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Elaine Byrne: Influence is ever-present -- so it must be regulated

I chaired an international conference on corruption last week in Dublin Castle as part of Ireland's presidency of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). There were 56 countries around the table, including all the EU countries, Russia, the US, Canada and the former Soviet Republics.

When it comes down to it, the populations of places as diverse as Austria, Holy See, Netherlands, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland and Turkmenistan struggle with one word -- 'influence'.

The delegations talked about the struggles in their own countries in combating corruption. One delegate nailed it. "Influence," she said, "is ultimately about the exercise of power, or the perception of power."

Fifteen years of tribunals and scandals boils down to what's known as "legal corruption". That's where undue, but not illegal, influence by vested interests over regulation and policy-making happens, where elites have access to insider information that they use for their private benefit. This informal misuse of power and influence occurs where lobbying, personal relationships, political favours and political donations unduly influence the decision-making process even if no laws are broken.

But how do you make "trading in influence" a criminal offence? The Frank Dunlops of this world would argue that influence is simply part of political culture and makes the world go around.

That is exactly what the Government Reform Unit in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is trying to do with its proposals on regulating lobbying.

The Troika had occupied all the meeting rooms in the department when I met with the civil servants last week to discuss my submission on lobbying legislation.

Austerity of a different kind reigned as we huddled around a small table discussing potentially the most significant reform initiative of this Government.

Dublin has an industry of PR firms also known as Public Affairs companies but the dogs on the street would call them lobbyist organisations.

Nothing wrong with that. It is entirely legitimate that businesses hire the communication skills of those that "know the system". In a democracy, every citizen has the right to persuade politicians of the merits of their case.

Lobbyists facilitate and enable preferential access for the purpose of influencing public policy. That can translate as getting the opportunity to address a Dail Committee on a particular issue or making sure that a submission on policy is read.

Or as one lobbyist told me: "Basically it's people talking to one another."

"My job" he said, "is cash for influence and information for influence."

Fair enough.

But as the Leveson Inquiry showed this week, the influence that News Corp's lobbyists sought to exert on the policy process was extraordinary.

Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, was responsible for adjudicating News Corp's controversial takeover bid for BSkyB. Hundreds of emails between James Murdoch and his chief lobbyist show that the lobbyist boasted of privileged access to sensitive information and the ear of the minister.

Hunt evoked his ministerial discretion and decided not to refer the BSkyB deal to the Competition Commission. This would have enabled Murdoch's News Corp to take over the United Kingdom's biggest pay-TV broadcaster, thereby consolidating him as the biggest media baron in the world.

Hunt's special adviser resigned during the week and it remains to be see if the Leveson Inquiry will also get a ministerial scalp.

The episode has highlighted unorthodox influence within the decision-making process. Why did Hunt make the decision he did? What influence did the lobbyist have?

So, what do Irish lobbyists look like? Q4 "advise multinationals, leading Irish companies and high potential firms". Their 'expert' team includes Jackie Gallagher, a former government special adviser to Bertie Ahern. Martin Mackin was the general secretary of Fianna Fail from 1998 to 2003, appointed to the Seanad for a month in 2002. Damien Garvey was a key policy adviser for Fine Gael from 2002 to 2007, while Peter Berry worked for a 'prominent government senator' before transferring directly to Q4.

Fleishman Hillard's team of lobbyists include Mark Mortell, who combined his role as a key member of the company and as an adviser to Enda Kenny from 2002 to 2011.

Olwyn Enright, former Fine Gael TD and wife of Donegal North East TD, Joe McHugh, has worked at communications firm Edelman since 2011. Former Fianna Fail TD Jim Glennon is the chair of the company's public affairs division.

Stephen O'Byrnes is the owner of MKC Communications. O'Byrnes was the Progressive Democrats' government press secretary in the 1989-1992 coalition government with Fianna Fail. Mike Miley now works with MKC after six years at the Fine Gael press office.

Michel Parker is a founding partner of Insight Consultants and was the general secretary of the Progressive Democrats from 1992 to 1995. Michael Keane, former editor of the Sunday Press, is also employed by Insight, as is Frank Flannery, the long-time chief strategist for Fine Gael. When asked by journalists recently, Flannery refused to say what clients he had acted for or if he lobbied any government departments on behalf of clients. Insight's clients include the semi-state companies An Post and Bord na Mona. It also represents Nama-ed Treasury Holdings.

DHR Communications has a distinctly Labour-themed flavour. Its chair is Peter Cassells, former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for 12 years. Tony Heffernan, the former Labour Party parliamentary director and press officer who worked closely with Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and ministers Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte, has begun working part-time for the company.

Catherine Heaney was a press officer with the Labour Party "where she developed a keen insight into public policy formation and lobbying", according to the DHR website. The firm's clients include Irish Aid and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The list of clients at Drury Communications include the State assets the National Lottery and Eirgrid, which will be sold as part of the troika bailout. Drury also represents the construction support services group Siteserv, which was recently purchased by Denis O'Brien after the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation -- Anglo Irish Bank -- agreed to write off Siteserv bank debt of about €110m.

Sinn Fein TD Brian Stanley noted in the Dail last Thursday: "Sierra Support Services, a Siteserv plc company, has secured a contract worth up to €60m to become the sole services provider for the installation, maintenance and testing of domestic boilers to Bord Gais Eireann."

Gerry Naughton was appointed as Drury's Public Affairs Client Director in 2011. He was Fine Gael's political director from 2003 to 2008 and served as a programme manager and private secretary to a number of ministers, including Charlie McCreevey, John Bruton and Des O'Malley.

In the aftermath of the Mahon Tribunal, Naughton penned an opinion piece for the Irish Times. "Fianna Fail must change and it must be seen to do so . . . It must become the Caesar's wife of Irish politics -- completely above suspicion and purer than pure."

I suppose one must take heart that lobbyists like Naughton are acutely aware of how damaging the perception of disproportionate influence within decision-making can be.

The artist Salvador Dali once said that: "The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret."

That's why a register of lobbyists should be implemented. The register would include detailed information about who lobbyists lobby, any government funding received by the client, an indication whether a lobbyist was a former public office holder and information about any oral or arranged communications with public office holders.

The revolving door should be closed, preventing gamekeepers turning into poachers, by means of a statutory two-year cooling-off period before prominent party workers or office holders can register as a lobbyist.

There was an irony of sorts that it fell to the delegate from a former Soviet Republic to explain why influence can be so destructive for democracy.

In Dublin Castle of all places.

Dr Elaine Byrne is with the Department of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of 'Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, A Crooked Harp?' (Manchester University Press, April 2012)

Sunday Independent