Holding parties to account

The Standards in Public Office Commission is one of the least-loved State bodies. Its job is to supervise and enforce the provisions of the Ethics in Public Office Acts and, insofar as possible, ensure that politicians, public servants and political parties do not abuse their positions for financial gain. It keeps a close check on political donations and spending at election time and publishes its findings. Now, it is asking political parties to provide detailed, audited accounts on where they get their money and how they spend it.

Parties and the public have until next month to comment on proposed guidelines on keeping proper books and accounts. If adopted, the format will provide detailed information on the financial health of all political parties and their sources of funding. Such information has been a closely guarded secret up until now. In addition, donation limits for individual politicians and political parties were recently reduced under new legislation. What is happening is a democratisation of political funding. With corporate donations all but banned, parties will be forced to seek smaller donations from a much larger group of subscribers in order to compete. State funding for parties is due to fall.

Relations between the Commission and successive governments led by Fianna Fail have been particularly fraught. But the main political parties have all circumvented the spirit of the law in declaring the amount of donations received. Only three elected representatives acknowledged a donation last year, while the political parties returned a combined total of €33,600 in declared income. State funding - which could not be hidden - amounted to €13m.

Persistent representations by the Commission concerning this systemic abuse have been ignored. So was its recommendation that spending limits should not be confined to the actual election campaign, as parties were actively involved for months in advance. It was also refused permission to initiate investigations into allegations of illegal or improper behaviour by TDs and Senators. Not much has changed on those fronts. But a sixty per cent reduction in the size of permissible donations, along with full disclosure of party accounts, offers hope for future progress.

Efforts to raise standards of ethical behaviour in Irish politics have been disappointing. Progress was only achieved because of public outrage over a succession of political and financial scandals. Abuses of power led to the Ethics in Public Office Act of 1995. The McCracken, Flood and Moriarty tribunals identified widespread corruption in politics and public life and brought the Standards in Public Office Commission in 2001. Three years later, Commission chairman Mr Justice Smith warned that its establishment did not provide a guarantee against future abuses. That caution remains valid today.