Politics and politicians must be credible and clearly accountable

 

At the beginning of the 21st century, I want to lay down a fair and honest basis for the conduct of public life.

I believe politics is the mediating force and also often the catalyst for the most important changes in our society. Political leader ship played a key role in developing our dynamic economy through partnership. High political skill will be required if the social and infrastructural problems thrown up by our rapid growth and changing society are to be worked through.

Politics is not just about delivering the goods in a material sense. It is about providing redress for anger and injustice. Ironically, although politicians are often blamed for what goes wrong, it is to politics that people always look to have things put right.

Politics and politicians, therefore, must be credible and clearly accountable. The ever-increasing pace of change will require people of the highest calibre and the highest integrity in public life.

Recent revelations have deeply disturbed people's faith in the political system. In response, this Government has initiated the most thorough and far-reaching inquiries into public affairs not only in the history of this State, but in the recent history of most democratic countries.

We are determined to find the truth, whatever it is. We are determined to deal with all the issues that arise from all the inquiries, however many and complex.

The overhang of history has left this Government with an unenviable legacy. It is a legacy that we are determined to deal with head on and openly.

In the Programme for Government, as reviewed last year, the parties in Government acknowledged that we have a responsibility to ensure that people's confidence in our political institutions is restored. We pledged to bring forward legislation that will make more rigorous the legal requirements and sanctions governing the conduct of public business. For some months now this Government has been working on doing just that.

I am announcing a set of proposals which meet the need for modernisation and transparency, while at the same time allowing for the continuing development of a fully inclusive and dynamic body politic. These proposals include:

the creation of a new statutory basis for the prevention and prosecution of corruption;

provision for a special account for public representatives into which it will be an offence not to channel political donations;

the imposition of limits on the size of donations to politicians and parties;

the decision to study arrangements for the prohibition of expenditure of money raised abroad and whether such an arrangement could be applied evenly and effectively to all participants in Irish political life;

the introduction of legislation to protect whistle-blowers;

the introduction of legislation to regulate lobbyists.

This is not the beginning but rather the continuation of an unprecedented overhaul of the regulatory framework for public life. The Ethics in Public Office Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Local Government Bill 2000, the Prevention of Corruption Bill and the Standards in Public Office Bill provide for an array of prescriptions for public life.

Serious punitive consequences are also features of these legislative measures. The legal basis for public life has therefore already moved on considerably from the events described at the tribunals. The significant additional measures now being planned are a continuation of a well-entrenched process of modernisation and openness.

Public representatives of every party and of no party have an obligation to work together to restore people's belief in their institutions and leaders. I am aware that as Taoiseach and as leader of the largest political party in the country I have a particular role to play.

Our more sophisticated society undoubtedly needs a more comprehensive regulatory framework. Dishonesty, however, has always been wrong. Regulation is only part of the answer. Politics is about public service. It is about what can be done for others and about giving leadership. In getting elected, a politician is given the trust of his or her community. That trust is the most important thing a politician has.

All of us in public office now have an opportunity to restore public confidence. We can do thatby working together to put in place an appropriate regulatory framework for public affairs. More importantly and over the long term, we can give effective leadership by our own example in public life. If this generation of politicians can show that we are in politics for what we can give and not what we can get, then I think real progress will have been achieved.

AT the start of the 21st century, Ireland stands as the oldest republic in the European Union with constitutional continuity. Although a young country, we have a deeply embedded democratic tradition.

The high standing of politics is vital to the quality of our democracy. Our country needs the energy and idealism of the brightest and best of our young people. It is exactly such young people who at the beginning of the last century carved out Ireland's place in the world and established what is now one of the oldest democracies in Europe.

We are a country of unprecedented opportunity. We can for the first time in our history create a country at peace, in a land where the basic needs of all our people can be met. Republicanism stands for equality as well as freedom. Now is our challenge and opportunity to translate political freedom and economic progress into a decent quality of life for every community as well as a fair chance in life for every citizen.

Realising the historic opportunity that is now before us will require the rising generation to give of their talent and idealism. My greatest fear is that this, our country's greatest opportunity, will be squandered in cynicism. Public service is the highest and finest career any citizen can aspire to. Public life needs the talents and energy of people who passionately care about their community.

Across our country thousands of people - practical patriots - give their time and talent to their community through voluntary organisations. In sports clubs, credit unions, the scouts, arts organisations and in many other ways a huge number of people are giving back to society the benefit of their experience.

We must convince people that politics at local as well as national level is an ideal and idealistic way to contribute to both community and country.

The radical reform of the regulatory framework for public life is an important step in re-establishing the public esteem of political life.

No regulatory framework, however, can substitute for honesty and patriotism. The challenge for those of us who are privileged to be in public life now is to lead by example. I pledge that I will do just that.