide solutions,” he says.

Paul Allen says knowing whom to target is key. It’s easy to expend energy trying to convince politicians or Ministers of the merits of a change in public policy. The real decision-makers, he says, tend to be the permanent government: the public servants.

“Politicians and Ministers come and go,” he says. “Senior civil servants are key. A Minister might serve three years. A senior civil servant could be in place for much longer. If they become secretary general that’s a seven-year post. They are the people you need to be able to work with.”

Allen insists there is nothing untoward about the process. Keep things businesslike and ethical, he maintains, and never compromise anyone’s professionalism.

It’s also important, he says, to know the wider political landscape and to use it to your advantage. By way of example, he gives the previous government’s introduction of a scrappage scheme for cars. He says he worked with his client the Society of the Irish Motor Industry to convince decision-makers that it was a win-win situation by making the economic case for it. It also meant convincing the Greens not to oppose it while creating demands for such a move by opposition TDs and government backbenchers. The scheme was eventually introduced in 2010.

Not every practitioner is so buoyant about the role of the lobbyist. PJ Mara says many myths have grown up about their true power. “My feeling after 20 years,” he told this newspaper recently, “is that the ability of professional lobbyists to influence change in Government policy or legislation is very much overestimated.”

BRENDAN HOWLIN, MEANWHILE, says he is determined to bring greater openness and transparency to the interaction between the political and administrative systems as well as all interests that seek to influence policy and decision-making.

The proposed new rules will cover all organisations or individuals, including charities, professional bodies and commercial lobbyists, that are paid to make representations to politicians and civil servants about policies or prospective decisions.

The proposals include a statutory register of lobbyists that would record the dates and nature of all communications, including emails and telephone contact, between lobbyists and office holders or civil servants about policies, legislation or prospective decisions; a code of conduct for ethical behaviour; and sanctions for decision-makers and lobbyists who fail to abide by them.

In outline, at least, the proposals are impressive. Officials say it is based mainly on the Canadian system of monitoring lobbyists, which many observers regard as a successful model.

Dr Conor McGrath, who is an academic and a former lobbyist, says he has been encouraged by the Government’s energy in tackling this area, despite many other pressing concerns. He says society needs to be able to trust that lobbying is carried out fairly and responsibly.

“This need can be met only through a combination of transparency, regulation and education of the public, by lobbyists, of the valuable role lobbying plays in articulating interests to policymakers,” he says. “For their own self-interest, if for no more compelling reason, Irish lobbyists should be encouraging the Government to develop a rigorous regulatory scheme.”

But can the lobbying proposals survive lobbying by the industry itself? And will it, like so many other well-meaning but ultimately flawed pieces of “ethical” legislation, become more honoured in the breach than the observance? Groups such as Transparency International Ireland point out that no single system that seeks to prevent corruption or inform the public of how government works can be effective on its own. It says the Freedom of Information Act and legislation that governs the funding of political parties and political donations need to be changed to create a truly level playing field for those attempting to inform public policy.

There are persistent concerns about the mismatch between those who can afford to mount a professional lobbying campaign and those who are too poor or marginalised to do so. Finlay agrees that the powerful exert a disproportionate influence. But he says any group that wants to be effective in the long run needs to make a nuisance of itself.

“Remember that woman in the west who was determined to get a helicopter [rescue] service,” he says, referring to Joan McGinley, the wife of a Donegal fishing skipper, whose campaign in the 1980s also prompted a government review of marine safety. “She was fantastic, because by sheer dint of being a nuisance she helped to get it. Organisations like ourselves pride ourselves on being a bit of a nuisance in the same way. That’s something everyone can take on board.”

Gamekeepers turned poachers: Politicians and advisers who have become lobbyists

A significant number of former politicians and senior party officials are putting their knowledge of the political system to work in their roles as lobbyists.

They include former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey (who has set up his own company, Noel Dempsey Consulting) and former Fine Gael leader and government minister Alan Dukes, a longstanding consultant on public affairs for Wilson Hartnell PR. Among others are former Progressive Democrats junior ministers Tom Parlon, now chief executive of the Construction Industry Federation, and Liz ODonnell, who has worked as an occasional public-affairs consulant; and former Fianna Fáil TD Jim Glennon.

In addition, many former party officials have established themselves in careers providing public affairs advice to clients.

They include Martin Mackin, former general secretary of Fianna Fáil, and Jackie Gallagher, former special adviser to Bertie Ahern and a founder of Q4 Public Relations. Their clients have included State agencies and Government departments, as well as commercial firms.

Fine Gael’s former director of elections and long-time adviser Frank Flannery has taken up work with Insight Consultants. The company’s principal executives are Michael Parker, a former general secretary of the Progressive Democrats, and Michael Keane, a former editor of the Sunday Press.

The list of clients on the firm’s website includes private medical-care groups, property groups, semi-State companies and telecommunications companies.

The nearest thing to a doyen in the lobbying industry is PJ Mara, the colourful former government press secretary. He has represented Denis O’Brien’s companies and other clients in recent years. He is chairman of Mara Associates, a firm that describes itself as providing advice in areas of financial planning, public relations and public affairs to financial institutions and transnational corporations.

In addition to knowledge of how the system works and who the decision-makers are, former TDs or senators have the added advantage of lifelong access and parking privileges in Leinster House. Some former officials such as Mara and Mackin also benefit from these arrangements, having served as so-called weekend senators. This is a nickname given to the practice of appointing people to fill gaps in the Seanad for brief periods of time, typically towards the end of a government’s term.

Fergus Finlay, former chef de cabinet of the Labour Party, worked for a time as a director of Wilson Hartnell Public Relations, heading the company’s public-affairs unit, before moving to take up the position of chief executive of Barnardos.

Under proposals to regulate the lobbying industry, there are plans to introduce a cooling-off period for public-office holders, possibly of up to two years. The move would mean that former ministers, and perhaps senior civil servants, would be barred from entry in the planned lobbyists’ register – and, as a result, from all private-sector lobbying – after they leave their political jobs.

The plans have received broad support, based on a consultation process undertaken by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is leading plans to introduce regulations on lobbying.

Jim Glennon, the chairman of Edelman PR, says he would support such a move given the decision-making power that Ministers have.

“Ministers are able to sign off on decisions that involve significant amounts of money, and certainly they should be dealt with differently,” he says. “They have generous pensions and shouldn’t feel the need to enter the private sector. As for TDs, I don’t think restrictions are needed . . . When you’re a backbench TD you don’t have much power, and you’re a lobbyist at the end of the day. In essence you are doing a very similar job.”

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