Wednesday 28 September 2016

'What's in it for me' must not become the catch cry for politics in Ireland

Published 10/12/2015 | 02:30

Former Fine Gael Councillor Hugh McElvaney
Former Fine Gael Councillor Hugh McElvaney

'What's in it for me?" demanded Councillor Hugh McElvaney, caught by a hidden camera looking for a bribe to help with a planning application. Let's consider that question in a broader context. What's in it for politicians to set up an independent anti-corruption body with strong powers and sufficient resources?

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A lot, is the answer. So much, in fact, it's a mystery why they haven't grasped the nettle yet. I can't believe there are more venal politicians than upright ones, yet the lowest common denominator is allowed to set the standard. This must not continue. It serves the best interests neither of citizens nor the body politic.

So, an anti-corruption agency empowered by legislation to do its job properly is essential to restore the public trust. Its establishment would show leadership, accountability and a moral compass, as well as distancing law-abiding officeholders from vice. Above all, it would give the Irish people no less than we deserve.

Political reform is mentioned from time to time by the inhabitants of Leinster House but it's mostly hot air. Political reform is not urgent in the eyes of our leaders. More fools them. They are squandering their authority and good names.

Successive governments have shown no great strength of purpose towards tackling corruption, with legislation languishing unpassed for 10 years. A suitable bill has been drafted finally, but will fail to reach the statute books in the lifetime of the current administration. There simply haven't been enough days in a five-year term, apparently.

The people know what's necessary, even if our politicians are painfully slow in dealing with it: an end to low standards in high places. All it takes for a substandard status quo to operate is a willingness to swallow others' transgressions. Currently, honest politicians are doing that on behalf of their dishonest colleagues.

In the wake of this week's excellent 'RTÉ Investigates' exposé, neither condemnation nor expressions of shock are enough. The political will to take swift action is needed. Over to you, gentleman and ladies.

The present administration has had plenty of time to move against corruption - quite long enough to set aside the funds, find qualified people and tailor the legislation to the purpose. Yet the words of Hugh "I want loadsamoney" McElvaney, four times Mayor of Monaghan and an ex-Fine Gael representative, ring depressingly familiar.

County councillors on the take, exposed by the undercover investigation, are not simply greedy buffoons. Their decisions impact on citizens' lives. Houses built on flood plains is one example which springs to mind during this wet, wet week.

From a young age, children are taught the difference between right and wrong: that they shouldn't lie or steal. Why, then, are honesty, decency and integrity missing from a number of our public representatives? You could speculate till the cows come home, but the lack of repercussions must be a factor. The child who lies and cheats is punished, the public representative faces nothing more onerous than humiliation. And some of them are beyond shame.

We heard a lot about improvements to transparency and governance in the wake of the economic collapse, but the Government has deagged its heels in tackling political reform. If patronage, clientelism and similar low-level rinky-dinks are regarded as acceptable in the political sphere, how can citizens be expected to comply with the law of the land? Why one set of rules for us and another for them?

How can we have faith that our representatives are making decisions in the best public interest if we can't be confident about their actions?

Corruption is an ongoing challenge in any democracy. But political parties have a particular responsibility to root it out. There must be consequences for those caught red-handed.

As for voters, we have a duty, too. We must raise the question of corruption on the doorstep when politicians come knocking, as they soon will. We must insist on that anti-corruption body. And we must vote accordingly.

The political system isn't broken, as some suggest, but nor is it working as effectively as it ought to be. An improvement I'd like to see introduced is term limits for politicians because there is a tendency for lifers to become entrenched within the system, slow to recognise the need for reform. A regular influx of new people, new eyes, new ideas - that's a healthier way forward.

Much has been achieved in recent years to decontaminate Irish society. The Catholic Church no longer shelters paedophiles, banks are cleaner than they were and tax evasion is no longer socially acceptable.

Yet the political class continues to show an inclination to put reform towards the end of the agenda. Any politician who doubts whether there is room for improvement should reflect on Mr McElvaney's "what's in it for me?" motto. And get cracking.

Irish Independent

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