Pat Leahy, Political Editor, Sunday Business Post


It has become one of the clichés of modern Irish political discourse to say that our political system is broken.   As a journalist, and therefore I like to think something of an expert in clichés, I think this is one of the better ones.

It was used by all the political parties in last year’s general election to justify all manner of tomfoolery and rhetoric. The coalition parties in particular promised a New Politics. This would be different from the old politics: it would be better, and newer, and shinier. Turns out though that the new politics isn’t that different from the old politics. Better in many ways, certainly, but in its essence, I believe, still suffering from the same fatal defects as the old politics.  What I hope to do in the course of this contribution is to identify some of the principal ways in which I believe our system is broken, outline how that has led the country to its current state, and suggest ways in which we might begin to change this.

We may satisfy ourselves that we are changing corrupt practices; I don’t believe that we are really changing a system that has become corrupted.  The title of the current session asks us to consider the lessons and implications of political corruption in Ireland. For obvious reasons we are inclined to think of political corruption in terms of brown envelopes being passed from developer to councillor in pursuit of a dodgy rezoning, in a transaction which will enrich both parties.

The report of the Mahon Tribunal found that this sort of corruption was endemic in parts of our political system, as much of a feature of local democracy as holding clinics and attending funerals.

It is reasonable to assume that if the local government of other areas of the country was subjected to the scrutiny that Dublin experienced, that many more revelations of precisely the same sort of corruption would ensue. This realisation that we have been living in a country where at least parts of our local government have been endemically, profoundly corrupt is something that I think we have perhaps chosen not to really think about.

Nor was the straightforward plain vanilla corruption limited to local government. The Mahon Tribunal found that parts of national government were just as willing to place themselves for sale as their counterparts in local government.  The response of the political system to the picture of systemic corruption depicted in the Flood and Moriarty Tribunal reports may seem underwhelming.

The response to Moriarty has been to pass a motion condemning Michael Lowry and to try to avoid mentioning Denis O’Brien, but also to act as if you are not trying to avoid mentioning Denis O’Brien. If someone else mentions Denis O’Brien, most senior Fine Gaelers seem to respond by studying their shoes.  Labour, on the other hand, mentions Denis O’Brien when it wants to embarrass Fine Gael.  This could come in quite handy, but as a substantive response to the tribunals it has not convinced the public nor should it.  Happily, there has also been a more substantial response in the shape of the new corruption legislation, the draft scheme of which has been published by the justice minister.

It remains to be seen if it will be enacted as currently planned, but as currently drafted it will utterly change the legal landscape.  Along with legislation on lobbying, whistle blowing and political donations, I think it’s fair to say that the current government is transforming the legal architecture that governs the sometimes murky places that business and politics interact.

I think it needs to take two further steps. It should introduce total transparency in political funding. The existing legal infrastructure has long served to give the appearance of rigid control while in fact being pliable to the continuation of private money influencing politics and policy.  All monies donated, paid to, spent by and collected by political parties and politicians should be disclosed and publicly audited.  It should also establish a dedicated agency to police the compliance with campaign finance laws. Neither the criminal justice system nor the clubby self-governance of politicians has proved remotely equipped for the task. If the political class wanted to effect a real change in the way business is done, it will give powers, resources, teeth and independence to SIPO or a similar agency with a mandate to inquire and prosecute.

Will the public notice? Probably not. In general, the public suspects most politicians are up to no good.

In fact, the heightened awareness of envelope-type corruption among the Irish electorate is so acute now that bare mention of the word “envelope” by one presidential candidate during the televised debate before last October’s election was enough to have the audience hooting their derision and so began a massive national change of mind.

But corruption isn’t just envelopes. A system can become corrupted or broken without anyone passing envelopes to anyone else. I think that has happened to our politics, our government. Parts of it are simply broken. They’re corrupted.

I think there are three different types of corruption evident in the Irish system. There is a sort of systematic corruption in which the system of government and administration and those who operate it ensure the preservation of that system and of the part they – and people like them – play in it. This doesn’t feel like corruption but it is a characteristic of a system which is corrupted or broken, or unable to adequately perform its ostensible task because it is devoted to its own processes rather than the goals of the greater public good.

I listened to one minister recently defend legislative proposals he had inherited on the basis that there was 70 years of expertise in the area in his department and this should be listened to. This might have held water had the expertise in question not been in promoting the Irish language.  Another minister told me about how he was introduced to his department by the secretary general who gave him the tour and told him, Minister, all these people work for you: what would you like them to do?  There is nothing civil servants like more than to hear their minister saying “my department”. My department. As it was in the beginning, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. At the heart of this worldview is a profound conservatism which is not atypical of any large clerisy. But it does not serve the public interest.

The Croke Park Agreement is perhaps the starkest statement of this dogged defensiveness of the system, this deep-rooted conservatism. Croke Park has certainly delivered industrial peace while the government achieved savings – relatively modest savings, though – on the public sector paybill, and that shouldn’t be discounted. But the design of the agreement is dedicated to preserving the public service we know rather than reforming it.  There is no serious attempt to introduce structures which would enable management to differentiate on the grounds of performance. Meaningful measurement of performance is as far away as ever. Employees will still be paid for getting older, rather than better at their jobs. And the preservation of pension benefits for those near retirement is more important than defending new and younger workers.

