OUR SYSTEM of political funding has damaged standards in public life and contributed to corruption within local authorities and the planning process. For six long years, a succession of official reports and recommendations were largely ignored by government. The latest strictures come from an anti-corruption body within the Council of Europe. It calls for greater financial transparency and criticises the huge gap that exists between disclosed political donations and amounts spent at election time by political parties. It also recommends that those close to power who take advantage of their situation by influencing decision-makers should be guilty of a criminal offence.
Tribunals had uncovered an unsavoury relationship between big business and politicians long before events in the construction and banking sectors tipped the economy into recession. That sleazy network was not confined to Fianna Fáil. And planning decisions at county level continue to be influenced by business donations. The situation is intolerable and must be confronted as part of a broader reform programme.
There has been some limited progress. The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) published codes of conduct for politicians in 2003 and required elected representatives to be tax compliant. But when its chairman asked the government for authority to conduct preliminary investigations into political corruption, he was rebuffed. And complaints about the way in which the law on political funding and spending was being circumvented received similar treatment. That ultimately led to €12 million being spent in the course of the 2007 general election, when only €2 million could be publicly traced.
On entering Government with Fianna Fáil, the Green Party secured a commitment to establish an Independent Electoral Commission that would replace SIPO and deal with political funding and other issues. A lack of progress caused it to revisit the issue last October. As a result, the Coalition is now committed to end all corporate donations to politicians and to political parties. Legislation is, however, still awaited.
Traditionally, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael raised more money than other parties through corporate and private funding and they jealously guarded that advantage and the confidentiality that accompanied it. Now the State pays for a large part of the political process. And much else has changed. The need to confront corruption and fading confidence in the political process is urgent. Incisive legislation is required.