Sunday 22 September 2019

Why perception trumps political reality

Denis Naughten didn't act corruptly, but his actions created an aura of corruption

TRAPPINGS OF OFFICE: May 2017 and Denis Naughten is given the Ministerial seal of office for
the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at
Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
TRAPPINGS OF OFFICE: May 2017 and Denis Naughten is given the Ministerial seal of office for the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Liam Weeks

The former Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten, felt vindicated by the review of the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan, which was published last week.

The author of the review, Peter Smyth, concluded that Denis Naughten, forced to resign because of private meetings he had with one of the bidders, 'did not influence, nor seek to influence, the conduct of the tender process'.

Does this mean that Irish politics is not corrupt? I ask this very question every year in my lectures at UCC, where I encourage students to avoid simplistic soundbites about corrupt politicians, and to instead use comparative evidence to locate Ireland in the global sphere.

One such means of doing so is Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), calculated from expert assessments in 180 countries of the perceived levels of corruption in the public sector.

Scores on this index range from 0 to 100, with 0 meaning very corrupt and 100 very clean. In 2017, more than two-thirds of countries scored below 50. Somalia, South Sudan and Syria had the lowest respective scores of 9, 12 and 14.

The countries with the five highest scores, ranging from 85 to 89, were New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Switzerland.

Ireland came 19th with a score of 74, below the UK and the US, but above Japan and France.

On this basis, most of my students concluded that, despite the evidence from the Mahon and McCracken tribunals, to mention a few, Ireland seems to be, relatively speaking, not so corrupt.

However, as some of the more discerning observers pointed out, the CPI is not a measure of corruption per se, but rather a measure of the perception of its existence.

So, it could be that a country is quite corrupt, but gets a high score on the Corruptions Perception Index if this corruption is hidden from society and the experts measuring it.

What this really indicates is whether the perception of corruption is more important than its existence?

Is it worse to live in a society that is not corrupt, but which we believe to be endemic with corruption, or in a corrupt society that we believe to be clean and fair?

A perception of corruption can lead to citizens having less faith in the political system, increasing their sense of alienation, and resulting in higher levels of disaffection and withdrawal, all of which have the potential to undermine the fabric and sustainability of democracy.

This very issue was the focus of the review into the bidding process for the National Broadband Plan. The report highlighted the dangers of perception, when seemingly no evidence of actual corruption existed.

Peter Smyth found that Denis Naughten did not act in a corrupt manner, while also stating that to protect the integrity of the process, it was right that Naughten resigned, because it 'insulates the process from any apparent bias'.

At the time, the Minister was pretty angry that the Taoiseach had demanded his resignation, stating in the Dail that the outcome was more about "opinion polls than telecoms pole", and more about "optics than fibre optics".

But the then Minister was missing the point. Of course it is about optics, and of course they are important. I have not heard anyone suggest that Denis Naughten acted corruptly, but his actions created an aura of, or potential for, corruption, and that can be just as damaging as corruption itself.

In total, Minister Naughten had 40 meetings with the four consortia bidding for the National Broadband tender; almost half were with the Granahan McCourt group.

The latter was the only bidder with whom the Minister had dinner. As well as a separate coffee meeting in January 2018, Naughten dined with David McCourt of the Granahan McCourt consortium in September 2017 (along with Minister Pat Breen), as well as in February, March, April and July of this year.

As Peter Smyth acknowledges in his review, "the meetings between the former Minister and Mr McCourt gave cause for concern as they suggest an ongoing engagement outside of any formal need for them to engage with each other".

While Smyth also says that "the fact that the former Minister met with Mr McCourt…outside of the process is not in and of itself a basis for finding that the procurement process has been tainted", no minutes of these meetings are available, and no government officials were present.

Instead, Smyth had to rely solely on the word of Naughten and McCourt that no ethics had been breached in terms of what they discussed at these dinners.

The essence of the 50-page report in one sentence is that the whole affair had the potential to be, and look, corrupt, but it wasn't.

What this shows is not that Ireland is corrupt, but that our politicians can maintain a veneer of influence (and by implication, the potential to be open to a claim of corruption).

To get elected, our deputies need to be able to show that they matter, and can pull strings. They want to be able to show important businessmen that they are the real power-brokers; they want to be able to show voters that they can get things done for them.

This is why former Trinity professor Basil Chubb famously wrote that the main preoccupation of our TDs is "going about persecuting civil servants" by making representations on behalf of their constituents.

TDs want to pretend that it is their influence that gets someone a medical card, gets potholes fixed, or pushes a voter up the housing list.

However, according to one American political scientist, who researched Neil Blaney's 'Donegal Mafia', this influence is 'imaginary patronage'. That is, the representations of the TDs have little effect - but they manage to convince voters that it does.

The argument is that in a country with a centralised form of government, where local bodies have few discretionary powers of expenditure, and where there is a fair and meritocratic bureaucracy, there is little to no potential for politicians to act in a corrupt manner.

While it is difficult to believe that voters would fall for this trick if it was entirely illusory, there is some merit to the claim that Irish politicians inflate their influence.

Take the expenditure that independents allege to deliver when a minority government needs their vote. Jackie Healy-Rae and Harry Blaney asserted that they extracted hundreds of millions in funding from Bertie Ahern in the 1990s.

In interviews I conducted with former taoisigh, however, they said that most of the funding independents claimed to have delivered was a case of alternative facts.

Most of the projects were already targeted for the independents' constituencies, who may have been given early news of it by the Government to beef up their alleged influence. This cost the Government nothing, but was invaluable in terms of votes for the independents.

If we are to call this influence corruption, then what we have in Ireland is an illusion of it. It may have an orange bill, webbed feet, and possibly quack, but it's not a duck.

This does not mean that we should be complacent. The illusion and perception of corruption can be just as dangerous as its actual existence.

That was why Denis Naughten had to go. And why I will have to ask the same question about corruption to next year's cohort of UCC Government and Politics students.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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