Is our Republic corrupt? Graft is the cancer that can derail and destroy

Whatever the answer, we can’t afford to ignore public perceptions of corruption and avarice

Ireland is perceived to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world. At least that’s what the influential Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), published by Transparency International today, tells us.

The index, which draws from the findings of up to 13 international sources, gives Ireland a score of 7.4 out of 10, placing it in joint 13th* position out of 180 countries this year. It has consistently been ranked among the top 20 “cleanest” countries included in the index since it was launched in 1995.

However, most of those listed in the top 20 have endured so many public controversies that their politics could hardly be described as clean in anything other than relative terms.

In Canada, for instance, prime minister Justin Trudeau was found in 2019 to have broken ethics rules when he undermined efforts by the former attorney general to prosecute an international bribery case. In Germany last year, parliamentarians from the Christian Democrats party were accused of enriching themselves through government contracts to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE). In Austria, meanwhile, former chancellor Sebastian Kurz is facing investigations into allegations of bribery and embezzlement.


Ireland has endured its fair share of controversy too. It has yet to truly shake off its international reputation as the “Wild West of European finance” and its role as a haven and enabler for laundering much of the world’s dirtiest money is well documented. The Garda penalty points scandal is also still fresh in the public memory. The commissions of investigation into the National Asset Management Agency’s sale of the Project Eagle loan book and the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation’s disposal of assets is ongoing.

This is not to suggest any criminality or wrongdoing on the part of any of the aforementioned, and most domestic and international observers would agree that political corruption is relatively rare in Ireland. Only 5 per cent of Irish respondents in the last Global Corruption Barometer claimed to have paid a bribe (in comparison to a 7 per cent average across the European Union).

As Fintan O'Toolenoted recently, there have been few allegations of fraud or corruption surrounding the supply of PPE in Ireland during the pandemic, in contrast to some of our European neighbours. The last major allegations of political corruption in Ireland were investigated by the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals, both of which concluded over 10 years ago. By comparison, British prime minister Boris Johnson's government in Britian seems to be perpetually embroiled in scandals that are reminiscent of the worst excesses of the nod-and-a-wink culture of Irish politics during the 1980s and 1990s.

Nevertheless, the opposite of Hanlon’s Razor is sometimes true – what can be attributed to stupidity will, more often than not, be explained as malice. Corruption is most commonly defined as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. However, the public may equate misuse of power or incompetence with abuse. They may also be more aware and less forgiving of waste and negligence in public office precisely because outright corruption – such as bribery and embezzlement – appears to be relatively rare.

While it is unfair to ascribe malice where none exists, equally it would be a mistake to conclude that the public’s perceptions of corruption are completely unfounded. It is perhaps worth reflecting on how much more sensitised we would be to the risk of corruption if more prosecutions had followed from long-running tribunals, and we reformed our draconian defamation laws.

Indeed, we know so little about actual levels of corruption because it is usually hidden from public view and, unless action is taken by the gardaí or a case reaches the courts, allegations are rarely covered in national media.

The absence of publicly available evidence is not proof of absence and it’s for this reason that policymakers need to be mindful of the risk of corruption – whether real or perceived. There are economic costs attached to negative perceptions, and international investors and credit-rating agencies are guided by corruption surveys and indexes such as the CPI.

We should also be mindful of the risk that anti-democratic forces will use the State’s failure to root out corrupt actors to further undermine trust in democratic institutions. What we have witnessed across the EU and US underscores the urgent need to address lingering and misplaced suspicions that all politicians and public officials are “just out for themselves”.

If we are to tackle domestic and international perceptions – whether they are justified or not – then the Oireachtas needs to communicate its unambiguous commitment to addressing the underlying risks and causes of actual and perceived corruption.

It needs to legislate for much greater disclosure of politicians’ and senior officials’ financial interests and must prevent politicians and officials moving so freely from public office into the commercial sector. The Government could also proactively disclose more information on how policies are made and public contracts are awarded. Equally, An Garda Síochána and regulators need to be empowered and resourced to act on information from whistleblowers and witnesses and hold accountable those who abuse power for private gain.

Perhaps we are posing the wrong question when we ask, “how corrupt is Ireland?” Instead, we might begin by asking, “What are we doing to stop it?”

John Devitt is chief executive of Transparency International Ireland. The Corruption Perceptions Index results are available here.

*This article was amended on January 25th, 2022 to correct Ireland's ranking