THE MAHON tribunal’s many recommendations on ways to defeat corruption are almost as important as the stark findings outlined in its 3,270 page report. The tribunal judges spent some 15 years examining bribery and political corruption in the planning process in Dublin. That chastening experience left them uniquely well qualified to advise on how best to counter the culture of corruption – the abuse of public power for private gain – that has tainted Irish politics.
For evil to prevail it is sufficient for good men to do nothing. The words of Edmund Burke in the 18th century are no less relevant today. For too long, good men at all levels in political parties – most notably Fianna Fáil – have done too little. Tolerance of low standards in public life allowed the evil of corruption to take root and to prevail. Public confidence in politicians has weakened sharply. A recent Eurobarometer poll showed how much damage this corruption culture has already caused. Two thirds of respondents said they believed that bribe taking by politicians at national level was “widespread”. In truth, the vast majority of politicians are people of integrity, motivated by a sense of civic duty and a commitment to public service. Corruption in Ireland is not rife. In politics, however, public perception is reality. And the public view of the scale of the corruption problem is a measure of the challenge that politicians face in solving it, and regaining the public’s confidence.
The tribunal has outlined its proposed measures to help accelerate the reform process. These include tough sanctions on Oireachtas members who are convicted of bribery offences – such as banning them from holding public office and removing their pension rights. It also favours stiffer penalties for those who pay bribes. And it recommends tightening the rules on political donations, with greater public disclosure of financial contributions made to political parties. Some of the tribunal’s proposals are already covered or envisaged by the Government’s planned legislation for the regulation of lobbyists and the reform of political funding.
Legislation will provide part of the solution to the corruption problem. But clear and strong political leadership is also needed. In that regard Taoiseach Enda Kenny is best placed to lead by example, and not just by exhortation. He can, and should, do so in two ways. The first is to avoid sharing public platforms with those – such as businessman Denis O’Brien, a major Fine Gael donor, with whom he appeared at an event in New York last week – whose conduct has been heavily criticised by a tribunal. The Moriarty report found then minister for communications Michael Lowry had “secured the winning” of the mobile phone competition for Esat Digifone, Mr O’Brien’s company. That tribunal also found Mr O’Brien had made substantial payments in “clandestine circumstances” to Mr Lowry – a finding that Mr O’Brien has rejected. And the second way is for the Government to implement fully the Mahon tribunal’s recommendations. Failure to do so, the tribunal has warned, will “undermine the value of the work which it has accomplished”.