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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland Micheal Martin at a press briefing with Robert Troy in 2012.
I declare

Will we see more political controversies before Sipo gets some teeth?

Tánaiste says there are ‘stringent’ regulations already, but signals changes may be on the way.


Words from Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Robert Troy this week after he published a statement apologising for errors in his Dáil declarations of interest. 

But what does the controversy teach us?

It teaches us that, despite similar stories in the past, when politicians make what seems to be classed as a ‘boo boo’, there are little or no repercussions. 

The Ditch first reported that Troy had previously owned a property in Mullingar that he failed to declare the sale of to Westmeath County Council in 2018.

Following the reports, the Longford–Westmeath TD submitted amendments to his declarations to the Clerk of the Dáil and the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo).

On Thursday, he produced a statement of things that should have been listed on his Dáil declarations and also made a declaration to Sipo. He also listed a number of other points relating to items which, under the rules, he doesn’t have to declare, but which he wanted to list to “ensure full transparency”.

The list was produced alongside a public apology for his error.

Just two weeks previous to the embarrassing story emerging about Troy, Sipo had published its annual report for 2021.

For a number of years now, Sipo has said it wants more ‘teeth’ to hold politicians to account. 

It’s ironic that the only people that can Sipo them that power through legislation, are politicians. 

In their 2021 annual report, the group decided to list a number of recommendations it has made in terms of more stringent laws that would hold those working in public office and civil service accountable. 

 You can almost hear the exasperation in the report:

“As in previous years, the Standards Commission has included in its annual report a number of recommendations for legislative change to the Electoral Act 1997 and to the Ethics in Public Office Acts, that remain outstanding at the time of publication.”

In fairness, it does acknowledge that in November of 2021, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, launched the public consultation for the review of ethics legislation.

Final proposals for legislative reform are due from the minister this year. 

Progress to date: None

To hammer home its messages, Sipo’s annual report lists a number of the recommendations it has made to date.

In the column titled ‘progress in 2021′, the answer ‘none’ is listed several times. 

These include the call for Sipo to be granted the power to appoint an inquiry officer to conduct a preliminary enquiry into a matter in the absence of a complaint under the Ethics Acts. 

There has also been no progress to date on legislation “to ensure accountability of all former public officials, including those not currently covered by the Ethics Acts”. 

No progress either on a comprehensive act consolidating the Ethics Acts and all other legislation providing for disclosure of interests and related provisions for public officials. 

In 2017, Sipo also said, “explicit provision should be made to allow complaints against members of the Oireachtas in circumstances where the matter has come to light after the member has left office”. 

This one is particularly interesting as it highlights how a political controversy can sometimes signal that change might finally come down the line, but ultimately, when it comes to putting manners on politicians, things are often put on the long finger.

In 2019, controversy surrounded Fine Gael’s former Cork North Central TD, Dara Murphy over his attendance at Leinster House. 

The Dáil Committee on Members’ Interests at the time had been asked to examine whether or not Murphy breached ethics legislation by claiming his full allowance while he was largely absent from Dáil over a two-year period.

At the time, Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach. He claimed Sipo could investigate a former member of the Oireachtas in relation to his or her conduct as a Member.

“The former Deputy, Dara Murphy, has said that he is willing to cooperate fully with any statutory investigation. I believe he should do so and I said this to him last night,” he said at the time. 

However, Sipo told The Journal at the time that Varadkar was incorrect, stating that as Murphy had ceased to be TD when he resigned his seat, under the Ethics Acts, complaints about a person who has ceased to be a TD cannot be dealt with by the Standards Commission.

There were sharp exchanges of words between Varadkar and Micheál Martin at the time, with the Fianna Fáil leader telling the Dáil that Murphy showed “total disengagement with the Dáil” and accused him of failing to represent the people of Cork. 

But after a week of controversy that filled column inches in newspapers, what was the outcome in terms of real change? Nothing. The rule remains. 

Why so slow?

The Journal asked the Tánaiste in a recent interview why Government is so slow to move on giving more powers to a body that will keep a close eye on politicians.

“I think there are stringent regulations already,” Varadkar said, adding that it is not something that “bothered” him, as he doesn’t have any business interests.

“My background is as a doctor, but I know for some people that may be considering going into politics, who may have assets and business interests, that this is one of the things that would concern them. So we need to be careful not to do that,” he said.

He defended his party’s role in Government, stating that it introduced laws to regulate lobbying.

“We didn’t have that before. I was part of the Government that effectively banned corporate donations, which was a big change in our politics, that at least applies in the Republic of Ireland, whatever, about other parties and other jurisdictions”, he said. 

“No politician and no party can take massive donations in this State from businesses, but look across the water to Britain, look across the water to America. That’s normal politics.

“You hear about politicians meeting donors, which is impossible in Ireland because there are no big donors. So, you know, I’m not afraid. And I think we have a good record in office of regulating politics better,” said Varadkar.

So will this latest controversy signal a move towards more teeth for Sipo and amendments made to the Ethics and Public Office Act, finally? 

“I think you will see some changes,” he said.

But will another political controversy hit the headlines before we see those changes? We’ll have to wait and see. 

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