Tuesday 19 November 2019

Brendan Keenan: Bad timing for country as it bids to restore image

Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

NIALL Fitzgerald, the Irish-born former boss of the Unilever giant, had an unusual answer when asked what was the most urgent task facing post-crash Ireland. He said it was to restore the country's reputation.

As Mr Fitzgerald saw it, potential investors were more concerned about whether Ireland was an honest place to do business than in the details of its economic prospects or the evolution of its debt.

He was referring to the scandals at Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide, and the fact that nothing seemed to have been done about them.

Yesterday, it appeared that something might finally be done, with the request from the Director of Public Prosecutions that a professional inquiry into the activities of Sean Fitzpatrick be postponed in case it prejudices criminal proceedings.

It has been a long time. Of course, it is all very complicated stuff, but everyone has noticed that things seem to happen quicker in other countries. Taking so long to get to the bottom of things is itself harmful to the country's reputation.

Yet the investigations into Mr Fitzpatrick and related matters are a veritable sprint when compared with the deliberations of tribunals. It is 14 years since the Moriarty Tribunal began its work. As far as foreign opinion is concerned, yesterday's report is probably the first they have heard of the mobile licence affair.

It comes at an unfortunate time. The scale of the Fine Gael/Labour victory, after so long in opposition, has given the Coalition a high profile, especially in the USA, and Mr Kenny has been making the most of it.

Moriarty is the wrong story at the wrong time. It does not help that it involves a former Fine Gael minister, although that may be lost a bit on the foreign audience.

It must be said that Ireland is not regarded as a country where ministers take money in return for favours.

This is why the Moriarty findings are so shocking, and why the denials by Mr O'Brien and Mr Lowry are so vehement.

A group called Transparency International publishes an annual global index of corruption, based on surveys of business people on how they find dealing with the public sector.

Last year, Ireland ranked 14th in the world, ahead of Austria and Germany, and six places better than Britain. Among the EU-15, Portugal came last, ranked 32nd in the world.

Such opinions are often based on what people have read or heard. It would not be surprising, after Moriarty, if Ireland drops some places in the 2011 rankings. But its image has suffered, not so much from this kind of thing, as from a perception of what the 'Financial Times' called "crony capitalism".

That hurt, because it was so patently close to the truth. It is a different matter from the ones examined by Moriarty, but in some ways more alarming for anyone thinking of doing business here.

It looks like people will have to make up their own minds between the tribunal findings and the denials of the protagonists.

It may be more important to eradicate the widespread feeling, at home and abroad that -- whether for places on state quangos or public contracts -- who you know is more important than what you do.

Irish Independent

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