The absolute untouchability of retirement lump sums at a time when the starting wage, allowances, increments and overtime have all been cut back, tells the real story of Croke Park and of the priorities of the union chiefs who negotiated it with other senior officials.  This may not be corruption as we generally understand it. But it is a system that has evolved to benefit certain groups, a system whose original aims have been corrupted.

The second type of “non-envelope” corruption that I submit characterises the Irish system is a hyper-electoralism in which democratic choices are reduced to a transaction between politician and voter – in which votes are delivered to the politician in return for either personal or community-wide favours.  I’ve pointed out here before that voters are just as much to blame – and in fact maybe more so – than politicians for this. But it still amounts to the same corrupted system.

Insofar as there was a political philosophy – rather than just a functioning model of politics – behind Bertie Ahern’s years of success, this was it. Keep people happy by giving them things and they will vote for you at election time. You’ll recall it was pretty successful, for a time. And that it contained within itself the seeds of its own downfall. The promises got bigger and the voters demands ever more expansive. And Labour and Fine Gael, observing the success of the Ahern model, sought to compete in the promising stakes.

Of course politicians everywhere promise voters that they will deliver them all manner of goodies. But I think the Irish experience is unusual in the extent to which it dominates politics and politicians’ lives. I think it is sufficiently significant as to distort and corrupt our political system.

The Sunday Business Post publishes a short question and answer feature with ordinary backbenchers every week. One of the questions we ask them is what is the worst thing that voters have ever asked them to do? The responses offer a glimpse into the demands that voters make of politicians. Here’s just a few of the things politicians were asked to do in return for a vote:

– mow the lawn

– babysit while the voters went to the polling station

– pet a dog which had just bitten the candidate

– allow a temporary shop to be set up in the constituency office

– model swimwear

– feed a pet lizard while its owner went on holiday

– fix the television

– take part in a yoga session in the voter’s front room

– assess whether a buried Ford Cortina would suffice as a septic tank

– marry the voter’s daughter.

This demonstrates the way that, when a politician calls to the door, very many voters see this as an opportunity for some sort of personal or community gain. What is being discussed is a simple transaction. Many TDs have internalised this transaction. But one TD has taken it on a step further and made a down payment on future votes. Brendan Griffin, a Fine Gael TD for Kerry South, has donated half his salary to a local school to enable it to retain a teacher. This may seem bizarre, but actually it is perfectly logical in our political culture. The next logical step, of course, is to donate his entire salary. And after that, to start paying constituents for the privilege of representing them.

Look at the list of parliamentary questions every day and see how many are in pursuit of constituency representations. Let me do it for you: in health, it’s usually about two-thirds. For other departments, it’s less, but substantial.  The need to serve the constituency distorts the operation of the political and legislative system. The greatest perk of a minister is not the car or the use of the government jet – it’s the office staffed with civil servants to look after his constituency.  We should be clear: politicians do all this because voters demand it of them. And I don’t mean that the politicians who practise this – and they all do – are corrupt. No, it’s worse than that. Our system of democratic representation has become corrupted.

And I think this hyper localism is a specific reflection of the third type of corruption, or brokenness, I see in our system – a profound non-seriousness in which real policy debate has been largely absent from our political discourse.  This has allowed a couple of principles to emerge as the cornerstones of our political system:

– The national interest is just the sum of all the vocal special interest groups

– Nobody should be inconvenienced by anything

– Nobody should be held responsible for anything.

So the system has been corrupted but in a different and probably more damaging way than being under the sway of donors to parties.  The real corruption has come from a system where everyone can push their demands and no one says no.  A system where there is no benefit to standing up to an interest group and saying no.  Look at the pre-crash decade, where every element of the policy debate was about ratcheting ourselves into trouble.  More spending, less tax and never mind the private sector debt was not a marginal position in the pre-crisis decade, it was the dominant one.

Yes the governments of Bertie Ahern were reckless and short-termist but it was not political donations that made this the case – it was fundamentally because they promised the people what they wanted and then actually delivered it.  You can get away with this in Ireland because we have a political system happy to leave things to others.  It did not develop or seek to develop even basic expertise in relation to the financial system.

In this situation, it is no wonder that the Central Bank was complacent and we reached a situation in 2008 where politicians were ordering up briefing notes to explain basic financial terms.  When the banking guarantee was adopted there is not even the merest hint of a political system which understood what was going on and could do anything but blindly choose between proposals presented by others.  This lack of respect for informed debate and genuine expertise is a central part of the corruption or brokenness of Irish politics. In a short essay at the start of the first of the How Ireland Voted volumes Tom Garvin described Irish politics as a long game of ideological beggar my neighbour.  To him the only debate appeared to be about who was purest or most determined in pushing the same things.

It is two years since I have spoken at this gathering. On the last occasion that I did, in July 2010, I had the honour of sharing a platform with the much missed Peter Mair. I didn’t mind, of course, that his arguments were more elegantly constructed than mine, though I thought it was a bit much that his jokes should be funnier. He made one point that has stuck with me: whose fault is it, he asked, that our politics is like this?  He answered, it’s ours.

In the discussion that followed, there were contributions from Garret Fitzgerald. He warned that the impetus for political reform would not survive the expected new government’s first year. If they didn’t do it in the first year, he warned, they wouldn’t do it. I rather fear both of these greatly missed students of Irish politics were right.

Despite its huge failure, the chances of really changing our politics, and our political systems, the political culture from which it has sprung and which sustains, remain pretty remote. I see little evidence of the desire to do so among the old politicians. And not much more from the voters.


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