Wednesday 22 October 2014

Daniel McConnell: Access to the corridors of power is lucrative for political insiders

Former ministers and advisers have the edge in the 'Wild West' world of Leinster House lobbying

Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30

Former Leinster House grandees turned lobbyists
TRANSPARENCY: Senator John Whelan called for a lobbyist to resign from his position on a quango. Photo: Gerry Mooney

'Will Frank Flannery be able to keep his pass for Leinster House?" That was the question asked around the Dail after his shock resignation from Fine Gael last week.

To the outside world, people would think it odd why such a trivial issue would matter so much. He quickly lost his pass, by the way. But in the unregulated world of lobbying here, holding the pass means access to power.

Access equals influence and influence delivers a pay day from clients.

The extent of Flannery's influence was laid bare by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.

"There is a corridor that ministers have offices on at the back of Government Buildings linked to Leinster House proper. I would be in there at 8.30am on the morning of a Cabinet meeting and I would meet him or I would see him walking past the odd time, with usually Fine Gael advisers. I would greet him," Quinn said.

Casually able to loiter with Fine Gael advisers in the normally off-limits ministerial corridor, Flannery's presence was accepted as the way it is.

Quinn was asked would Flannery have lobbied him on behalf of Rehab during their "bumpings in".

"Well, he had spoken to me on different occasions about concerns he would have had about the change in the monies available to Rehab because of the introduction of the national lottery, but not in any kind of a lobbying way to me," the minister said.

But did he raise concerns about Rehab, Quinn was asked. "Yes," came the reply.

Quinn's frank admission came after it was reported that Flannery had earned €77,000 from Rehab for "successfully lobbying in respect of the Charity Lottery Funds".

Often not done in formal meetings attended by civil servants, rather in casual, snatched chats with cabinet members, that is lobbying Irish-style.

Sometimes spoken of with disdain, to others, such as those within the industry, lobbying is a legitimate part of a democracy rather than being a badge of shame.

In the Nineties and 2000s, PJ Mara was seen as the archetypal lobbyist – Charles Haughey's former spin doctor was in high demand.

For lobbyists today, not as lucky as Flannery, a reliance on TD and Seanad connections is required to obtain access to Leinster House.

Once inside, however, they have virtually free rein.

The issue of regulation centres primarily around the potential for conflicts of interest.

Former Labour TD and general secretary turned lobbyist Brendan Halligan has recently found himself in hot water with members of his own party.

Senators John Whelan and John Kelly, under Seanad privilege, have called on Halligan to resign from his position as chairman of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Halligan is also a public affairs consultant for, and director of Mainstream Renewable Power, the major wind-farm developers in the midlands.

The CEO of Mainstream, Eddie O'Connor, claimed in response to earlier concerns that "none of the services offered by SEAI have been availed of by Mainstream. If they were, Brendan would have to absent himself from any decision-making forum at SEAI because there would be a conflict of interest".

The absence of regulation here has led to office holders, and senior policy advisers, walking out of Government on a Friday and setting up as a lobbyist on the following Monday – with no cooling-off period.

As we reveal today, there is a slew of former government ministers, advisers, press officers and journalists now plying their trade and earning a substantial income as lobbyists.

Former Fianna Fail ministers Noel Dempsey, Batt O'Keeffe, Pat Carey and Dick Roche are all offering their services and expertise.

Former influential Labour spin doctor Tony Heffernan, who has worked for three party leaders – Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn – is now at DHR Communications.

Lobbyist Lucy C Cronin contrasted the "ad hoc" unregulated lobbying system in Ireland with the "transparent, fair and vetted system" in Brussels.

In Brussels, lobbyists have to be registered with the European transparency list, and many MEPs will only accept meetings with companies who have signed up.

Also, such lobbying firms have to disclose their client list and indicate how much those clients pay for their services.

In Leinster House, no such procedures exist.

Cronin says access is arbitrarily allocated to former political staff and journalists who once had legitimate reasons for holding a pass.

In Brussels, she says, lobbying is treated as a respected profession.

In Dublin, the attitude to lobbying is markedly different. "You're a wha?" is often the response. Cronin says that "civil servants are generally nervous and want to deal off the record". She says "politicians are relatively open but very constituency centric".

Lobbyists in Brussels tend to be large professional firms with staff knowledgable of the law, economics and political science, who are also trained in public affairs which is "very distinct from public relations".

The proliferation of the sole trading 'one-man bands' like the former ministers is reflective of a lack of regulation here.

In Dublin, some of the larger firms are pushing for the introduction of a Brussels'-style register. They know the former ministers and advisers have a competitive advantage which is hard to compete against.

Indeed, some of the bigger firms have admitted having to resort to using the old ministers' network to progress a client's agenda, which had for them run into the sand.

The EU's Transparency Register of lobbying firms who operate in Brussels contains almost 30 identifiable Irish or Irish-based firms and organisations.

In some cases the amount of money spent on lobbying by such firms is staggering.

Hume Brophy is one of Dublin's leading PR and lobbying firms. According to its declaration, in the financial year up to August last year, it spent between €2.25m and €2.5m "representing interests to EU institutions on behalf of clients."

It has 20 people accredited for access to the parliament building on behalf of its clients, which include the International Rugby Board, Burger King, Bank of New York Mellon, Deloitte and Adobe systems.

Facebook Ireland, which has a keen interest in legislation governing privacy, technology, human rights and e-commerce, has two designated lobbyists in Europe and spent between €400,000 and €450,000 on lobbying last year.

Diageo, the parent company of Guinness, a global brand in its own right, said it spent between €450,000 and €500,000 on lobbying EU institutions last year.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions spent between €150,000 and €200,000 lobbying the EU institutions, according to its declaration, while the Irish Banking Federation spent between €100,000 and €150,000.

A recent UCD study found that 77 per cent of organisations engage in "some form of lobbying". Yet only very few are on the EU's Register.

Last week, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore spoke in the Dail about the pending legislation to regulate lobbying. In the course of that address, he described the activity as a "legitimate part of our democracy". It will have been music to the ears of those who practice this particular art.

Sunday Independent

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