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Much still remains to be done to stamp out corruption

The Irish Times, by John Devitt, October 18th, 2005

We are moving away from a culture that tolerates corruption , but have yet to achieve the "zero tolerance" of the least corrupt countries, writes John Devitt.

Every year Transparency International publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index, a league table of the "least and most corrupt countries" in the world.

Scores are compiled using up to 14 relevant surveys, conducted between 2003 and 2005, to measure expert attitudes to levels of corruption in individual countries. (The experts surveyed include business analysts, academics and journalists.)

These scores (10 denotes a country entirely clean of corruption and zero denotes one that is highly corrupt), are then used to rank countries against each other. This year Ireland lies in joint 19th place out of 159 countries (compared to 17th last year) with a score of 7.4 out of 10.

Overall Ireland fares reasonably well in international terms and has not fallen out of the top 20 "clean countries" (other than in 2002) since 1995.

Nonetheless, Ireland does fall well short of its northern European neighbours, particularly the Nordic countries which consistently score nine or over in the integrity stakes. Ireland's score, the key performance indicator for the CPI, has also dropped since 1995 when it scored 8.57.

In his 2004 report on the work of the Standards in Public Office Commission, the commission's chairman, Mr Justice Matthew Smith, highlighted Ireland's position on the CPI and referred to the index as "a very important instrument which has world-wide prominence and can affect decision-making in areas such as inward investment".

He also suggested that Transparency International could help in explaining where "outside experts see that the main threat of corruption lies".

In attempting to address Mr Justice Smith's concerns it is important, firstly, to point out that the CPI measures "perceptions" of corruption: defined as the abuse of public office for private gain for the purposes of the CPI.

It cannot measure actual levels of corruption as to do so would require a detailed record of the number of bribes or kickbacks paid in any year - an unlikely eventuality as neither party to a corrupt payment is likely to report their crime to the authorities or to commit the crime in the presence of witnesses.

It should not be too surprising to learn, therefore, that the last time anyone was successfully convicted of bribery in Ireland was in 1944.

Ireland is not unique in failing to successfully prosecute cases of corruption and as with the other 150 or so countries in the index, much is made of media reports of allegations.

It is fair to say that over the last 10 years Ireland's public and corporate life has been and continues to be the subject of great public scrutiny through media revelations of wrongdoing (if not always corruption in the legal sense) and ongoing tribunals of inquiry.

This will not have escaped the gaze of the international business community and should go some way to explaining the perceptions of foreign experts.

Secondly, the CPI includes three surveys that measure attitudes from native respondents. These surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum measure Irish business people's perceptions of corruption. Significantly, the Irish results have shown a high correlation with those from overseas experts and business people.

Perhaps, therefore, we should be looking closer to home for the answers to the kind of questions Mr Justice Smith poses.

Certainly what has been achieved in buttressing Ireland's legal and institutional defences against corruption over the past decade appears to be nothing short of remarkable.

Since 1995 some 25 pieces of legislation have been implemented to prevent corruption, while the work of the Standards in Public Office Commission and Information Commissioner has helped in securing and driving demand for accountability and transparency in public life.

In spite of the legal and institutional reform since 1995, however, prominent figures including Mr Justice Smith, have frequently called for further efforts to copperfasten safeguards against corruption in Ireland.

The Information Commissioner has consistently raised concerns over the cost of appeals for information under the Freedom of Information Act - now among the highest in the world.

Meanwhile, a Bill to protect "whistleblowers" has also been officially abandoned, without any indication as to when, how or if individuals will be legally protected if they report corruption.

Moreover, the Government has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on Corruption, which will help in stemming the tide of bribes and laundered money worldwide. Such shortcomings will be scrutinised by foreign analysts as the CPI also takes into account efforts to prevent corruption.

Attempts to combat corruption within Ireland's private sector and from civil society will also support Government initiatives to build integrity in public life.

Corruption in business or even the non-profit sector, if not controlled, spills over to the public sector thus undermining the integrity of the entire State.

The incentives and opportunities created by a combination of dirty money, laws that are not enforced and State watchdogs that are under-resourced can lead to a vicious circle of distorted decision-making, cynicism, and ultimately a culture that grins and bears the abuse of power for private gain.

Thankfully we are moving away from a culture that tolerates corrupt behaviour. However, we are still some way away from the culture of zero tolerance which appears to be a feature of life in those countries that regularly top the CPI.

The question of how far we have come in tackling corruption, and how we can catch up with our Nordic neighbours, should be partly answered by a National Integrity System (NIS) study to be conducted by Transparency International Ireland in 2006.

The NIS study will be the first in-depth assessment looking at Ireland's ability to prevent and combat corruption effectively. In the meantime, the Government could signal its intentions to continue the fight against corruption at home and abroad by finally ratifying the UN Convention on Corruption which comes into force on December 14th.