Failing to root out corruption

 

THE “MISUSE of entrusted power for private gain”. On some such definitions of corruption Ireland scores relatively well, according to yesterday’s report by Transparency International. Petty corruption through bribery is rare, it finds, while the grand corruption revealed by media and investigated by tribunals no longer poses a major threat to the integrity of the State. But it is not the same with “legal corruption”, in which personal relationships, patronage, political favours and political donations are believed to influence decisions and policy even if no laws are broken, compounded by a lack of transparency in political funding and lobbying.

In recent international surveys Ireland is perceived as suffering from relatively high levels of such informal misuses of power. That perception matters all the more after the collapse of the property boom dragged down the banking system and revealed how ineffective has been the light-touch regulatory system. As a result this State’s reputation for public probity and visible regulation badly needs to be restored if the labels of crony capitalism and endemic political clientelism are not to become indelible. The report audits the strengths and weaknesses of Ireland’s institutional protections against corruption very well. It should inspire debate on what reforms are needed to bolster those defences.

Thus formal safeguards such as a well-defined separation of powers, independent judiciary, media and ombudsman functions, meritocratic appointment systems and anti-corruption peer reviewing are in place and functioning satisfactorily. Alongside that, however, the tradition of self-regulation and informal crisis-response to corruption allegations in the public service, professions, civil society and business continues. There is notoriously weak enforcement of regulation in business and financial affairs, with no clear statistics available on prosecutions. Whistleblower safeguards to protect those reporting corruption are weak or non-existent. And freedom of information legislation has been significantly weakened and made more expensive.

These are telling criticisms of our political culture. They are reinforced by the comparative strength of the executive in our system of government, including rights of appointment to public bodies usually advertised in other countries. Public procurement contracting is vulnerable to corruption, as is local authority planning. Only seven out of 34 local authorities have fraud and corruption plans in place. At national level the report quite correctly argues that funding of political parties is open to abuse with only a small proportion of their income subject to proper scrutiny. Political parties are not required to publish accounts, and political lobbying is entirely unregulated. Formal political oversight of whatever codes of conduct are in place is weak and muddled. Most media lack anti-bribery policies.

The Transparency International report offers a timely critique of these shortcomings and should be a wake-up call to repair them. Public anger over the management of our political and economic affairs demands this be so.