Thursday 27 October 2016

Caution needed on 'open mic' Dáil claims

Mick Wallace served us well with his use of Dáil privilege, says Liz O'Donnell, but we must beware of pre-election agendas

Published 18/07/2015 | 02:30

Mick Wallace
Mick Wallace

Claims made under Dáil privilege by Independent Deputy Mick Wallace this week were, if true, sensational and grave. It would be folly of the highest order to make light of them.

  • Go To

If corruption, as alleged, exists in government or any State agency democracy, it demands immediate response. This is particularly so when the State agency concerned, Nama, established in 2009 to take toxic loans off the balance sheets of Irish banks is one of the key bodies charged with the recovery of the Irish economy.

The calamitous banking and property collapse in 2008 resulted amongst other things in the loss of Ireland's economic sovereignty. A blanket bank guarantee now viewed as "flawed" by the European Commission turned a banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis. The 2010 bailout required years of austerity and financial adjustments, tax hikes, unpopular reforms and cutbacks in public services.

Thousands of citizens and businesses experienced financial ruin. Unemployment and emigration soared. Those in power were duly punished in 2011 and replaced by the FG/Labour coalition with a mandate to oversee national recovery.

Five years later as the general election looms, despite clear evidence of recovery growth and employment, anti-government sentiment remains high with polls showing a consistent drift towards independents and left leaning parties.

"Anti-austerity" has become the battle cry and ideology of a large cohort of opposition politicians not only in Ireland but in similarly challenged countries like Spain and Greece. Millions of voters in these countries have abandoned traditional socialist and centrist parties, and embraced new radical left-wing groupings such as Syriza and Podemus.

The last six months of a Syriza government in Greece and the country's recent brush with bankruptcy has been instructive. After much ado, the new bailout deal accepted by Greece is even harsher than had earlier been rejected in referendum. As they tottered on the brink of eurozone exit, capital controls were introduced, banks closed for three weeks, and citizens now face more harsh reforms and cut backs. Yet the Tsipras-led Syriza government remains popular. An opinion poll on Tuesday showed a 70pc support for the third bailout deal negotiated by Tsipras, which suggests there is more at play than left-wing economics and debt.

Both in Spain and in Greece, these new parties have appealed to voters on a platform of anti-corruption and governance. The two main parties in Spain, the socialists (PSOE) and centre right (PP), who alternatively ruled for three decades, have been electorally damaged by a series of scandals involving corruption at local and national level. Both are now labelled "la casta" (the caste) by Podemus, whose support has soared by attacking the impact of austerity and focusing on corruption by the establishment parties.

Similarly in Greece, poor governance, bribery, tax evasion and clientelism have been very much part of the problems besetting the country and hindering its economic development. Greece's ranking on the perceived level of corruption is still worst in the EU. Chronic bureaucracy and red tape fosters corruption and bribery. The surge in support, therefore, in these countries for the new radical parties of the left is not exclusively about traditional leftist ideology. It is equally about an appetite for governance, anti-corruption and tackling the golden circle of insiders and elites viewed as responsible for inequality and malfunction in business and banking.

Here in Ireland, much of the anger which manifests itself in civil unrest, anti-establishment sentiment and distrust in politics is related more to disgust at what is seen as golden circles in business and politics and a failure to adequately combat and punish corrupt or conflicted decision making. Concerns about low standards in high places are a persistent gripe in public discourse and commentary. This is precisely why the questions raised about the sale of Nama's Northern Ireland property portfolio to US investment house Cerberus, now the subject of a criminal investigation, are very serious for democracy. Further claims about Nama by Mick Wallace this week will raise public tensions even further. The Garda Commissioner immediately ordered the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation to look into the specific claim that a Nama official sought a €30,000 bribe from a construction company.

In all, Deputy Wallace has raised 28 different concerns about Nama operations in the Dáil. One is that syndicates involving professional firms and individuals in key positions of influence are getting preferential treatment by Nama when it comes to their loans. The TD claimed that ordinary people are being put out of their homes while the "great and the good are blessed with the goodwill of Nama" by not having personal guarantees enforced. Deputy Wallace is tapping into a deep seam of grievance about large professional services firms and lawyers doing very nicely in servicing the recovery mechanisms of the State such as Nama.

He declares confidence in his sources and that his motives are honourable. His timing, however, is problematic in that the Dáil is in recess until the end of September. When it comes back, there will be three weeks to the Budget. After that, we are essentially in the run-up to an election.

If alleged malpractice and/or corruption continues to dominate public affairs and comment in the interim, it will feed into public distrust of politics and government. Allegations of dodgy deals, insider trading, undue profiteering and weak responses by government to corruption and white-collar crime will herd even more disgruntled voters into the arms of left-wing independents and populist parties like Sinn Féin.

The use of Dáil privilege is a vital constitutional protection for TDs raising matters in the public interest. It is there for good reason and Deputy Wallace has served the public well by its use.

However, there is a danger, with an election looming, that deputies will make allegations, without sufficient evidence of their veracity. Deprived of redress in the courts, people about whom allegations are made can be left with destroyed reputations. The Dáil could become an "open mic" for those with an agenda, to make unproven claims under privilege for base political motives. If deputies receive information of criminal activity, a more prudent course of action is to go the garda route in the first instance and allow due process to be served as is provided for under the 2010 Prevention of Corruption Act, which requires such reporting and also protects whistle-blowers.

Irish Independent

Read More