Corruption at every level

 

FIFTEEN YEARS after it was first established under Mr Justice Feargus Flood, the Mahon tribunal into planning matters has at last produced its final report.

It has assiduously charted systemic corruption at every level of Irish politics and at the core of the planning process. And it has rejected much of the evidence given to it by former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, declaring that he failed to “truthfully account” for more than IR£165,000 that passed through bank accounts connected to him while in office as minister for finance. Because of Mr Ahern’s failure to give a true account of the source of the money, the tribunal was unable to determine whether he received corrupt payments from property developer Owen O’Callaghan.

Mr Ahern will be deeply unhappy that the findings of this report fail to clear him of the suspicion of corruption. The findings represent the nadir of a remarkable political career that included important achievements for his country, notably in the peace process. Given the change in economic circumstances over the last few years, they will also form a fundamental part of his legacy.

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OTHER FORMER politicians received at least as damning a verdict from the tribunal. It found that former minister and EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn corruptly sought a donation from developer Tom Gilmartin. When the latter gave Mr Flynn IR£50,000 for Fianna Fáil, Mr Flynn used the money for his own benefit.

The late Liam Lawlor was found to have corruptly sold his expertise, knowledge and influence as a councillor and TD. Requests by former taoiseach Albert Reynolds for substantial donations to Fianna Fáil are described as “an abuse of political power and government authority”. Fine Gael politicians were also found to have accepted corrupt payments. Indeed, the tribunal concludes corruption in Irish political life was endemic and systemic, affecting every level of government.

The cost and duration of the tribunal have been controversial but this report demonstrates that, despite its flawed structure, they were warranted. The only sanction that the rich and powerful fear is exposure. People in high places seldom go to jail. It is worth noting that the cost and time taken to complete it are a reflection of the extraordinary efforts made to frustrate its work. These not only involved legal challenges but what the report describes as “extraordinary and unprecedented attacks” on its integrity by senior government ministers when it was inquiring into matters relating to Mr Ahern.

As for this newspaper’s role in these events, The Irish Times held, and still holds, the view that payments to Mr Ahern for purposes other than planning might not fall within the terms of reference of this tribunal. It was a matter of public interest that Colm Keena’s story be published, that the unexplained payments to Mr Ahern should be put into the public domain, and that sources should be protected.

On the planning process at local and national level, the tribunal’s recommendations are directed to ensure a much greater degree of accountability. As its report says, “corruption thrives in shadows and darkness. Consequently anti-corruption measures must focus on ensuring transparency and accountability in public life”. But despite “enormous changes” in the planning system since 1997, the tribunal wants to plug gaps by placing both the National Development Plan and the National Spatial Strategy on a statutory footing, having members of “relatively invisible” regional authorities directly elected, and requiring local councillors to “state their reasons” for land rezoning decisions made against the advice of professional planners. Further, it recommends that both this advice and those reasons should be sent to An Bord Pleanála, which should have a power of veto.

The tribunal expresses concern that power is over-centralised in the hands of the Minister for the Environment in giving directions under the Planning Acts to regional and local authorities. It proposes that this should be entrusted instead to a new planning regulator, who would also have an oversight role in relation to enforcing planning regulations and, more importantly, the power to investigate “possible systemic problems” in the system, “including those raising corruption risks”. Jan O’Sullivan, Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, said yesterday she was “adamant that no ambiguity can be allowed to exist” regarding the roles of the Minister or local councillors, and the recommendations would inform her thinking in proposing reforms. And so, indeed, they should.

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ALTHOUGH THE tribunal’s inquiries focused on corruption in planning, it offers recommendations on other areas too. The report calls for stronger measures to ensure disclosure and regulation of conflicts of interest; stricter limits on political donations; registration and regulation of professional lobbyists; tougher legislation on bribery and corruption; and new measures to protect whistleblowers.

The Government’s decision to refer the report to the Garda Commissioner, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Revenue Commissioners and to the Standards in Public Office Commission is welcome. But it should also act quickly to strengthen the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in tackling corruption.

Tribunal evidence over many years catalogued the bribery of politicians but that did not lead to the conviction of a single developer or businessman. A succession of ministers were shown to have benefited from blatantly unethical – if not corrupt – payments. Intense vigilance may inhibit such behaviour. But, in the absence of an effective criminal justice system and penal sanctions, commercial interests will continue to offer bribes.