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Why wasn't corruption an election issue when it cost us so much?

24 February 2016

John Devitt - 24th February 2016

The RTÉ Investigations Unit story on corruption in local government shocked the nation when it was broadcast way back in December 2015. It led Stephen Collins, political editor of the Irish Times to suggest that corruption would likely be an election issue.  He couldn’t have been more wrong. With the exception of last night’s brief exchange on cronyism and the Taoiseach’s remarkable admission about the appointment of John McNulty to the Board of IMMA; corruption, white collar crime and political reform have barely registered as issues in the media or in any of the leaders’ debates.

Corruption and political reform are just two of a number of cross-cutting issues, including climate change, that will have long-term impact on the future of the country but have been relegated to the fringes of political debate. Even those parties that have made relatively detailed commitments to stamp out corruption or promote democratic accountability have found it difficult to steer media attention away from the grizzly spectacle of a gangland crime feud and the Taoiseach’s ill-judged use of the word ‘whingers’.

The lack of attention paid to ethics and reform issues during the 2016 campaign is in stark contrast to the election of 2011, when every main political party had ambitious proposals to reform our democratic institutions, stamp out corruption, protect whistleblowers and regulate lobbying.

Perhaps the biggest parties, believe that it’s ‘job done’. Indeed, the outgoing government has some significant achievements to its name. It introduced one of the strongest whistleblower laws in the world in 2014. It ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and signed up to the Open Government Partnership which commit Ireland (at least in theory) to adopting stronger measures aimed at tackling corruption and promoting transparency. The Freedom of Information Act was also strengthened and rules around political donations were tightened somewhat. Lobbyists found themselves subject to regulation and their activities subject to public scrutiny. A factor in all this was the establishment of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which ensured that the public-sector reform programme had a ring-fenced budget and political leadership for the first time.

However, critics of the government will point to a number of failures. The Public Sector Standards Bill that would help address some of the concerns raised by the Mahon Tribunal and in the RTÉ story was not passed before the election. The Department of Justice failed to even publish draft anti-corruption legislation that was promised in the wake of the publication of the final Mahon Tribunal report in 2012.

Promises of Garda reform have also been underwhelming. A Police Authority was established but the powers to appoint the Commissioner and oversight of ‘security issues’ remain with the Minister. Proposals for a Planning Regulator have been watered down considerably and are going nowhere fast. Commitments to Oireachtas reform amounted to little more than three underwhelming referendum campaigns to scrap the Seanad, give Dáil committees more power, and to lower the age of presidential candidates.

More importantly, the government’s record in equipping law enforcement agencies with powers and resources to hold to account corrupt public officials and the business people that bribe them was a dismal as its predecessors’. One leading white collar crime lawyer has pointed out that it is nearly impossible for the Gardaí to investigate most cases of corruption such is the lack of resourcing and expertise available to it. Given the lack of political energy invested in tackling corruption and other serious fraud offences in Ireland, it is unlikely that the emasculation of law enforcement agencies is unintentional. It might also be worth pointing out that in spite of the official independence the Gardaí and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) enjoy, both the Garda Commissioner and the DPP will remain political appointees. Such a system does not suggest that they will ever prioritise the prosecution of the people who appointed them (if it ever comes to it).

No one should be under the impression that corruption ended with the death of George Redmond or Liam Lawlor. Transparency International Ireland’s helpline is receiving an increasing number of calls from whistleblowers reporting wrongdoing across the public and private sectors (especially so in our health service). It has also identified numerous red-flags and risks of corruption in public procurement and local government that are not being addressed and will inevitably be exploited by corrupt officials. Late last year, the European Commission found that over 30% of Irish companies believed that they had lost out on a public contract due to corruption. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to find that a similar percentage of Irish managers seem prepared to use ‘gifts and entertainment’ to secure business.

The impact of all this has can be seen in growing inequality, poverty and homelessness in Ireland. It will be manifested (although the IDA will deny it) in raised opportunity costs due to lost investment and slowed economic growth. The direct financial cost of corruption and fraud is also staggering. In 2007, the accounting firm RSM Robson Rhodes estimated that Ireland was losing €2.5 billion a year from economic crime. That’s €25 billion potentially lost to the Irish economy over a decade. It doesn’t take account of the estimated €100 billion lost through fraud and corruption that was directly responsible for the collapse of our banking system in 2008.

The economic and social costs of corruption and white collar crime far outweigh those of gang-land crime and yet they have received far less media attention. Imagine how many nurses, doctors, special-needs assistants, and Gardaí could be employed if the enormous sums of money lost through graft and fraud was invested in public services. Or consider how much better off every citizen would be with an extra €20,000 in their pockets. How many more people would be alive today if €100 billion was spent on providing life-saving treatment to those fighting cancer and other chronic illnesses? Instead, this money has been sucked out of the economy by white collar criminals and their accomplices in the public and private sectors. Unfortunately for its victims (which is most of us), white collar crime doesn’t sell newspapers and so is unlikely to be the political priority it ought to be.

John Devitt is Chief Executive of Transparency International Ireland

@Transparency_ie, @jkdevitt