SPEECH BY SENATOR AVERIL POWER TO MACGILL SUMMER SCHOOL (23/07/12)

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‘Trust me, I’m a politician’ – there’s a sentence guaranteed to generate derisive laughter. However, the reality is that the basic foundation of any political system is trust – trust that decisions are made through the right processes and for the right reasons.

 

Over almost 5,000 pages, the Mahon and Moriarty reports catalogue a betrayal of trust at all levels.

 

  • They detail how a dozen councilors took corrupt payments to buy their support for planning proposals.
  • They condemn the failure of a former Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil to give a truthful account of the source of over £200,000.
  • And they expose the corrupt awarding of one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of the State – the second mobile phone licence.

 

The reports represent a damning indictment of the individuals concerned, many of whom were members of Fianna Fáil. Through corrupt activity or inadequate ethical standards, key members and leaders of the Fianna Fáil organisation brought shame on my party and on their profession. They abused the trust placed in them by the voters, their colleagues and our country and debased the very notion of public service.

 

Fianna Fáil’s Response to the Mahon Report

22nd March 2012 – the day on which the Mahon tribunal’s report was finally published – was a seminal date for Fianna Fáil. As it approached, commentators wondered whether our response to the report would be half-hearted or whether we would take real action in response to any adverse findings. For me, failure to act would have rendered the party unworthy of public confidence or support and put paid to our efforts to truly renew ourselves.

 

Thankfully, when the report was published the party’s response was both swift and comprehensive. Within hours of publication, our officer board met and agreed to propose the expulsion of Bertie Ahern, Padraig Flynn and others. In recommending the expulsion of Ahern, Micheál Martin recognized his achievements – particularly in relation to the peace process – but also made it clear that these did not absolve him from facing the consequences of Judge Mahon’s findings.

 

In my experience, it is Fianna Fáil’s own members and supporters that are most hurt by the revelations in Mahon and other reports. The vast majority of our members will never get a cent out of their involvement in the party nor would they ever look for one. They are decent and honourable people who joined Fianna Fáil because they saw it as a vehicle for helping to improve their communities and their country. They have freely volunteered their time over the years to help elect people that they believed would make them proud. That some of those people have turned out to be truly unworthy of such support is a source of great anger for our members. Out of that anger comes a determination to ensure that it can’t happen again.

 

Several important steps have already been taken. The party’s fundraising model has been reformed in recent years, to focus on collecting small donations from a large number of people rather than large sums from an elite few. In fact, more than 90% of the party’s fundraising is now accounted for by donations of less than €100. At our last Ard Fheis a series of new rules were adopted which impose specific ethical duties on all our members and public representatives. These include a new provision requiring candidates to give the party a declaration of interests along the lines of the one they would have to provide to the Standards in Public Office commission if elected.

 

It is also important to acknowledge, as Judge Mahon does, that legislation regulating politics and politicians has been transformed since the events investigated by the tribunal. There is no longer any doubt between personal and political finances. Politicians are required to lodge donations to a separate account and to give the SIPO a copy of the bank statement for that account every year. They also have to make an annual declaration of interests, which is then made publicly available.

 

Fianna Fail has called for further reform and has published bills to end corporate donations to political parties and to regulate lobbying. We are determined to help restore confidence not just in our own party but in the body politic. While the legislation we published last year wasn’t accepted by the Government, I welcome the fact that they brought forward their own political funding bill which was passed by the Seanad last week. I also welcome their commitment legislating to protect whistle blowers and to regulate political lobbying.

 

Need for Consistent Condemnation of Ethical Breaches

However, I am genuinely concerned that despite all the legislative improvements, there is still far too much moral ambiguity around ethics in Irish public life. And we still have not seen the kind of consistent condemnation of low standards that I believe is needed to restore trust in politicians as a whole.

 

If things are really to change, politicians of all parties and none must be willing to apply the same standards to comparable practices, regardless of who is involved. Accountability can’t be just for other people. Condemnation can’t just be of your political opponents. We must be willing to expose and condemn all wrongdoing without fear or favour.

 

Fine Gael and Labour’s Response to the Moriarty Report

Unfortunately, the contrast between the responses to the Mahon and Moriarty reports shows that this has not been the case over the past eighteen months. Fianna Fáil’s response to the Mahon report stands in stark contrast to Fine Gael and Labour’s reaction to Justice Moriarty’s findings. To this day, the Taoiseach still refuses to say if he accepts the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal. In his Dáil speech on the report he never once mentioned Denis O’Brien. And his government halted the independent planning inquiries commenced by Minister John Gormley into Fine Gael-led councils.

