Frank Flannery, Chairman, National Forum on Philanthropy


Politics at its heart is all about one thing – the relationship between the governing elite and the governed. For that relationship to survive, one thing above all else is needed – trust.  Without basic trust the social contract that binds society and provides a means through which society functions begins to break down; any perception of corruption in the system further corrodes that trust.

Corruption comes in many forms but today we are looking at political corruption.  This ordinarily refers to the use of public office for private gain. This is where public servants, whether elected or unelected, have been entrusted with carrying out a task on behalf of the public and engage in some sort of malfeasance for private benefit or advancement.

The words illegal and corrupt are often used interchangeably and sometimes the word immoral is thrown in for good measure, but this may not necessarily be the case in all instances – clearly, all illegal transactions are not corrupt and, surprisingly, all instances of corruption or bribery are not necessarily illegal.  For instance, abusing sick leave, as seems to be common in the public service, is not illegal but is surely a from of corruption. And what about the medics who make sick certs freely available?  Conversely, someone in extreme need stealing food in a supermarket to feed their family would be engaged in an illegal but not necessarily corrupt activity.

In simple terms, we could define corruption as the illicit use of public office for private gain. But this rather narrow and precise definition is challenged by those who consider corruption as actions that are inimical to the public interest whether such actions are prescribed by law or not.

Traditionally, political corruption in Ireland is invariably thought of as an activity indulged in solely by politicians and largely involving brown envelopes of one kind or another. But I would contend that the evidence of more recent years suggests that political corruption has infected parts of the wider public service – and remember, personal gain doesn’t always have to be delivered in brown envelopes. So, a better definition of political corruption is the inappropriate use of power and authority for purposes of individual or group gain at public expense.

But first of all we need to understand that corruption in politics and public administration has a long and dishonourable history – in fact, it’s an ancient problem and detecting it has never been easy.  Kautiliya, writing almost two and a half thousand years ago in his Arthasastra, an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft and economic policy described its insidious nature very well, as follows:  ‘Just as fish moving under water cannot possibly be found out either as drinking or not drinking water, so government servants employed in government work cannot be found out while taking money for themselves.’

Historically, corruption in Irish politics is not something new. The local government system created in 1898 and dominated by the Irish Parliamentary Party and other smaller parties soon became notorious for it through extreme clientalism at local level. W. T. Cosgrave in his time in Dublin Corporation was an outspoken critic of corruption in local government.

Extreme clientalism that led to corruption was one of the reasons Cosgrave’s government abolished the Rural District Councils (RDCs) in the 1920s.  The US witnessed the notorious Tammany Hall phenomenon in New York which was strongly associated with the Irish and the Democratic Party. Figures like Boss Tweed were more powerful than any Irish 19th century politician, yet used patronage and clientalism to maintain his power-base. For them, clientalism and corruption weren’t a replacement for power. They were the basis of power.

 Nor was corruption in Ireland limited to local government. Both O’Connell and Parnell received large sums in national collections that would certainly raise eyebrows if it happened today.  Though it is worth mentioning that MPs in the 19th century were not paid. Perhaps those funds were used to cover costs that today would be covered from a salary and expenses.

Questions certainly could be posed about Éamon de Valera’s funding of the Irish Press, where funds collected years earlier for the Republic were used by him to create a newspaper but then the ownership of the paper was vested in the de Valera family.  Modern ethics legislation would view that action as highly questionable if not illegal.

The dangers of dominance, and the sense of entitlement it breeds, are something that has been shown in politics the world over. We have seen evidence of it in the dominant party in  20th century Ireland  – Fianna Fáil. But they were not alone. The Christian Democrats in Italy became notorious for its associations with corruption. It was its corruption and the damage done to its reputation that was ultimately to lead to its demise. In India, too, the dominant Congress Party was engulfed in scandals, while scandals have in recent years rocked the dominant ANC in South Africa.

Apart from its longevity, the other obvious but important feature of corruption is its secretiveness – and because of which we don’t know how pervasive or extensive it is or whether it’s increasing or decreasing – political corruption is not readily amenable to statistical analysis. In this vacuum, public perception – a highly subjective concept in itself – becomes critically important. In a democracy like ours which is fundamentally based on the trust of the people, an increase even in the perception of corruption can be particularly divisive. Because at its heart, political corruption undermines some of the most basic democratic principles such as: the right of an individual to be treated with fairness, respect and openness by government institutions and officials in regard to all aspects of decision-making. Political corruption corrodes the essential concept of equality of citizens before government and public institutions and, if unchecked, contributes in no small way to the delegitimisation of democratic and institutional systems.

Because of its debilitating effects in alienating the public from democratic politics and government, political corruption is a matter of increasing concern for western democracies such as our own. If we consider corruption, in simple terms, as a pathology of the body politic then no political system is immune to its debilitating effects. In 1999 for example, the whole European Commission was forced to resign over charges of fraud, cronyism and mismanagement. There was an onslaught by the elected European Parliament on the non-elected European Commission which led to a significant shift in political power away from the non-elected bureaucracy to the elected Parliament.

The dangers of political corruption increase as the state becomes involved in more and more aspects of our lives. The growth of the welfare state, and as a consequence the public sector, means that more decisions and control of vast amounts of financial resources have been transferred into the hands of the political elite, both elected and unelected. The question arises: have we put in place sufficient controls and over-sight mechanisms to ensure that this public money is a) being well-spent and b) is not being siphoned off for nefarious purposes?

