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Column: Politicians dressing up as pirates? It might just work…

Ireland might be getting a new president, but our political system still has deep flaws. A group of German ‘pirates’ could be showing us the way, writes Fergal Browne.

Fergal Browne

Ireland might be getting a new president, but our political system still has profound flaws. Fergal Browne looks at Germany’s Pirate Party – and argues that they could teach us some serious lessons.

WHEN GERWALD CLAUS-Brunner of the Pirate Party entered the Berlin Parliament, perhaps his fellow MPs could be forgiven for thinking he was making a mockery of democracy.

Sporting orange overalls and a Long John Silver headscarf, it looked like a poorly thought out Halloween costume where Clockwork Orange meets Jack Sparrow.

It wasn’t though. This was the Pirate Party entering a German state parliament. And in case the other MPs didn’t notice, they don’t do suits.

Die Piratenpartei – Germany’s Pirate Party – scored an amazing feat in the Berlin state elections recently. All 15 of their candidates got elected and surpassed the parliamentary threshold for the first time, gaining 8.9 per cent of the vote. This allowed the party to enter the Berlin parliament.

The party has been particularly successful in attracting younger votes. Thirteen per cent of Berlin’s first-time male voters voted for the Pirate Party, while the majority of Berlin’s new Pirate Party MPs are in their twenties or early-thirties.

The party isn’t planning on forcing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to walk the plank any time soon, nor do they wish to show solidarity with the more malign pirates off the coast of Somalia. Instead, they are interested in transparency and respect for privacy, particularly on the internet.

“Our main goal is to make political decision making as transparent as possible, and offering citizens the possibility to watch every Party meeting and table a motion”, says Katherina Niemeyer of the Pirate Party in Berlin.

This means live-streaming party meetings on the internet, and opening up discussions to those watching who wish to engage. The new MPs also wish to tweet and blog as much as possible inside the parliament and on the issues being dealt with, although they are restricted by parliamentary rules.

‘Traditionally, politics are a ‘no trespassing’ area’

“We are going to demonstrate that it is possible to conduct a transparent approach to politics. Traditionally politics are a secret ‘no trespassing’ area. Meetings are held behind closed doors, agendas and protocols are closed, treaties are not being published”, said Chairmen of the Pirate Party, Sebastian Nerz, to torrentfreak.com.

The party ran their campaign almost solely on increased transparency and citizen’s rights, and were keen to empathise they were unique with campaign posters stating “Finally, something different” and “We are the ones with the questions. You are the ones with the answers”.

The party reflects a Europe-wide movement which began in Sweden in 2006. The party’s name is inspired by “The Piracy Bureau” – a counter group to a lobby group for the copyright industry – and Piratebay.org – an illegal file-sharing website. The formation of the party coincided with Swedish government attempts to curb illegal file sharing through websites like Piratebay.org with copyright laws enacted in 2005. The party in Sweden has earned a groundswell of support, earning 7.1 per cent of the vote in the 2009 European elections with Christian Engstrom and Amelia Andersdotter elected as MEPs.

The movement has spread worldwide. More than 40 countries have Pirate Parties based on the Swedish model, mainly in mainland Europe. In Ireland, the party enjoyed a brief tenure, at one stage having 300 members, but ceased all activities in March 2011.

“We are an international movement, which is represented in almost every EU country. We hope to achieve a lot more if we work together on international projects”, says Niemeyer.

This Europe-wide movement begs the question of what role such a party could play in Ireland. “Lack of transparency is still a major problem in both politics and government in Ireland”, says John Devitt of Transparency International Ireland – the Irish chapter of an international movement designed to prevent corruption.

Courtesy of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government, Freedom of Information requests are charged at €15 each, which led to a decrease of one-third. This service remains free in Britain.

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‘The new government is no more likely to clean up the system’

Meanwhile, the requirement to report political donations is weak, as disclosure can be prevented by receiving multiple donations under the disclosure threshold. “Unfortunately the new government doesn’t seem any more likely to clean up the system than the last – other than to introduce a ban on corporate donations, which won’t stop wealthy business people buying access to government ministers,” says Devitt.

The Irish state still performs well with regards to transparency in international studies. Ireland was ranked the 14th least corrupt country in a 2010 study by Transparency International. But this doesn’t mean all types of information are disclosed. “Politicians are still not required to publish details of how much they have borrowed from the banks. There is a potential conflict of interest given the close relationships between bankers and government ministers in the past and the role ministers played in underwriting the banks’ debts,” says Devitt.

As well as tightening legislation on political donations, other solutions are possible. The party whip system could be abolished to allow politicians vote on their conscience, meaning politicians would not be able to hide behind the party line. Also, setting up of a Whistleblower’s Charter would encourage the disclosure of mismanagement and wrongdoing within all sectors of the economy.

“The case for wide-ranging legislation is very compelling when we see the financial costs of tribunals as well as the human cost in terms of public confidence in our institutions following successive political and corporate scandals,” Devitt says.

Increased transparency has become a bigger issue with the greater prevalence of the internet in the political sphere. Wikileaks could release a cache of secret US files and subsequently evade closure by moving domains across borders. The hacking group Anonymous has attacked websites of the biggest companies in the world, all in the name of freedom of the internet.

Now the Pirate Party is growing to be a voice in continental Europe for greater transparency inside parliaments and greater respect for privacy of citizens with the internet as one of its battlegrounds. Whether the Pirate Party movements takes root in Ireland or not, the internet makes it easier than ever to publish and access information, and the Irish Government may find calls for greater transparency harder and harder to ignore.

Fergal Browne is a graduate of journalism in DIT. He writes at everythingiskaputt.wordpress.com.

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Fergal Browne

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