A question of trust

Politics needs to redeem the way it does business

Restoring trust in politics is the great challenge currently facing all western democracies and this State is no exception. A year ago, voters elected 33 TDs who were either Independents or members of small fringe parties despite warnings that such a large number of TDs from outside the mainstream could make formation of a stable government impossible.

The two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, managed to come up with a formula to put a government in place but there is no evidence in the meantime of any restoration of trust in mainstream politicians. In the 2017 Ipsos MRBI Trust in the Professions Survey, only 21 per cent of the Irish public say they trust politicians, the lowest of all occupations measured. For the record, the comparable figure for journalists is 42 per cent.

Against this background, two episodes in the past few days are pertinent. One was the revelation that Fine Gael Ministers have been urged by the party’s general secretary Tom Curran to hold more fundraising events to generate cash for the party to fight a snap general election. Mr Curran told Ministers: “There will have to be a few more breakfasts with Noonan and lunches with Leo.”

Admittedly, fundraising through social events involving ministers has always been a feature of politics here and in other democracies but it creates a sense of unease that some people may be able to get an unfair advantage through access to ministers. Former tánaiste Joan Burton, who was in government up to a year ago, provoked the ire of Taoiseach Enda Kenny by claiming in the Dáil that this was “cash for access, no more and no less and it is utterly wrong”. Mr Kenny pointed out Labour had held similar events in the past and, in truth, all of the parties in the Dáil have done so when in government.


The funds raised at such events and the donors have to be declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission and there is far more transparency than before. But that doesn’t allay suspicions that such events provide an unsavoury conduit for business interests to senior ministers.

An entirely different event that goes to the heart of trust in politics – and the need for politicians to put the public interest first – was the use of Dáil privilege by Labour leader Brendan Howlin to repeat allegations against Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan. Mr Howlin has done the State some service in the past by using such privilege to ventilate abuse of Garda power. As a commission of investigation is being put in place into the claims against Ms O'Sullivan, however, there is no obvious justification, as matters stand, for doing so in this case.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl intervened to prevent Mr Howlin going further but, as a first step, the Dáil needs an enforceable code to prevent the increasingly frequent abuse of privilege. The declining reputation of politics demands it.