Tuesday 21 October 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Lure of lucre alive and well in politics despite donation limits

Published 16/02/2012 | 05:00

Fianna Fail is still trying to live down the days of the infamous Galway Races tent when Bertie Ahern was its leader

Why stop there? It's the question that arises upon reading the Government's crackdown on corporate donations. The new legislation going through the Houses of the Oireachtas is laudable and goes a long way toward cutting the ties between business and politics, which have cost the country so much.

The limits on political donations that may be accepted is going down from €6,350 to €2,500 for a political party and from €2,540 to €1,000 for individual politicians.

The threshold at which donations have to be publicly declared is also being reduced from €5,080 to €1,500 for a political party and from €635 to €600 for an individual politician. Although not banning corporate donations outright, any sums over €200 from companies or bodies will meet with extremely difficult restrictions.

In the words of Environment Minister Phil Hogan, corporate donations will be "severely curtailed" in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011. The books of political parties will be "opened up to public scrutiny". According to experts in the field, Mr Hogan's new laws are certainly a vast improvement but don't go far enough.

Dr Theresa Reidy of the Department of Government at University College Cork points out wealthy individuals will still be able to donate up to €7,500 to parties between general elections (€1,500 each year for five years) without having their identity revealed.

"The key word is transparency. If you were going to strengthen the legislation, you would bring the declaration thresholds down. There is a sensible balance to be achieved," she said.

Trinity College Dublin politics lecturer Dr Elaine Byrne was critical of the failure to await the publication of the Mahon Tribunal report and not taking account of the Moriarty Tribunal's findings. "The legislation goes some way to addressing the faults but it is far from perfect. Compared to other countries, it is progressive," she said. The academic, who specialises in studying political corruption, agrees with the minister's moves to lower the donation threshold, but wonders about its effectiveness. "How do you police it? How do you monitor it?" she asked.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Mr Hogan are certainly belated converts to the idea of restricting corporate donations. Mr Kenny lifted his party's ban on corporate donations when he became leader.

And publishing his party's political reform proposals two years ago, Mr Hogan said Fine Gael "agree with companies being able to support political parties to the limits that they have been up to now".

Fine Gael suddenly changed its official policy during the election campaign following the lead of the rest of the political parties. Yet it still finds it acceptable for an individual to remain anonymous while giving up to €1,500 to a party each year.

After 14 years in power where the party failed to address the corrosive blight of corporate donations and embraced the culture of links between politics and big business, Fianna Fail's proposals for reform have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Nonetheless, its U-turn on the road to Damascus is a welcome development. The party has seen the damage done to its reputation by the Galway Races tent tradition and needs to make a fresh start.

In the spirit of the new legislation, the Irish Independent asked each of the main political parties' secretaries general it they would open their accounts for the past five years for inspection, allow the publication of details and set out any donations received by the party above €1,500 between 2006 and 2011.

The responses were revealing. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein didn't reply at all. Fianna Fail partially responded, providing figures for 2011 -- but ignoring the previous years when it openly courted corporate cash.

The party raised €1.02m last year, including €530,000 from the national draw, and another €180,000 from the Election Draw in February 2011 -- again tickets were priced at €50. And a further €185,000 was raised through small donations to the National Collection, which is normally raised through church gate collections in rural areas.

Fianna Fail said it raised €65,000 through donations over €1,500 last year -- one of which will be declared as it was above the limit of €5,080 -- and these funds made up 6pc of the party's fundraising.

But out of power and out of favour, 2011 was hardly an attractive year for the business community to contribute to Fianna Fail.

In recent days, the recollection of the tale of Sean Gallagher and Hugh Morgan will remind the public it wasn't so long ago that Fianna Fail saw nothing wrong with organising €5,000-a-head private dinners for businessmen with the Taoiseach.

The Labour Party was by far the most open to requests from this newspaper, providing copies of its detailed accounts up to two years ago. The last two years' accounts are currently with the auditors ahead of the party's national conference, where they will be presented to the membership and then immediately made public.

Labour's general secretary Ita McAuliffe was also refreshingly willing to answer any questions about the party's finances and issued an invitation to come back in April after the latest sets of accounts were published.

The question about any undeclared donations above €1,500 was answered: "We don't get big donations."

Labour will likely be hit by the new laws as the corporate donations restrictions also apply to trade unions.

The party received €110,000 in trade union affiliations in 2009 and has got €190,000 in declared donations from unions to both the party and individual candidates between 2001 and 2010.

Whether the affiliations' money -- based on 50c per union member -- will fall foul of the legislation will certainly be touched upon as the legislation passes through the Oireachtas.

With Labour not bothered about four-figure-sum donations, clearly it is their coalition partners in Fine Gael who still want to be able to take in up to €1,500 without having to declare the identity of the donor.

Ordinary decent members of Fine Gael pay their membership of €15, throw a few quid into the plate at the church gate for the collection, probably buy an €80 Christmas raffle ticket and some go to the annual dinner where the tickets cost €120.

All told, a dedicated party activist could reasonably fork out €250 to the party coffers, if they have it. Who exactly are Enda and Phil catering for by still making it possible for someone to donate €1,500 without having to be identified?

The lure of the lucre is clearly alive in politics.

Irish Independent

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