Monday 24 October 2016

Fionnan Sheahan: Like Caesar’s wife – Enda sees value of transparency

Published 05/04/2012 | 05:00

He briefly sported a Caesar haircut, with a short, horizontally straight cut fringe. But Taoiseach Enda Kenny's new mantra appears to be modelled on Caesar's wife Pompeia-- to be above suspicion.

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Declare everything is the position now adopted by Mr Kenny on what he owns.

The contrast between Mr Kenny's official register of interests last year and this year says a lot about the lack of transparency in the current system of how politicians declare their assets.

Mr Kenny owns four properties, including his family home, but doesn't have to make any of the information public:

• His home outside Castlebar, bought with wife Fionnuala in 1998.

• His constituency office which he bought in 1982.

• An apartment in Dublin, bought in 2004 with his wife.

• A field near his late parents' home in Mayo, bought by the family in 1999.

Last year, Mr Kenny didn't declare any of the properties and was perfectly within his rights.

This year, he has declared all four of the properties, going above and beyond any reasonable interpretation of the rules.

The Taoiseach is wise to declare everything he owns to avoid any potential accusations of failing to reveal details.

But it's still curious that he waited until after the existence of his full portfolio was reported in the Irish Independent earlier this year.

His predecessor and mentor -- former Taoiseach John Bruton -- used to talk about governing behind a pane of glass and Mr Kenny would be well advised to follow suit.

The publication of the reports of the Moriarty and Mahon tribunals have exposed politicians at the top of the pile to greater scrutiny.

Three former Taoisigh -- Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern -- have now had adverse findings against them by a Tribunal of Inquiry.

The current Taoiseach and his Government must lead by example in proving the culture has changed. Yet Mr Kenny's case shows the extent to which politicians are exempt from putting their assets on the public record.

Contrary to the widespread public belief that politicians have to declare everything they own, there are actually many exceptions to the rules.

Mr Kenny doesn't have to declare his house because it's a family home.

He doesn't have to declare his office because he uses it for representational purposes and doesn't get any rental income.

Likewise, his apartment, which is only used for personal purposes.

And if the value of the field is not over €18,000, he doesn't have to declare that either.

Not every TD adopts Mr Kenny's new-found declare-everything attitude and it is still possible for elected Oireachtas members to legally conceal valuable assets.

If the Taoiseach is happy to make all his assets known to the public, then why not update the Register of Interests to ensure all TDs and senators subscribe to the same standards.

Instead, the oft-promised strengthening of ethical standards is still awaited.

The Mahon Report recommended beefing up the powers of the State's ethics watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO).

The Government is promising a new independent electoral and ethical body. But any new watchdog must be given the legislative powers to both bark and bite.

The frequent criticism of SIPO as being toothless undermines confidence in the system of applying ethical standards to democratically elected representatives.

New political funding laws will certainly go some way -- if not all -- towards fostering a belief that the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated.

This week, the donation statements from TDs, senators and MEPs revealed just short of €380,000 worth of funding declared in 2011.

In a General Election year, when nearly €10m was spent on the campaign, it's a farce to see such low levels of declarations, and to see so many TDs disclosing no donations at all.

Given the high declaration threshold, there is no suggestion anybody was breaking the law. But it highlights the need for the net to be tightened.

The political funding legislation being put through the Oireachtas by Environment Minister Phil Hogan will effectively ban corporate donations which go over €200.

Donations above that amount will be prohibited unless the donors meet the most strict and exacting conditions, including providing details of their membership and shareholders and copies of their accounts and annual reports.

Details of these donors will be included on a register to be published and each donation will have to be approved by a general meeting of the members of the corporation or body.

The number of hurdles put in place will put off all but the most zealous donors.

The limits on political donations that can be accepted will also fall from €6,348 to €2,500 for a political party and from €2,539 to €1,000 for a candidate.

Mr Hogan's legislation is far from perfect. Arguably, the thresholds could be a lot lower and the new law doesn't ban corporate donations outright.

But it's a good start and there's an argument for the forthcoming convention on the Constitution to examine whether further changes are required -- even if it means putting it to the people in a referendum.

The higher ethical standards coming in may be regarded by some as too onerous and off-putting in terms of attracting capable individuals.

But following the abuse of power by some of those in positions of responsibility, Caesar's wife Pompeia will have to be the role model for all politicians to restore public trust.

Irish Independent

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