Sunday 21 October 2018

Government effort to tackle corruption has finally arrived - decades too late

Our View

According to reports emerging from Leo Varadkar's spin office - the vaunted, €5million 'cost neutral' Strategic Communications Unit - the Fine Gael-led Government are taking steps to crack down on corruption.

While any steps to deal with the rampant corruption and cronyism that has dogged this country for decades - some would say since the foundation of the State - most people could be excused for saying that they've heard all this before.

Supposedly the Government are preparing to launch a series of new initiatives - including a stricter monitoring regime for financial institutions - aimed at clamping down on white collar crime.

Many will find the notion of 'stricter monitoring' laughable in itself.

It's surely an easy task to introduce stricter rules when - as the evidence of recent years would strongly suggest - Ireland, for all intents and purposes, had none to begin with.

Those that feel this is an exaggeration need only look to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) the body charged, since 2001, with ensuring Irish companies obey the law.

The ODCE was set up of foot of the revelations from various tribunals and in its 17 years the body has proved to be such an outstanding success that the Government is now, apparently, planning to scrap it entirely.

The decision to abolish the ODCE and replace it with a new white collar crime agency follows the collapse of the Sean Fitzpatrick trial - the longest in Irish legal history - after which the ODCE was severely criticised by the trial judge for producing evidence that fell far short of legal requirements.

Amid the fallout from the collapse of the trial the then Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald slammed the body as being "not fit for purpose."

When she officially founded the finance watch-dog back in 2001 the then Tánaiste said the establishment of the ODCE would send a "message that the Government no longer tolerates those who are guilty of corporate crime in Ireland."

Now - 16 years on and after Irish banks helped bring about the worst recession in our country's history - the Government is finally admitting that the ODCE hasn't exactly lived up to Harney's lofty expectations.

We should point out that criticism of the ODCE is nothing new.

Within a year of its foundation Bertie Ahern's Government of the day was harshly criticised over the lack of funding it was giving to the ODCE, which had received just €3 million in its first year.

The body was also subject of regular criticism in legal circles where it was often claimed the ODCE hammered small businesses but often rolled over for larger firms.

It is now being claimed that three new bills to be introduced by the Government will lead to a sea change in how Ireland deals with corruption. If that happens it will be a welcome development.

However, one fears that in the end we'll see little more than a re-branding of the bodies that failed us so badly in the past.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...