Inside Ireland’s powerful lobbying industry

Many former political advisers now lobby for influence on issues such as drink legislation

 

In early 1995, the ruling “rainbow” government brought in a new law to lower the drink-driving limit from two drinks to one.

The reaction from pub owners was incendiary. More than 10,000 rural publicans marched on the Dáil claiming the new limits would force smaller pubs – with no public transport connections – out of business.

The campaign was organised by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, then one of the country’s most powerful lobbying outfits. The protest did not stop at the gates of the Dáil. Hundreds of publicans cajoled their local TDs and senators into giving them day passes into Leinster House.

The corridors of parliament buildings were stuffed with publicans and such was the crush that it was the only day in living memory that the Dáil bar had to close. 

“The vintners virtually overran the Dáil on the day the legislation went through. You could not really move, it was that packed,” recalls former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey. 

Labour leader Brendan Howlin was the minister for the environment in that government and was responsible for the Bill.

“There was an invasion of Leinster House. I could not leave my office for if I had I would certainly have been subject to some face-to-face lobbying,” he says.

Another alcohol-related Bill that’s slowly making its way through the Oireachtas at present has also been subject to intensive lobbying over the past year.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill aims to dramatically reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland by 2020. Its far-reaching proposals include minimum unit pricing (to prevent cheap alcohol sales); changed labelling of alcohol to include calories and health warnings; regulation of advertising and sponsorship; and the strict separation of alcohol products in retail outlets.

Drinks industry

It was published almost two years ago but its progress was halted in the Seanad last winter. In a reprise of 1995, Senators were intensely lobbied by the drinks industry, and by shop owners who were concerned that a requirement to separate the alcohol section from the rest of the store would place onerous costs on them. The then minister of state Marcella Corcoran Kennedy tried to keep it on course but encountered strong head-winds, and the Bill was kicked to touch.

Over the summer, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (who introduced it when he was minister for health) and Simon Harris pledged the Bill would pass.

Anti-alcohol campaigners suspect that the campaign against physical separation of alcohol products was the first of many fronts of attack by a huge industry protecting its profits. The end game, they say, is to dilute the Bill significantly.

It’s clear from a trawl of the lobbying register that the activity over this Bill has been intense and has involved massive expenditure.

There have been more than 70 returns of lobbying this year, with the business lobby Ibec most prominent with seven. Most of the 220 TDs and Senators, as well as just about every ministerial adviser, have been lobbied (often by former colleagues in Government) by a team of Ibec officials. Others including big and small retailers, the advertising industry, individual alcohol companies and media companies have all got in on the act.

What is also evident from the register is the close connections between politicians and their advisers on the one hand, and those who lobby them. At least 10 of those lobbying around alcohol at this moment are former government advisers, or Oireachtas members, who were colleagues of those they lobby. Most are associated with the alcohol industry but one or two are on the other side – working for health organisations such as the Irish Cancer Society and the Children’s Rights Alliance. They want the Bill to be implemented in full.

Consultants and advisers

The Ibec lobbyists – through its Alcohol and Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) – include Ross Mac Mathúna, the special adviser to Simon Coveney when he was minister for agriculture. There is also Lorraine Hall, ex-special adviser to Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys and former minister for justice Alan Shatter.

The head of Ibec’s Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) is William Lavelle, who was special adviser to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald until 2014. He is also a councillor on South Dublin County Council.

Ciaran Conlon, a former special adviser to Minister for Education Richard Bruton and director of publicity for Fine Gael, is now a consultant with MKC communications and has lobbied around the Bill on behalf of a client called Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland. In doing so, Conlon has spoken to former Fine Gael colleagues and special advisers, who would once have worked alongside him.

Is there a conflict inherent in that? No, he says.

“We work in a professional environment. I hope that I approached my work professionally when I was in government and outside government as well.”

Conlon also points out that the register clearly states he was formerly a designated public official and that his returns always disclose all his contacts and the subject matter. “It is completely transparent,” he says.

