Wednesday 18 September 2019

Lobbyists forced to declare interests on public register

The Mahon Tribunal on planning corruption highlighted the lack of regulation for lobbyists
The Mahon Tribunal on planning corruption highlighted the lack of regulation for lobbyists

MAEVE SHEEHAN

LOBBYISTS, charities and trade unions will have to declare their attempts to influence government policy on a public register from May 1.

The new 'register of lobbying' will mean that anyone engaged in lobbying - from consultants hired by the tobacco industry to developers trying to influence the planning process - will have to record who they lobbied, on whose behalf and for what purpose.

Lobbyists will have to start recording their lobbying activities from May 1 and will have to report that activity on the online register every four months. The database will be policed by the political standards body, Sipo, which is in the process of hiring a Head of Lobbying Regulation.

Those who fail to register, or provide false or misleading information, face fines of up to €5,000 and jail sentences of up to a year, or in more serious cases, up to five years. The register is aimed at introducing more transparency into the industry of influencing policymakers.

The legislation passed into law earlier this month, three years after the Mahon Tribunal on planning corruption highlighted the lack of regulation for lobbyists.

The lobbying regulation bill was steered through by Public Enterprise Minister Brendan Howlin, who promised to "shine a light" on lobbying rather than "change behaviour". The new register will record the lobbying of ministers and their special advisers, and other politicians, and civil servants above the rank of principal officer.

Public servants - above the rank of principal officer - will have to sign up to a transparency code and they will also have to abide by a one-year "cooling off" period before they can set up as lobbyists.

Lobbyists, companies, representative groups, charities or any other body that lobbies the Government will be obliged to file "lobbying returns" three times a year - recording the identity of the client, if applicable, the public servant approached, and for what purpose.

The register also extends beyond the corporate world to cover any individual who lobbies local officials on the planning or rezoning of land.

It comes at a time when the lobbying sector has come under scrutiny because of the political links of some lobbyists, such as Frank Flannery, the influential Fine Gael strategist who also lobbied the Government on behalf of disability group Rehab.

Several former politicians and political advisers have taken up new careers in "public affairs" including former Fianna Fail ministers Noel Dempsey and Pat Carey; ex-Fine Gael TD Olywn Enright; Mark Mortell, a former Fine Gael adviser and Ray Gordon, a former spokesperon for the Progressive Democrats party.

More recently, Government ministers and politicians have been heavily lobbied by the international tobacco industry over proposed changes in cigarette packaging. At least one tobacco firm has threatened to sue the Government.

Tobacco firms have retained several Irish public affairs experts to lobby on their behalf in recent years.

The former RUC chief Ronnie Flanagan was recruited by British American Tobacco in 2013 as an external consultant and adviser on the illegal tobacco trade.

The former RTE sports presenter and PR consultant Bill O'Herlihy also represented the tobacco industry in Ireland, as has Red Flag, Karl Brophy's public affairs consultancy.

Henghan PR told the Sunday Independent it carries out "monitoring" on behalf of a tobacco firm, but said it does not lobby on its behalf.

Sunday Independent

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