Irish political lobbying: who's who and how does it work?

 

As political lobbying reaches a new low in the UK, who are the Irish lobbyists, who do they target, and would setting up a register remove the slightly unsavoury association many people have with the practice? asks HARRY McGEEPolitical Correspondent

THE IMAGE MOST people have of a lobbyist would not be a million miles away from Nick Naylor, the silken, charming and utterly immoral lobbyist for the tobacco industry in the movie Thank You for Smoking.

In his moment of self-realisation, he says: “Right there, looking into [my son’s] eyes, it all came back in a rush. Why I do what I do. Defending the defenceless, protecting the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger; the sweatshop foreman; the oil driller; the landmine developer; the baby seal culler.”

Naylor may be a caricature but the notion isn’t new that there’s something slightly unsavoury about exerting political influence through lobbying.

Every so often, a scandal comes along that seems to confirm that view. In the US, there was the venally corrupt Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist representing Native American tribes who spent millions on illegal gifts and campaign donations.

At home, there was Frank Dunlop who made corrupt payments to councillors in return for support for developers on land rezonings.

This week, there was a new reminder when, in the UK, three former Labour ministers were secretly filmed showing apparent readiness to help an American lobbying firm in return for cash. The footage of one of them, Stephen Byers, was particularly embarrassing. His comments were pure Nick Naylor: “I’m like a cab for hire – for up to £5,000 a day,” he said.

SO, HOW VULNERABLEis politics to manipulation by vested interests? And is lobbying as prevalent in Ireland as in the US and the UK? Just who are the lobbyists and is there a need to register them?

The current Programme for Government, agreed last October, commits the Fianna Fáil and Green coalition to establishing a register for lobbyists, a promise that was first made by Fianna Fáil a decade ago and may well take another decade to become a reality.

Lobbyists in Ireland can be divided into two groups. The first group comprises professional lobbyists, who number about 20. None is a full-time lobbyist but they tend to be “public affairs” specialists in the bigger public relations companies. Many of those who are involved in this area are former TDs (Liz O’Donnell, Jim Glennon, Alan Dukes); former government insiders (Martin Mackin and Jackie Gallagher of Q4, and PJ Mara) or former journalists (Michael Keane of Insight Consultants, Mark Brennock of Murray Consultants, Fintan Drury of Drury Communications).

The second group comprises full-time employees of big organisations who specifically target decision-makers in their field of interest.

They include private companies; semi-states such as ESB and CIÉ; professional groups such as the chambers of commerce and the Law Society; trade unions; interest groups such as the IFA; and NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Social Justice Ireland (formally CORI).

Access and influence are the key phrases. But access is a given in Ireland. “It’s a small country, and politics is clientilist,” says one specialist. “You have no trouble meeting the right person.” Says another: “The access thing is over-rated. If it’s a client of any significant size they will get access. Some will say ‘I was involved in this party or that party and can get you access.’ That is rubbish.”

Nor is it necessary to get access to a minister. According to Michael Keane: “You often don’t go to politicians but officials, a principal officer or assistant secretary with responsibility in the area. If you can’t persuade them, you won’t persuade the minister. It is very rare for a minister to go against advice completely.”

Mark Brennock makes a similar point. “Many business people don’t know how politics works. What we bring is a knowledge of how government works, knowing which department to go to and which people to go to. For example, this is the principal officer that deals with the area. Where we have succeeded it’s because it was a good case in the first instance that was presented well to the right people.”

The former Fianna Fáil TD Jim Glennon, now chairman of Edelman PR outlines the modus operandi: “Looked at it in the broadest sense, it is communication. How do you communicate the message to [a decision-maker]? Will it be on TV, or beating a drum, or knocking gently on the door, or buttonholing him in the [local pub]?” Glennon says that the lobbyist does privately what the TD does publicly. “I privatised myself and what I was doing as a TD. As a result you do very few potholes but far more things at the business end of politics.”

There is no doubt but that lobbying is a growing industry. Long-established in the US (the First Amendment recognised the “right to petition”), lobbying there is aligned to (substantial) campaign funding and is still regarded in some quarters as opaque, and unaccountable.

Lobbying has also burgeoned in the UK, and at the EU in Brussels over the past two decades. Both are now multi-billion euro industries employing tens of thousands of people. In Ireland, the growth has been steady but less spectacular.

ALL THE MAJOR PRfirms now have public affairs divisions, and other agencies and NGOs have sophisticated lobbying departments. A cursory glance through the latest Irish Farmers Association (IFA) newsletter published this week shows at least 10 separate photos of the association lobbying decision-makers at the highest level; including the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, two other Government ministers, the Fine Gael leader and the Irish EU Commissioner.

According to its spokesman: “As far as the IFA is concerned, it’s a membership organisation looking after the interests of 87,000 members. The positions and views we take are very clear-cut and are no secret. It’s different for other people who take on clients. We represent the largest indigenous sector in the country and that is what we do. We have nothing to hide.”

The nearest thing to a doyen in the industry is PJ Mara, the colourful former government press secretary, who has represented Denis O’Brien’s companies and other clients in recent years. He says that some myths have grown up about the power of lobbyists. “My feeling after 20 years is that the ability of professional lobbyists to influence change in government policy or legislation is very much over-estimated,” is his verdict.

Another myth, says Michael Keane, is that lobbying in Ireland somehow involves slightly unsavoury practices. “It has an image of being sinister. It’s not sinister. I am quite open about the fact that I would never engage in anything that is unethical. No single cause would be worth losing your reputation or integrity.”

Contrary to the common view that lobbyists don’t like registrations, all of those contacted expressed support for a register. “In most cases there’s nothing secret about what a business or sector is looking for,” says Brennock. “If a register brings transparency, that’s great at a time when there’s a suspicion of politics and business in some quarters.”

But it begs the question, who is a lobbyist? Does a register include only professional paid-for PR people or those within organisations? And will it just identify the lobbyists or the organisations, or state the area of interest, or even what politicians or legislation they have worked on? Glennon says that, like everything else, the devil will be in the detail. The best two lobbyists of all, Keane points out, have been “the GAA and the IFA. Do you make them subject also?”

Prof Gary Murphy, senior lecturer in government at DCU, placed the argument in the context of transparency in an article for this paper last year. “[A register] allows citizens to see what lobby groups are doing and to whom in Government they are talking.” Another factor that needs to be considered is the mismatch that sometimes emerges between those who can afford to mount a professional lobbying campaign and those who are too poor or marginalised to do so.

Since the mid-1990s, stricter ethical requirements have been introduced for those who are lobbied (ie politicians) who now must furnish statements of donations, make declarations of interests and adhere to codes of conduct for office holders.

But so far, there have been no moves to register lobbyists. According to sources, the growing preference within Government is for a voluntary register. Fine Gael’s New Politics calls for legislation to set up a compulsory register. The Labour Party has similar plans. But like Seanad reform, what is commendable can also be eternally amendable. It’s unlikely to become a reality any time soon.