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Column: Cronyism and corruption – one quick change would help fight them

It would be swift work to repeal the 2003 Freedom of Information Act, but it could have far-reaching consequences, writes Donal Ó Brolcháin.

Donal Ó Brolcháin

“In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society … a Freedom of Information Act was passed.”

ABUSES OF POSITION, cronyism and corruption need secrecy. We have learnt this from investigative reporting, tribunals, leaks and special inquiries.

What is less obvious is that bad management and inefficiency also thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy.

Freedom of information (FoI) is one means of ensuring that we citizens can keep an eye on our governing classes. In a democracy, we need every possible means of limiting the scope for abuse and excess by the powerful, the public and private sectors.

In 1997, our Dáil passed a Freedom of Information Act. The aim was to give rights to the public to get free access to official information to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy.

The then Rainbow (FG/Labour/Democratic Left) Government) introduced FoI in response to institutional corruption which emerged during the previous ten years.

  • The 1994 report of a tribunal (chaired by Judge Hamilton) found tax evasion and malpractice in the beef industry. The tribunal was set up in 1991 to investigate allegations of regulatory weaknesses in Ireland’s beef industry. It also looked into the government’s role in providing export insurance to Larry Goodman for beef sales to Iraq.
  • Under the Companies Acts, an inspector reported on who benefited from the then State-owned Telecom Éireann’s purchase, in 1990, of a Ballsbridge site to be its headquarters (see The Glackin Report).

Although FoI was not an issue during the 2002 General Election, the FF/PD Government curtailed the 1997 Act for reasons which are not clear. Among the effects of the new Act passed in 2003 were the following:

Fees were brought in for FoI applications (up to €15), internal review (up to €75) and appeal to the Information Commissioner(up to €150).

‘This promise could be fulfilled very quickly’

The time limit for access to Cabinet documents was extended from five to 10 years;
Senior civil servants were empowered to issue non-appealable certificates to the effect that a record is part of the deliberative process.

And protection of Government records was extended to include selected workings of civil servants.

Last year, on taking office, the current FG/Labour Government promised to “restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing Government.” After a year in office, there is no sign that the Government is acting on its promise.

This promise could be fulfilled very quickly by simply repealing the 2003 Act. The older act would then become effective with all its original power. Passing this simple law needs very little effort of drafting or Dáil time. Because of the 1997 Act, the work has already been done.

The government can hardly disagree with this straightforward reform – either in substance or in timing. Five members of the current Cabinet were also members of the Cabinet which brought in the 1997 FoI Act. In addition, another four members of the current Cabinet were Ministers of State in that 1997 government. The current Ceann Comhairle was also a member of the 1997 Cabinet. Arguments in favour of repealing the 2003 FoI Act were well set out, by the then Opposition speakers, in Oireachtas debates in 2003.

The Government will no doubt argue that it is preparing a more comprehensive measure. But this could be enacted later. The first thing to do is to restore the 1997 Act. The 2003 legislation, as pointed out by the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore in 2008, “did fundamental damage to the way in which the FOI regime ought to operate. The legislation has, as a result, been handicapped and it no longer functions as effectively as it should….”

Another legacy from the 1990s is the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (Mahon Tribunal) which issued its final report this year. It noted that:

Corruption, and in particular political corruption, is a deeply corrosive and destructive force. While frequently perceived as a victimless crime, in reality its victims are too many to be identified individually. Political corruption diverts public resources to the benefit of the few and at the expense of the many. It undermines social equality and perpetuates unfairness. Corruption in public office is a fundamental breach of public trust and inherently incompatible with the democratic nature of the State.

Repealing the 2003 FoI Act is the fastest response that the Government can make to the latest catalogue of low standards in high places.

The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer found that seven in ten Irish people don’t trust Government leaders to tell them the truth. The report also noted that:

Trust in Ireland is at a critical inflection point. Citizens seek leadership, clarity and solutions and don’t believe any institution is delivering on these expectations. The clear message for government is that it is perceived not to be getting its message through or listening.

Repealing the 2003 FoI Act would give us a means for checking that the political/administrative/business elites are acting for our common good.

Without taking this simple step, why should we trust the Government’s commitment to political and institutional reform? Taking this step would lend credibility to the drive to bring about economic sustainability.

Without this, the Taoiseach’s claim to make this republic “the best little country in the world in which to do business” will be just that – for the cronies and incumbents so influential during the past 25 years.

For more on Freedom of Information, see here. Dublin City Business Association’s 10 point manifesto Towards a Second Republic (February 2011) is here – see pages 88 and following.

The passage at the top of the article is quoted from Dan Lucas, London correspondent for Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper, speaking on BBC Radio 4 on June 16 2010.

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