Our political system is built around private gain


OPINION:Transparency International's definition of corruption actually comes close to describing how power is always used here, writes Vincent Browne 

TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL Ireland is advised by a distinguished collection of public-spirited people, including David Andrews, Donal Barrington (former judge of the Supreme Court), Niamh Brennan (professor of management at UCD), Neil Collins (professor of public administration, UCC), Des Geraghty, Colm Mac Eochaidh (barrister and one of those instrumental in having the planning tribunal established), Maeve McDonagh (professor of law, UCC), Kevin Murphy (former ombudsman) Edward Walsh (former president of the University of Limerick) and Mary Robinson.

And it is with trepidation that one takes on any of these one-to-one. But en masse? Probably foolish.

Transparency International has produced a report which shows Ireland's corruption ranking has softened a bit (we are deemed relatively slightly less corrupt than previously) but this is because our neighbours and best friends, well, second-best friends, Britain, have shot up the corruption league and got ahead of us for a reason that is not irrelevant to us.

The Brits shut down an inquiry into a massive bribing scandal to do with the £45 billion sale of jet fighters to one of the most despicable and corrupt regimes in the world, Saudi Arabia. The Brits shut down the inquiry because the Saudis said if they did not, that would be the end of arms purchases from Britain. That scared the Brits big time for the Brits are very big into arms sales and they don't much care to whom they sell the arms.

The relevance of this to us is simply that the Lisbon Treaty brings these agents of death and misery right into the heart of the EU institutional structure by way of the European Defence Agency (EDA). This is the treaty we were urged to endorse and will again be urged to endorse, although with some opt-outs perhaps, but ones entirely irrelevant to the incorporation of the EDA into the institutional framework of the EU.

The arms dealers, including those who sold the €45 billion jet fighters to Saudi Arabia, managed to soft talk their way into the EU and they now get hefty research grants to modernise their equipment so that their guns, missiles, jet fighters and bombers will be more efficient in killing people. And, by the way, the Lisbon Treaty requires all member states to upgrade their armies so that the arms dealers will get even more money and the armies of Europe will be even better at killing people.

Anyway, Transparency International defines corruption as "the misuse of entrusted power for private gain". It says this is a global problem which can take many forms in state, corporate and non-profit sectors. Whatever its guise, it says corrupt behaviour is always determined by ulterior motives, with no concern for the consequences for the wider community. Now I would not cavil with the contention that the misuse of entrusted power for private gain is corrupt. But the eminences of Transparency International obviously think that it is only the misuse of power for private gain that is wrong.

However, we have constructed a social and political system that is built around the notion of private gain; and State power is used persistently to enhance that private gain. Their eminences seem not to think this is a problem at all. For instance, over the last 15 years we made millionaires out of 33,000 people and billionaires out of a few hundred people. Here was private gain on a massive scale and State power was used to create this with no concern for the consequences of this for the wider community.

Among those consequences was the retention in poverty of about three-quarters of a million people (by this I mean three-quarters of a million people living on incomes the equivalent of €11,000 for a single person or €27,000 for a family of four). But worse than that, over 5,000 people die here every year prematurely because of the scale of inequality that persists.

And a huge problem about this is that people, apparently such as their eminences, think either that it is okay or that it is unavoidable or they simply don't believe the statistics. Certainly, the media and the political class are in the same condition - either thinking this is okay or unavoidable or not believing the statistics - for there is no comment about this in mainstream media or politics; it is simply not on the agenda.

Transparency International Worldwide rates Venezuela as 158th out of 180 in its corrption perception index. Making Venenuela out to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world sort of gives the game away. Venezuela may be corrupt in the sense that public officials may take backhanders like they used to in the chamber of Dublin County Council. But the reason the regime of Hugo Chávez is hated by the middle-class elite in Venezuela is that he uses the proceeds of Venezuela's oil reserves to enrich the poor.

The Economistmagazine said a few years ago, in criticism of the regime, that Chávez was bribing the poor with public money - so too did the New York Times! If radically redistributing wealth is corruption, let's have more of it - let's forget about Transparency International.