A RECENT RTE programme brought it back to us: The ‘what’s in it for me?’ syndrome that was intensively probed by the Mahon Tribunal, and which exposed the ugliness of Irish political life with its rampant culture of backhanders and brown envelopes.
At the end of the 15-year inquiry into bribery and politicians, Judge Mahon made observations that are relevant to the shenanigans uncovered by RTE. ‘Political corruption,’ he said, ‘continues unabated because those with the power to stop it are frequently implicated in it … and when entrenched in the body politic, corruption is transformed into an acknowledged way of doing business!’
Indeed, the following comments by the judge deserve to be engraved on the walls of every County Hall, Town Hall, City Hall, or wherever the political class gathers: ‘Political corruption diverts public resources to the benefit of the few and at the expense of the many. It undermines social equality and perpetuates unfairness. Corruption in public office is a fundamental breach of public trust and inherently incompatible with the democratic nature of the state.’
Noble words but, with regard to most of the chancers we elect to run the country, Mahon’s message (then and now) ran like water off a duck’s back. Nonetheless, his many recommendations (sixty four in all) have a striking appropriateness. They include:
• Breaches of political ethics rules should be a criminal offence
• A new planning regulator to remove power from the Environment Minister to direct regional and local authorities. Councillors also should be told to explain their reasons for voting.
• Politicians should be forced to disclose their interests within one month of election and update significant changes within 30 days.
TOUCH OF CLASS
The fact that political corruption has never been taken too seriously in Ireland is substantiated by John Gormley’s morale-sapping failure in 2010. The crusading Environment Minister in the Fianna Fáil/Green government ordered six independent inquiries into the activities of six Councils. He wanted answers to puzzles such as why local authorities zoned too much land for development and why Cork had the highest number of ghost estates in Ireland.
He got absolutely nowhere. The general election intervened and he was booted out of office. Once the FG/Labour gang got power, the government’s new Environment Minister, Big Philly Hogan, effectively shut down Gormley’s investigation. Instead of ‘independent inquiries’ Hogan ordered ‘internal reviews’. It was a touch of class! Because if Gormley’s investigations had been allowed to proceed, and independent inspectors appointed to examine the close contacts between planners, developers and councillors, some light might have been shed on matters such as the weaknesses in planning procedures, Councils not adhering to their own policies, and procedures concerning pre-planning consultations. After all, those were the very issues that formed the basis of Judge Mahon’s denunciation of what he called ‘the endemic and systemic corruption of our political system’.
For his part, Hogan argued that costs would amount to a ‘runaway train’ should he permit an independent inquiry, for which reason he sent in his own department officials to carry out a ‘review’. Their task was to focus on complaints made by planning groups, timelines for planning permission and high-rise buildings in urban areas.
In other words, Fine Gael unwittingly or otherwise killed off the investigation – a situation that prevailed until a former senior County Council planner with Donegal County Council, Gerard Convie, compiled a dossier of 20 sample cases of alleged planning corruption. He did so despite the fact that an official report had already found no evidence of any ‘irregularity’.
The whistleblower bravely took his case to the High Court which agreed with him, obliging the Department to apologise profusely and pay over €25,000 in compensation.
Mr Convie’s success led to considerable unease in government circles, as did his comment that there were ample powers under Section 255 of the 2000 Planning and Development Act for the Minister to appoint an independent person, such as a senior barrister, to inquire into evidence of impropriety in local authorities. He commented: ‘The people of Donegal deserve to know the truth and what has been going on in planning in the county, and who has been responsible for it’.
An Taisce, Sinn Féin, Transparency International Ireland, and the Green Party supported Mr Convie’s call for transparency. Other parties
kept their gobs shut.
Then (perhaps in response to the Convie judgment) Labour’s Housing Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, reopened the six planning inquiries that former Environment Minister Big Philly Hogan had blocked. She hired a private company of town planning experts to undertake a review of planning in Cork, Carlow, Galway, and Meath County Councils, as well as in Dublin and Cork City Councils. It was the third examination of Ireland’s planning system in four years!
And last week in the wake of the RTE investigation, Taoiseach Kenny attempted to mollify the public with a proposal to implement the Mahon Tribunal recommendation for the establishment of a ‘planning regulator’.
NO REFORM BEFORE ELECTION
Although the ‘planning regulator’ idea was not too far removed from Mr Convie’s ‘independent senior barrister’, Kenny made clear that such an initiative would be carried out under the Public Sector Standards Bill that was drafted last June and has yet to be brought before Cabinet. Consequently the likelihood is remote of any Fine Gael appointed ‘independent planning regulator’ swinging into action before the forthcoming general election!
Indeed, elements within Fine Gael are not happy at all at the prospect of ‘an independent planning regulator’. They say a better option would be to have someone whose role would be that of giving ‘advice’; in other words, a resurrection of Hogan’s way.
But, someone might ask, what about the so-called ‘ethics watchdog’, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), which has been in existence for ten years? What has it been up to? Well, the kindest observation to be made about an outfit that remains in the shadows, imperceptible to the public eye and ear and fails to carry out the type of investigation done by RTE, is that it lacks a proper legislative basis and is underfunded.
But, on the other hand, if a miracle happens and the Public Sector Standards Bill is passed, won’t politicos run the risk of being accused of committing a serious criminal offence if they fail to declare their business and property interests.
Theoretically yes! But do pigs really fly?
After all, who can forget the recent sight of mortified rogues, mostly venal Blueshirts, rushing to offer excuses for concealing their grubby property/business activities?
The apologies ranged from ‘I didn’t realise I had to’, ‘it was in me Dad’s name’ to the simple ‘I forgot’.
All were akin to the schoolboy’s ‘the dog ate my homework, sir’ and, most importantly, nobody minded!