Irish politics big on perks, but what of values?

 

How can we accept Ceann Comhairle’s moral authority when he defends behaviour only on legal grounds?

‘POLITICAL CULTURE is the set of values within which a system operates,” read my first lecture slide to my first Irish politics class last week. Over the next year, I will be teaching 100 or so Trinity College Dublin students about Irish political parties, the electoral system, the role of the Dáil, policy-making and so forth. But right now I teach them about Irish political culture.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the body tasked to reform the expenses of deputies and Senators, meets tomorrow, about two minutes’ walk from our lecture theatre.

John O’Donoghue, chairman of that same commission, is very welcome to address my class of 20-year-olds and explain to them his definition of values that justified a political culture awash with five-star hotels, chauffeur-driven cars on stand-by, Michelin-starred restaurants and official trips with his wife that coincided with prestigious race meetings at Longchamp, Chantilly and Sandown.

“All of the costs so incurred and paid were in compliance with the Department of Finance guidelines,” O’Donoghue stated in his qualified apology last month. That translates as a legal justification for his behaviour without any recognition for moral responsibility for his actions.

O’Donoghue is not like any other politician. As Ceann Comhairle, he holds the fourth highest political office in Ireland, after the President, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.

The technical arithmetic of the Dáil means that the Opposition benches now have 82 votes to the Government’s 82. The casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle may be needed to prevent Dáil deadlock. This is not a time for the integrity of the Ceann Comhairle’s office to be under intense scrutiny.

The next few months require his moral authority to chair Dáil debate that will introduce the most austere budget measures in the history of this State. But how can we accept this moral authority when he has chosen to defend his extravagances, courtesy of the taxpayer, solely on legal grounds? Finite distinctions between legal and moral requirements belong to a political culture distinguished by tribunal investigations.

My students are part of a generation that makes up two-thirds of the Irish population under 44 years of age. Of the 440,000 people on the Live Register, almost a quarter are under 25. We have lost confidence in an Irish public life that limits itself to legislative obligations rather than public expectations of unambiguous accountability and the promotion of the public trust.

In a statement yesterday evening, O’Donoghue said tomorrow he would make “detailed proposals” to the Oireachtas Commission regarding his expenses. Any such proposals would answer these four questions:

1. The expenses revealed to date arise from the budgets of the Department for Arts, Sport and Tourism and the Ceann Comhairle’s office. Will O’Donoghue lay before the Dáil his full package of expenses that also includes those from the budgets of semi-State bodies such as Fáilte Ireland, the Racing Board, the Film Board and any other such agencies?

2. In the interests of complete transparency, it would be instructive if O’Donoghue published the minutes of his meetings with parliamentarians in London and Paris that coincided with the French Derby, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Sandown winter festival of racing.

3. Will the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission publish the letter of resignation from the chairman of its audit committee, Tom O’Higgins, who resigned last month in frustration at the non-co-operation of the commission for his reform proposals on vouched expenses for TDs and Senators?

4. According to section 1.17 of the Cabinet handbook on the participation of spouses/partners on State visits, Ministers must “consult the Taoiseach in advance on the matter. Expenses in respect of a spouse/partner will not be charged to public funds in any particular case unless the Taoiseach is satisfied that, in the circumstances, this is warranted.” Did O’Donoghue consult the Taoiseach and, if so, was the Taoiseach satisfied that all such expenses were warranted?

The Green Party’s special convention on Saturday will determine whether the party continues to participate in government. A letter has been circulated to party activists by a prominent Green member that outlines in great detail how O’Donoghue has “breached the standards of conduct and integrity” within the Ethics in Public Office Act.

If the Greens are serious about introducing real reform through a renewed programme for government, they must meaningfully challenge a political culture that has utterly debased political authority.

This includes reforming unvouched expenses for TDs and Senators, abolishing the secrecy of political funding, introducing regulation for political lobbyists, establishing whistleblowers’ legislation, allowing the Standards in Public Office Commission to launch its own investigations, addressing the limits in Freedom of Information legislation and putting an end to undue political interference in appointing members of boards, public bodies and the judiciary. Incidentally, Ireland remains one of the few countries that has signed but not ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption.

Such legislation is pointless unless accompanied by an acceptance that political culture too must change.

It is disappointing then that Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny waited two months before they made a serious intervention on the O’Donoghue controversy.

O’Donoghue may have to “consider his position”, Kenny said yesterday, while Gilmore has called for a meeting of all party leaders to discuss the matter. Radical, huh?

Their restrained reaction to ethical question mark over a fellow politician has been in marked contrast to demands for the resignations of former Fás director general Rody Molloy, former financial regulator Pat Neary and the heads and boards of our banks.

That O’Donoghue is regarded as a good Ceann Comhairle and a nice man is irrelevant when his position as chairman of the Oireachtas Commission to reform political expenses constitutes a direct conflict of interest, when he remains at the heart of the reasons why expenses need to be reformed. And, by the way, one member in five of the Oireachtas employs a close relative.

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