Friday 18 January 2019

Lack of trust in politicians killed hopes of reform

The deep sense of disrespect for the political class has not gone away with a new government, writes Elaine Byrne

Elaine Byrne

It takes a remarkable form of ingenuity, or arrogance, to get an electorate to reject a proposal that would have finally brought bankers Sean FitzPatrick, Michael Fingleton and David Drumm before a public inquiry. Yet, somehow, Alan Shatter, Brendan Howlin and the rest of the established politicians in Leinster House managed it.

Now, less than nine months from an election that was hailed -- mainly by those who were elected -- as a revolution, the reform agenda is dying.

The defeat of the Oireachtas inquiries referendum was a spectacular own goal for the Government's ambitious reform agenda.

Oireachtas committees will not now have the power to conduct inquiries and make findings of fact about the conduct of Patrick Neary, Sean Quinn and Kevin Cardiff.

Instead we have the rigmarole, again and again, of Anglo's Willie McAteer going through the motions of being arrested, questioned and released without charge, about alleged financial irregularities inside the bank that broke a nation.

In the three years since it first began its investigations, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has sent three files on Anglo to the DPP. There have been no prosecutions and no public accountability.

The only recent consequence has been to the taxpayers, who this week handed over a further €700m to anonymous Anglo Irish Bank bondholders.

Just three weeks ago, polls showed that 65 per cent of those questioned said they would vote 'Yes' to the 30th amendment on Oireachtas inquiries. So, what happened between then and last Thursday week at the ballot boxes?

It's true, the Government established the Referendum Commission too late. The commission only had two weeks to inform the public on what was a complex proposal.

Analysis Pages 28-29

What's more, ministers Alan Shatter and Brendan Howlin lost their how-to-communicate manual and replaced it with arrogance-sprinkled-with-ad-hominem-attacks handbook.

But the real reason why it failed is that the public do not trust politicians. The deep sense of public disrespect for the political class has not gone away with a new government.

This is the conceit of the new Government. They think that because they see themselves as different that we share their inflated view of themselves, just because they managed to get themselves elected in a contest where they defeated one of the most unpopular governments in any democracy, ever.

Gay "I'm a businessman, my business is politics" Mitchell is the very definition of a politician. The Fine Gael presidential campaign emphasised the virtuousness of his 30-year political experience.

The extraordinary volatility of the electorate was on show whey they rewarded Mr Mitchell with just one sixth of the vote his party secured in February's general election.

So, in the end, we voted for a candidate that was regarded as above politics. Michael D Higgins's website profiles him first as a campaigner, then as a poet and finally a politician.

It is absolutely unprecedented that a candidate would receive 28.5 per cent of the popular vote in his first ever significant election.

Sean Gallagher's undoing only came four days before the poll when the public perception of him as a Fianna Fail insider finally stuck as he made the mistake of uttering the word "envelope" on national television.

The Presidency and the Abbeylara referendum were won and lost in the last week of campaigning because of an instinctive anti-politics reflex that has, as a result of our recent travails, become entrenched in the Irish psyche.

Public cynicism and anti-establishment sentiment eventually kicked in. For those unsure, the response was the classic Irish status quo reaction -- "If you don't know, vote 'No'."

Alan Shatter was outstandingly dismissive, intemperate and condescending on the RTE Frontline programme, a week before the poll.

Instead of asking the public could he borrow their trust, Mr Shatter alienated them.

All over the country, people watching the television were asking themselves the same question: "Do we really want to give this arrogant man more power?"

The answer came last Friday week.

The 11th hour intervention by the eight attorneys general proved also to be the turning point in the campaign. Mr Howlin crumbled in the media spotlight when plausible arguments were made by the State's former legal advisers.

His response to Michael McDowell's line of reasoning on RTE Prime Time was the rather bizarre "more than 80 per cent of the Dail support this legislation". Mr Howlin didn't counter the arguments; he just seemed exasperated by their timing.

Just because politicians overwhelmingly agree on a particular position does not mean that the public will. That day of subservient deference to political authority is long gone.

Mr Howlin acknowledged as much after the referendum defeat with his comments that a "degree of mistrust still exists between people and politicians".

The public, rightly or wrongly, did not trust politicians enough to give them more power. Instead, they relied on those who have given legal advice to governments in the past.

People like Peter Sutherland, a non-executive chair of an organisation which is being investigated by the US Federal Reserve. It is alleged that Goldman Sachs arranged derivatives trades for Greece which helped the country hide the size of its massive national debt.

Dermot Gleeson was chair of AIB in those insanity years from 2003 to 2009. The state has since put €16.1bn of our money into a bank now only worth €7.2bn, a loss of €8.8bn.

Harry Whelehan was the attorney general at the time of the controversial seven-month delay when his office handled the extradition warrant for notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

What now for the reform agenda?

The public mood last February was angry. The appetite for the absolute transformation of our political institutions had gained momentum. The loss of economic sovereignty motivated a political system into State rebuilding.

But the reform agenda is centered on 10 big-ticket referendums -- abolishing the Seanad, greater Oireachtas powers, cutting the number of TDs and so forth.

The politicians were stupid to make the one that would give them more power, the first move in this piece.

There were, and are, a lot of smaller things they could have done to first earn our trust, before asking us for even more power.

According to the Standards in Public Office Commission last month, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail spent €7.2m on the 2011 General Election. Yet none of these three parties disclosed any donations for 2010. Where did the money come from? The full disclosure of party political accounts on the internet is normal practice in UK.

A loss of confidence and trust in politics can be challenged by instances of voluntary transparency. A key recommendation of the Moriarty report was to publish accounts.

Why wait for legislative obligations to publish a full income and expenditure annual financial statement on each political party website?

A group of 17 leading business and public figures submitted a report to the Fine Gael Labour coalition last March.

A Blueprint for Ireland's Recovery was authored by, amongst others, former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton, Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery, Fine Gael member Pat Cox and Peter Sutherland. Businessmen Leslie Buckley, Denis O'Brien and Dermot Desmond were also members of the report.

The wide-ranging report focused on economic recovery and restoring competitiveness. It also focused on political reform. There were no proposals on reforming political donations.

This non acknowledgment of the very issue at the heart of the last four tribunals -- political donations -- is why anti-politics and de-facto cynicism have become a standard feature of Irish life.

So too has the Government's appointment of the secretary general of the Department of Finance, Kevin Cardiff, to the European Court of Auditors early next year.

Mr Cardiff admitted to the Public Accounts Committee last year that his department failed to predict the depth of the financial crisis. He was a central figure in the formulation of the September 2008 bank guarantee and also negotiated the terms of Ireland's EU-IMF bailout.

No one in his department, least of all him, has been held responsible for this week's mind-boggling €3.6bn accounting error. Mr Cardiff is getting a higher paying job with even better perks.

No consequences. That's why the momentum for reform is dying. We don't trust the politicians to do it.

Reform is the correction of abuses; revolution is the transfer of power.

Dr Elaine Byrne is Adjunct Lecturer in Politics at Trinity College Dublin

Sunday Independent

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