But does not his status as a former senior adviser in government carry a certain weight? Invariably yes, he accepts, because he knows and understands how government works.

DrinkAware is a not-for-profit organisation whose activities are funded by alcohol companies and large retailers with the aim of getting people to drink more responsibly. Former Fine Gael TD Dr Liam Twomey is its medical director and its chief executive is another figure closely connected with politics, Niamh Gallagher, the co-founder of Women for Election.

Martin Mackin, a former secretary general of Fianna Fáil, is a founder of PR company Q4 which also works on behalf of Ibec’s ABFI on the Bill. In addition, Imelda Henry, a Fine Gael senator until last year, now has a consultancy firm and she has been active lobbying on behalf of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland on the alcohol Bill.However, she has been arguing for full implementation of the Bill.

Vulnerable cohorts

There have been a lot of changes since 1995. For example, the other side of the argument (health advocates) have become more organised. The organisations are health-focused or represent cohorts vulnerable to excessive drinking and its effects (youth and children’s organisations).

Despite smaller resources, they too have become professional and organised in their approach to lobbying. It is clear from their returns that they have ease of access to brief senior Ministers and officials. Among the lobbyists are some former advisers and politicians, including Siobhán Creaton of the Royal College of Physicians (a former special adviser in education) and former senator Jillian van Turnhout.

Last week, Ibec head Danny McCoy complained that representatives of the alcohol business were deemed to be lobbyists but public health lobbyists were described as advocates. He argued that ascribing “virtue” to different parties had no role to play. Despite McCoy’s protests, there is a clear distinction. One is aimed at protecting pecuniary interests (and profits) while the other is not.

There has always been a degree of clientelism to Irish politics. Access to politicians, even taoisigh, is much easier than in most other European countries. That said, a lobbying industry has grown up primarily to deal with more structured, long-term, complex and bigger matters.

The late Michael Keane, a former newspaper editor and PR executive, believed having the ear of politicians was over-rated.

“You often don’t go to politicians but officials, a principal officer or assistant secretary with responsibility in the area,” he said. “If you can’t persuade them you won’t persuade the Minister. It is very rare for a Minister to go against advice completely.”

Farming voice

When you talk to politicians, they point to some groups as being especially effective. None are more so for rural TDs than the Irish Farmers’ Association. Its public affairs activities extend not only to Dublin but to Brussels and beyond.  

“I have a very vivid memory of one incident in particular,” recalls former Fianna Fáil TD Tom Kitt. “I was minister for international trade at a world conference on trade in Seattle. I got a land when I saw Tom Parlon there lobbying for the IFA [he was president of the association then]. He was over there effectively marking every move I made.”

Some public campaigns were clever and successful. Dempsey recalls the “scrappage scheme” which came on the back of lobbying by the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI). “It worked out for everybody . . . SIMI argued the figures showed that, far from being being a loss to the exchequer, revenues would increase. That’s what happened.”

The purpose of lobbying is to influence, to sway opinion, to argue for a particular point of view. There is always an element of self-interest in it. Sometimes that coincides with the public good. Sometimes not.

There were too many instances in the past of powerful groups successfully railroading their interests through. The watershed was the ban on smoking in public spaces, including pubs,introduced by Micheál Martin. The vintners threw everything at it. But so did the then government. 

Another big step-change came in the last government – the register of lobbying. Sherry Perreault is head of lobbying regulation at the Standards in Public Office Commission. She says the introduction of the register has improved transparency, with nearly 1,675 registrants and 17,579 returns on the system so far. She believes the number of registered lobbying organisations is close to a peak.

The register idea came from Howlin, the politician who had been trapped in his room by the vintners in the 1990s. Howlin’s reputation as a reforming minister in that coalition has perhaps not been given its full due.

“I am the first to defend lobbying. But there is a balance to be struck between the legitimate right of every citizen to have their vote heard and the rights of others to know of that,” he says.

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