And just to be clear, I’m not talking about increasing rules and regulations – that just creates incentives for both private individuals, politicians and public officials to circumvent the rules – and they can be very adept at that. In reality, the administration of the public sectors of modern democracies such as our own is a large-scale and complex business with concomitant increases in opportunities for engaging in political corruption. In this context, the much vaunted calls for increased transparency are largely inadequate as the system is well capable of ratcheting up opacity levels to match any transparency rules and regulations. But I’ll come back to possible solutions in a moment.

Political corruption is not just about brown envelopes; it encompasses a far wider range of activities than is normally considered to be the case. It includes, amongst other things, abuse of power in the form of arbitrary decision-making by state organisations – and personal gain is usually not at the root of this, it is more the pursuit of personal power. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘if you want to test a man’s character give him power’.

What about the Social Partnership process of recent years? This started out as a progressive and effective tool to revitalise the Irish economy in the 1980’s. However, it evolved into sectoral vested interest groups engaging in a secretive process of negotiations with politicians and public servants on issues – not just about pay for the public sector but pay levels for everyone and other wider issues affecting the whole of Irish society.  This was done behind closed doors, effectively sidelining both the legislative and executive arms of government in favour of a self-selecting cartel of vested interests.

An integral and infamous element of this ultimately undemocratic process was Benchmarking. This saw the wholesale transfer of public funds to the public sector in return for greater productivity. Even at the time, little attempt was made to disguise the fact that the productivity gains were either fictitious or spurious.  The Partnership process even went so far as to create what has been referred to as a slush-fund for trade union officials and senior public servants to go off on jollies to the United States and Australia, all paid for by the public purse. Partnership in its later phase fits into the corruption definition because it was a fundamental abuse of political power involving the transfer of benefits to others for very dubious reasons –it resembled old-style political patronage at its worst.

And of course all that has been revealed by the tribunals is very relevant in this – the monstrous mistakes made by the rezonings that have left Ireland with ghost estates, or the destruction of so much of our urban environment by poor planning.  The Moriarty Tribunal called the activities of the Department of Communications into question. All of this has made the electorate cynical about politics in general and the system itself cannot be trusted. This of course undermines the social contract that holds a democratic society together.

I’ve referred already to ancient India but the ancient Greeks who invented democracy over two and a half thousand years ago were obsessed with keeping their officials legally accountable for their actions while in office. At the end of each year public officials had to stand up before the Assembly of citizens and provide a public account of their actions while in office. Any citizen could speak out and bring a charge against the official, and if the board of auditors (the direct translation of the Greek word in English is ‘the straighteners’) found there was a basis for the accusation, the official was indicted and tried. The Greeks, who knew a thing or two about human nature, were not seeking transparency – they recognised the frailties in human behaviour and put in place clear and robust mechanisms for detecting and punishing political corruption.

I have to say, as I’m neither a saint nor a socialist and am agnostic regarding the perfectibility of human nature, I’m largely with the Greeks on this one. To preserve the integrity of our own democracy from political corruption we’ve tried Tribunals and they have proven lengthy and expensive and clearly the public has no real appetite for more Tribunals. The electorate has voted down the present government’s proposal to strengthen political over-sight through the Oireachtas committees. So, what’s left? My own view is that we should introduce something along the lines of the European system of ‘investigating magistrates’. This would be a type of investigating officer but with extensive powers to compel witnesses, whose initial proceedings would be held in private (with lawyers present to protect individuals rights) and whose final sessions would be held in public and a report issued. Realistic sanctions for corrupt behaviour should apply in a timely fashion.

The public service could benefit from payments by results, incentives and even fixed term contracts. A system where people get paid their full salary whether they perform or not is clearly questionable. The same principle could apply to Ministers and members of the Oireachtas, thus reducing the dangers of complacency and excessive longevity. Single seat constituencies would also help to reduce the rampant clientalism in the system. Artificial salary caps are dangerous in that they can often result in poorly performing people occupying key posts for long periods.

As a nation we have to get beyond the present difficulties. The economic collapse involving so much tragedy and disappointment for so many people may well prove a cathartic experience for all of us. It may give us an opportunity for a new beginning as a people infused and informed by older and more enduring values than were evident during our wild days of the Celtic Tiger. It may be more about community and society and less about personal aggrandisement and greed. It may be more about personal responsibility and less about dependency. It may be more about individual’s families and communities and less about ruling elites and cartels. It may recognise that Ireland’s recovery is everyone’s business and that we are ready and willing and courageous enough to embrace that challenge. It may also be that we are realistic enough and wise enough and generous enough to welcome the help of all our citizens and friends in bringing this about.

As a previous generation had to absorb and deal with the scars of a civil war, our challenge now is to absorb and deal with the scars of an economic disaster.

There’s a couple of important national anniversary celebrations come up over the coming years – 1916 for instance will be celebrated by the government and people of Ireland, and rightly so. But there’s another anniversary, and a rather important one, in less than 10 years time – the centenary of the foundation of the IrishState will be upon us. Now, wouldn’t it be a fantastic celebratory gift from this political generation to the next to have put in place a world class system for dealing with political corruption. And if we’re going to do it, now is the time to start because, like other evils that have beset our democracy, political corruption will not go away of its own accord. 


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