Transparency International (TI), the global anti-corruption watchdog, published its report for 2015 last week. It claimed Ireland was not particularly afflicted by public-sector corruption, and commended the government for having introduced new protections for whistleblowers, new political finance rules and new regulations on lobbying.
But it was sharply critical of the absence of promised new anti-corruption legislation, and of the fact that the Gardaí and the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) have neither the specialist staff nor the financial resources to properly investigate corruption.
TI suggested that the relevant budgets needed to be increased by a factor of ten to ensure effectiveness. In a similar vein, in 2014 the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) employed just one forensic accountant; in the same year a barrister specialising in white-collar crime described the under-resourcing of the relevant regulatory bodies as “endemic” and a “scandal”.
TI pointed to the fact that the Director for Public Prosecutions has not yet gotten around to deciding whether court action should be taken on foot of the 2011 Moriarty Tribunal report. That’s the report which found former minister Michael Lowry to have engaged in practices that were “profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking”.
“The apparent lack of action and political ambivalence towards Judge Moriarty’s findings sends the public the message that different rules apply to those in positions of power and influence,” according to TI Ireland chief executive John Devitt in the press release. That may be putting it mildly.
Also last week, a High Court judge found that Lowry had engaged in “a litany of falsification and deception” in a hearing related to the Tribunal, including the falsification of a solicitor’s files. But Taoiseach Enda Kenny (and, initially, Tanaiste Joan Burton) refused to rule out relying on Lowry’s support to keep Fine Gael-Labour in power after the election.
While TI is correct in its criticism of the inaction over Lowry, its reports are not always correct about corruption.
In 2007, TI declared that Iceland had the least corrupt public administration in the world, yet it would later be revealed that the country was run by a prodigiously corrupt cabal of bankers and politicians that drove the country over a financial cliff. Jail sentences have since been handed down to bankers for corruption, and a former prime minister has been convicted of negligence (but not jailed).
So how did TI get Iceland so wrong? Perhaps, because it relies in part on published sources that compile their data by, for example, asking businesspeople whether they have been solicited for bribes by politicians or civil servants.
But let’s say a businessperson had indeed been asked for such, or indeed offered an unsolicited bribe. And that the bribe had been accepted. And that the businessperson had received favourable treatment as a result. Would that businessperson be likely to report all that? Certainly not, because it would be in their interest to present the country in question as a squeaky clean meritocracy where the best and brightest thrive on talent alone.
So, to bang on about one particular example for the third column running, if oil and gas companies paid former energy minister Ray Burke to relax the terms for natural resource exploration, (note: there is no evidence that they did) would they have told TI about it? If Denis O’Brien paid Michael Lowry to help him win the mobile phone licence on which his fortune was based (and the Moriarty Tribunal found that Lowry did decisively influence the awarding of that licence to O’Brien), he would be equally unlikely to declare the fact.
Staying with O’Brien, his company Siteserv won contracts to install water meters in Ireland after he had acquired it in controversial circumstances, and, even more controversially, had its debts owed to state-owned Anglo-Irish Bank written down. There is no evidence of corruption here (nor any great urgency about finding out if any exists), but, if corruption had taken place, how likely is it that it would have been reported to TI?
Dogged TD Catherine Murphy, who did so much to bring the Siteserv case to light, has just uncovered that former Environment Minister (and now EU Commissioner) Phil Hogan was lobbied by another company that subsequently won an Irish Water contract, after they contacted him in an email addressing him on first-name terms.
One last example for now: a company won the state contract to install alarms in old people’s homes after a meeting (not minuted) with now Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly in 2014.
Both Hogan and Kelly deny any wrongdoing. But the point is that if wrongdoing did occur, the companies concerned would not be telling TI about it precisely because they would have been amongst the beneficiaries of it.
One of the defining Irish TV moments of 2015 was Monaghan County councillor Hugh McElvaney asking an undercover reporter (posing as a businesswoman), “What’s in it for me?” and saying “ten grand would be a start”, in relation to a proposed wind-farm development. If it had been a genuine business proposition, and if the company felt €10,000 a price worth paying to ensure political support for it, would anyone else have ever known about it?
It is no time to be congratulating ourselves on how little corruption apparently takes place in Ireland. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And the interlocking worlds of Irish business and politics are far too opaque to allow for any undue sense of self-satisfaction.