Caveat: Who’s afraid of the big, bad lobbyist?
Not all causes are worthy but most lobbyists are average joes rather than ‘scaly serpents’
Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy has bemoaned a lack of ‘respect’ for lobbyists. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
This month saw the second anniversary of the State’s lobbying disclosure regime. Was there a cake and candles? Was there, hell. Two years in, one thing hasn’t changed: there is barely a dirtier word in the nexus of business and politics than “lobbyist”.
Danny McCoy, the chief executive of employers’ group Ibec, complained this week that in public debates, lobbyists tend to be divided into goodies and baddies. The baddies are called “lobbyists”, and the goodies “advocates”.
McCoy used the debate around alcohol laws as an example. There are references to “lobbyists” for the alcohol industry, he said, but “advocates” for public health. He argued that when trying to influence politicians, both are engaged in lobbying and should be termed the same. He bemoaned a lack of “respect” for lobbyists.
“If the lobbying is responsible and the cause legitimate, the activity should not be differentiated,” he wrote in the Irish Independent.
Should it not? Perhaps so when it comes to applying the system and the rules. But while everyone is entitled to the same treatment on the basis of the rules, the watching world is entitled to discriminate on the basis of its wits. Everybody knows that, no matter what it says, the industry is primarily concerned with protecting profits. Its “advocate” opponents, even the busybody self-righteous ones, are concerned with protecting people’s health. Those two positions are not equally noble in the public eye.
Public disdain for lobbyists is neither a new thing, nor an Irish thing. Emily Briggs, a mould-breaker and one of the first women to become a top US newspaper reporter, famously excoriated Washington lobbyists in the 1860s as “dazzling reptiles . . . scaly serpents” who trail their “slimy length” along parliament corridors to reach politicians.
As a polemic, Briggs’s evocation is a glorious thing of beauty – I wish I’d written it – and I can think of one or two Irish lobbying types at whom I’d love to bellow that at after a few drinks. . But most people now might consider it a wee bit harsh.
What do lobbyists look like these days and can you still spot them by their scales? Well, they usually tend to be either male or female. They often wear clothes and shoes and things like that. And they tend to carry mobile phones, or sometimes briefcases that are invariably stuffed with stuff, such as paper and pens or maybe an apple.
In other words, they look just like everybody else in the worlds of business and politics. They generally are not monsters or vampires. Okay, a handful of them possibly have something of the night about them, as Ann Widdecombe might agree. But on the whole, they tend to be ordinary communications professionals. Former politicians, advisers, public relations executives and journalists, mostly.
Lobbyists’ causes are not uniformly meritorious, no matter how much the public’s antennae for this reality might irk McCoy. But in a world of competing ideas and interests where everybody has the freedom to speak, who says they have to be? Let the best ideas win, as long as everybody is operating under the same rules.
That not everybody can muster the same resources to engage in lobbying is an entirely different debate. That is a microcosm of the universal truth that, just as most causes aren’t equal in this world, with the exception of human dignity, neither is much else.
What of Ireland’s toddler lobbying disclosure regime, now that it has hit the terrible twos? I think it is broadly working as it should. The lobbying industry and public servants all appear to have accepted it is the way things are done now.
Trawling the online register of lobbying activities isn’t exactly a thrilling ride, however. Don’t go inviting the cute one next door around this Saturday to lobby-register and chill. But the mundanity of the register’s published returns is proof that lobbying is just another part of the policymaking process, which is quite dull.
The deadline for the latest returns was last week. Ahead of the upcoming budget, the alcohol, wind energy, US foreign direct investment and tourism sectors were all as prominent as you might expect them to be, given their various vested interests on fiscal matters.
Tobacco lobbyists were by and large reduced to emailing and writing, as most politicians won’t meet them. Marlboro-maker Philip Morris, however, got in the door with a few TDs to push its agenda for “reduced risk products”, whatever those are.
There were a few other returns of note. The British Irish Chamber of Commerce lobbied Sinn Féin to ask it how to “further the UK-Irish relationship”, which was a surprise. Meanwhile, former minister Lucinda Creighton’s husband, Paul Bradford, appears to have joined her at her Vulcan Consulting lobbying firm.
Bradford recently tried to set up a meeting between agriculture minister Michael Creed and businessman Greg Turley’s new ethanol company. Bradford, who was a Fine Gael senator until last year, was not declared on the return as a former politician, which he really should have been. An administrative error, most likely.
The credit unions appear to be targeting members of the Oireachtas finance committee, such as John McGuinness and Michael McGrath, as they lobby to get lending rules relaxed. A lobbyist for one of the State’s biggest credit unions complained to TDs “how difficult it is to get any meaningful engagement from the Central Bank”.
The lender sent a trained hostage negotiator to represent it, which seems a bit extreme, even for a financial matter. It turns out Colm Church, a former top detective who investigated gangland figures such as Martin Cahill, was lobbying on behalf St Raphael’s Garda credit union.
His successor, Francesca McDonagh, takes charge on Monday and it will be interesting to see what changes she makes, beyond rearranging the furniture in Boucher’s old office.
Separately, experienced communications executive Anne Mathews will depart today after 16 years with the bank, latterly working on special projects. Mathews plans to take a bit of time out in her pied-à-terre in the south of France before seeking a new role back home. La belle vie!
And now for the latest news from Islamabad. Former cricketer-turned politician, Imran Khan, is currently embroiled in a scandal over revelations that his family used offshore accounts.
Interest has narrowed on a slew of historical transactions, including one £560,000 payment that travelled from an account in Jersey in 2003 to an account controlled by his ex-wife, Jemima Khan (now Goldsmith).
And where, you might wonder, did Jemima keep her twine? Anglo Irish Bank, where else.
Finally, Marketing magazine editor, Michael Cullen, has launched a new book of gags, Heard it Say. It’s stuffed full of one-liners and witticisms, and is worth a look. This one will not go down too well in west Dublin: