Economist John FitzGerald, formerly of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), wrote a column for the Irish Times last month, which opened with the line: “While the public perception may be otherwise, by international standards, Ireland appears to have a pretty low level of corruption.”
Really? FitzGerald bases this claim on improved legislation and rules in areas like the funding of political parties and the award of public procurement contracts.
Well, when it comes to public procurement, let’s not forget that the 2011 Moriarty Tribunal report found that former minister Michael Lowry had attempted behaviour that was “profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breath-taking”.
The tribunal established that Lowry played a decisive role in Denis O’Brien winning a hugely lucrative mobile-phone licence.
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) – six years later – has still not decided whether to bring any charges arising from the tribunal’s findings.
So yes, the rules may be there, but if they are not enforced in the most high-profile cases, then how useful are they?
Former Anglo Irish Bank chairman and chief executive Sean Fitzpatrick was recently acquitted on charges, which he denied, of misleading auditors. The acquittal hinged on an egregiously botched investigation by the Office of the Director for Corporate Enforcement.
Again, when there is not the will or the resources to properly investigate alleged white-collar crime, then how useful, in practice, is an impressive legal and regulatory framework?
FitzGerald suggests the laws are supplemented by “a culture where probity is expected and valued and there is zero tolerance for deviation from high standards”, extending beyond corruption as such to best-practice governance more generally.
Does this culture prevail in Ireland? Lowry topping the electoral poll in Tipperary is often cited as evidence to the contrary, and indeed it is. But at least the constituents of Tipperary have their reasons for voting as they do – Lowry delivers benefits to them.
So let us take another recent high-profile case where benefits to the populace are less clear-cut – the appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Criminal Appeal.
There is no suggestion of Whelan being in any way corrupt, but the question is whether there is zero tolerance for less-than-high governance standards. In this case, Whelan was herself a member of the appointments panel for judges (before her own candidacy was declared), and was then present at a cabinet meeting where her appointment (over the heads of already serving judges) was approved.
Previously, the Fennelly report into the resignation of the former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan found that Whelan had first testified on “criminal activity being engaged in by An Garda Síochána”, and then changed that testimony to say that the behavior was only “potentially” illegal. This was a pretty startling reversal, and one for which she has not been called to account.
To repeat, this is not in any way to imply that Máire Whelan has behaved corruptly. It is rather to suggest that the highest standards of governance may not have been observed here (and that potentially less-than-stellar performance in government may have been rewarded), contrary to FitzGerald’s claims of zero tolerance for same.
And then of course we have the ongoing, at times almost surreal, saga of shocking behavior on the part of the Gardaí. The list here is enormous, so a few examples will have to suffice:
—Gardaí laughed and joked in 2011 about threatening to rape a protestor during the Corrib gas dispute in County Mayo, after years of what a report from the human rights group Frontline Defenders mildly described as a “breakdown in trust” between the police and local residents;
—In a saga recently aired before a visibly shocked Public Accounts Committee, extraordinary accounting practices at the Garda training centre in Templemore were documented;
—The Charleton Tribunal is currently investigating allegations that Gardaí attempted to smear whistleblower Maurice McCabe with vile allegations of child sexual abuse;
The most important point here is that while the litany of well-nigh unbelievable behaviour is breathtaking and ongoing, the consequences have been (and likely will remain) minimal. We have all the laws we need to ensure the police themselves follow the rules – but it still does not happen.
And this is where Ireland (by no means uniquely) falls down – we just don’t do accountability. As John FitzGerald notes, corruption damages economic activity, as does the persistence of dodgy behavior that might not formally be classified as corrupt. And claims that such practices are limited here, or on the decline, need to be treated with extreme caution.