Ethics for politicians

 

THE WORK of tribunals has swept away a pretence that corruption does not infiltrate many aspects of Irish life. Despite that, Fianna Fáil-led governments have been reluctant to implement the legislative changes required to identify and penalise offenders. It has been a case of hurrying very slowly to confront cases of bribery, corruption and white-collar crime and to implement the ethical reforms recommended by the Standards in Public Office Commission. There is, as the commission noted this week, no clear signal from Government that wrongdoing will not be tolerated.

A Whistleblowers Bill was promised in the 1999 programme for government but was quietly dropped seven years later. That coincided with a commitment to pass EU-based legislation to protect whistleblowers. The resulting 2008 Prevention of Corruption Bill, providing limited protection, is still stuck in the Seanad. And Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern is now talking about drafting new and more effective legislation following legal advice and public debate. The commission is completely justified in calling for whistleblowers to be encouraged and protected in such circumstances.

Political and administrative corruption rots society from the inside. It has to be confronted. Ethical legislation concentrates on possible conflicts of interest in decision-taking and, as a safeguard against corruption, requires elected representatives and public officials to disclose their “registrable interests” in terms of property, investments and employment. Now that Anglo Irish Bank has been taken into public ownership and Nama established, the commission has recommended that politicians and officials directly involved in decisions affecting those agencies should make disclose their liabilities, such as loans and mortgages, above a certain threshold.

Many TDs and Senators regard the existing “disclosure of interests” requirement as being unnecessarily intrusive. The addition of a “liabilities” obligation would not be welcome. But, by seeking public office, politicians have chosen to be different. Ethics legislation was designed to ensure probity and transparency in public life and to minimise corruption. As economic circumstances change and the State becomes deeply enmeshed in banking, property rescues and multibillion euro decisions, further protections may be required for the public purse. An open debate on this matter, led by Government, is the least that is required.

It is not just Fianna Fáil that has behaved badly over ethical legislation and transparency. Because political donations below a certain limit do not have to be disclosed to the commission, such sums are commonly requested. The commission also suspects that large donations may be split up into small amounts to avoid disclosure. Last year, when local, European and byelections were held, not a single donation was publicly recorded by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party. This is a disgrace. Ethical standards and political funding mechanisms require fundamental reform.