 

In the debate on the Moriarty report, ministers  – from both government parties – cherry-picked parts of it for comment and deliberately sought to minimize its significance. Despite its damning findings about Fine Gael’s targeted fundraising around the second mobile phone licence, the Government tried to portray the report as being concerned merely with the actions of one rogue Minister. In the Dáil debates on the report, only one Government TD – my colleague in Dublin North East – or as we now prefer, Dublin Bay North, Tommy Broughan – actually called it as it was.

 

Other Ethical Breaches Over the Past 18 Months

The past eighteen months have, sadly, also been noteworthy for other ethical breaches.

 

  • We’ve had one TD claiming to have used €50,000 worth of toner cartridges in two years year, while his party colleague was embroiled in an expenses scandal.
  • Another Deputy has openly admitted to defrauding the Revenue Commissioners of more than €2.1 million, while deciding to double his own wages.
  • And an entire group of TDs has been actively campaigning for people not to pay their taxes.

 

Whether you agree with the Household Charge or not, it is not acceptable in my view for TDs to advocate breaking laws democratically adopted by the parliament of which they are members. At the most basic level it shows a lack of respect for democracy.

 

The net effect of all of these actions is a further erosion of public faith in politics and politicians and a demonstration of the complete lack of effective procedures for dealing with ethical breaches.

 

Personally, I think it is absurd that being declared bankrupt disqualifies you from continuing to hold your seat but major expense fiddling and tax fraud do not.

 

Need for an Effective Watchdog With Power to Sanction Public Reps

I also think it is beyond time we put in place an effective independent system for investigating and punishing major ethical breaches by politicians.

 

I would like to propose one way in which this could be done.

 

Candidates for public office could be required to sign a legally binding pledge outlining specific ethical standards that they will be obliged to adhere to if elected. An independent Electoral Commission could then be given the power to investigate alleged breaches of this pledge and impose a range of sanctions up to and including disqualification from office.

 

The days of TDs, Senators or other public representatives being able to lawyer up in order to dodge legitimate questions have to be ended. That must apply whether they are scruffy looking new deputies or sitting Taoisigh.

 

If this means public representatives having less rights than the public they represent, then so be it, if that’s what it takes to restore public trust.

 

I have no doubt that such a system would require constitutional change, along with detailed thought and clear safeguards. But it would certainly be a more meaningful topic for the Constitutional Convention to consider than the length of the presidential term. In fact, I can only think of one person in the country who really cares about how long the presidential term is.

 

If we are to really improve ethical standards in Irish politics, we need effective methods of both prevention and enforcement. We also need a culture in which people feel empowered and compelled to shout stop. New rules can only achieve so much. People’s mindsets have to change too.

 

Replacing the Dishonesty and Deceit of the Past with a Culture of Integrity

The programme for this session asks how the events in the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals were allowed to happen.

 

In Justice Mahon’s own view, “it continued because nobody was prepared to do enough to stop it.” He says that this is “inevitable when corruption ceases to become an isolated event and becomes so entrenched that it is transformed into an acknowledged way of doing business.” He points out that far from being connected with a few isolated individuals or one political party, corruption in the 1980s and 1990s was systemic and endemic. He also believes that the general apathy amongst the public towards corruption meant insufficient pressure on politicians.

 

The corruption and abuse of power outlined in the Mahon and Moriarty reports did not take place in a vacuum. Unfortunately, politics was not the only realm of Irish life infected by low standards. So, we can not look at political corruption in isolation – it must be seen in the context of a State and a society that was plagued for decades by dishonesty and deceit in many sectors – the church, the banks, and even some parts of An Garda Síochána.

 

There is no doubt that values such as misplaced loyalty and excessive respect for authority enabled low standards to thrive in high places for far too long. In recent years, the cold light of day has been cast on many of the dark shadows of our past. As a country, I hope that we have all become more vigilant as a result.

 

Rules can only change so much. As Senator Martin McAleese stated during the Seanad debate on the Mahon report, “One of the greatest safeguards for the future would be the development of a culture of integrity where there is no public tolerance of corruption or circumvention of the law. Creating a culture of this kind is an ongoing struggle and relies on the personal integrity of each and every one of us in our daily lives.”

 

The events detailed in the Mahon and Moriarty reports have caused untold damage to the reputation of our political system. Because of this, citizens now are understandably cynical and it is the new generation of politicians ‘coming of age’ – myself included – who are paying the price for the sins of those who went before us. The most common, and dispiriting refrain, I hear from people is ‘You are all the same’. We have to challenge this, not just because it is not true but also because it is corrosive of democracy.

 

While a healthy level of skepticism is far better than unquestioning deference, tarring all politicians with the one brush – regardless of their individual merits or weaknesses – is dangerous. It is likely to deter the type of good people that we need to enter the profession in order to renew our political system and our Republic. Given the scale of the challenges facing our country at the present time, Ireland needs honest politicians and transparent politics more than ever before.

 

 

 

 

 

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