Colum Kenny: If there is a will there is a way to reform corrupt politics

The good news is that a solution is simple, involving two steps to restore confidence

Minister Coveney, a possible future Taoiseach, protested on Tuesday that there have been “a lot of changes to try and stamp out corruption.” Ministers do sound like Irish Catholic bishops, satisfied by their own assurances yet never quite convincing others that things have changed enough. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Minister Coveney, a possible future Taoiseach, protested on Tuesday that there have been “a lot of changes to try and stamp out corruption.” Ministers do sound like Irish Catholic bishops, satisfied by their own assurances yet never quite convincing others that things have changed enough. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Bad language, cynicism and despair are not the best responses to RTE’s exposé of local government. But they are understandable. Living in Ireland can feel like being trapped in a cage with a baboon. Groundhog Day has nothing on it.

The best response is actual change, and that can happen quickly if the government wishes. A senior minister said on Tuesday that he is “furious” about the behaviour of some councillors. Don’t get mad, Minister Coveney, -get even.

Any aspiring private company, faced with reputational damage and evidence of apparent financial malpractice such as RTE unearthed about Irish politics, could not and would not wait until after the next general election to put it right.

And the good news is that a solution is simple, involving two steps to restore confidence. If most politicians are really not “at it”, in any way, then they can prove so rather than assert it.

The first step involves each political party instructing each deputy, senator and councillor to complete a new declaration of interests now. Anyone failing to do so within ten days should be expelled. The parties should then publish the declarations online.

Councillors must be told to include all direct or indirect financial and property interests, present and pending. It was claimed last week that councillors did not know that the requirement to declare “any estate or interest the person concerned has in land” included the house they live in!

The second step to reform is the passage of emergency legislation creating an effective and fully staffed corruption regulator, and transferring to it responsibility for setting and enforcing standards in all public offices.

That could be done before a general election if the Oireachtas wishes. It’s clear what’s needed. And if drafting a bill currently takes too long and tends to leave loopholes then hire in efficient help. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

The Oireachtas should now allocate a budget for thirty tough investigators, and allow them to work also at the office of corporate enforcement and at the Garda fraud squad if they find that they have not enough to do otherwise.

All else is hot air. If the Oireachtas cannot act promptly on a matter of public interest, it demonstrates what is wrong with Irish politics. Get the finger out. Have Transparency Ireland endorse the final bill.

Or can we not afford to police corruption? Other media last week revealed vital health services broken down, again. Citizens are discovering the true cost of throwing sixty billion euros at the banks. Yet what does “recovery” mean if corruption flourishes, squandering resources and compromising official decisions?

Already the spinning is in full gear. A government that failed to deliver substantially on structural reforms that it promised, and on changes that its own Constitutional Convention proposed is again talking of deferred action, -after a general election.

It has run three botched constitutional referenda, on the Oireachtas Committee system, the Seanad and the presidency, with real reform being set back by incompetent conceptualization and canvassing. Someone should be sacked.

Bleating by councillors about how difficult it is to understand declaration forms is a measure of expectations in Irish public life.

Just as worrying is Minister Simon Coveney describing the reported failure by two out of every five councillors to complete declaration forms “a separate issue to corruption.” In fact it is at the heart of a system that facilitates corruption, because those who play the lax system best are those who gain most by its weakness.

Some have complained that RTE “entrapped” people. Paid councillors are not teenagers being tempted by a police agent waving pot in their faces. We need grown-up law for grown-up politics.

But legal “complexities” surface as usual when power is threatened, in a country where the constitution often appears to be the last refuge of the scoundrel.

It should be a strict offence not to complete a declaration fully, like driving over the speed limit is. And convicted councillors should be fined and excuded from office. It’s not rocket science.

Minister Coveney, a possible future Taoiseach, protested on Tuesday that there have been “a lot of changes to try and stamp out corruption.” Ministers do sound like Irish Catholic bishops, satisfied by their own assurances yet never quite convincing others that things have changed enough.

In sixty minutes last week RTE revealed more about Irish society than the Oireachtas banking inquiry is likely to reveal after six months, and at a far lower cost. That inquiry is telling us what we already knew. It was left once again to journalists to tell us what we did not.

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