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Column: Remember how SIPO went after politicians for fiddling their expenses? Me neither

There were two elections and two referendums last year – and yet, political parties received just €31k in donations. What’s going on, asks Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

LAST YEAR WAS a busy one in Irish politics, kicking off with a general election and being tail ended by a Presidential one and two referendums. Despite blanketing the country in posters, advertisements, leaflets and more our political parties declared the grand and sum total of €31,000 in donations during 2011.

I have no particular allegation to level against any individual or party in Irish politics. However, we know that when politics meets money in Ireland rather bad things can happen and the public interest forgotten. We only tend to find out about political corruption after rather unfortunate happenings, like ill considered comments on a Late Late Show appearance, or cocaine fuelled implosions in a Florida hotel, or via a jilted ex-wife.

Even if we leave aside corruption and look merely to influence peddling, we know from the work of Trinity politics lecturer Elaine Byrne that during the boom years Fianna Fail received the majority of its donations from… Go on, guess. Two words, first starts with a P and ends with a Y, second begins with D and ends with S, and the letters ‘ropert’ and ‘eveloper’ feature.

Despite this we still operate a political funding system that allows such a ludicrous joke of “disclosure” to go almost unremarked upon.

The weaknesses of SIPO and how it needs to change

The Standards in Public Office Commission is the arbiter of political glasnost. It is about as independent from the Oireachtas as a chihuahua is from Paris Hilton’s handbag. The rules are stacked in favour of the politicians by the politicians in about the same stringent manner as TDs set their own pay and conditions.

You may remember SIPO from that time it went after a (now former) Taoiseach because he couldn’t produce a tax clearance certificate, a basic requirement of being a TD? Or that day it nailed Oireachtas members for fiddling their expenses and submitting false invoices? Or maybe you recall how politicians quaked in their boots when SIPO promised to investigate any suggestion of the misuse of ministerial travel expenses? No? Really…? You can’t remember any of that? How bizarre. Neither can I.

You, me and Joe McCarthy can sleep soundly in our beds tonight however, because SIPO is making sure there won’t be any dirty reds hiding underneath: The Communist Party of Ireland failed to submit the proper paperwork declaring their non-declaration of donations and have been referred to the Gardai for investigation and face possible prosecution. The moral foundations of our democracy are safe at last from this pervasive menace.

Three of our twelve registered political parties declared the paltry handful of donations in 2011. Fianna Fail, the Socialist Party and Sinn Fein are the only parties in the Irish state who received more than €5,078.95 – the limit after which a donation must be declared – from any one individual. The maximum value of donations which a political party can accept from the same donor in the same year is €6,348.69.

This is not an abnormal year for political donations: In 2009, a year with local and European elections, neither Fianna Fail, Fine Gael nor Labour (among others) declared any donations above the threshold.

“If the rules can be circumvented today then they can be circumvented tomorrrow”

Political parties avoid having to declare donations through a variety of means that are perfectly within the rules, and the system makes it nigh impossible to say if those rules are ever breached. We are left to assume that nobody involved in or donating to Irish political parties could ever have the hauteur to breach our trust.

There is, for example, no record of how many folks submitted €5,078.00 in donations. And if such an individual so happened to cross a church gate collection, say, and drop in another €1,000 in rolled up €50 notes there would be no real way to tell latter that it had happened. SIPO itself suggested in its 2009 annual report that it suspects that individuals break up donations into smaller amounts and pass the parcel around to others to avoid disclosure.

The limits are being reduced by the present government, from €5,000 to €1,500 for declaration of a donation to a political party and from €635 to €600 for an individual politician. Of course, if the rules can be circumvented today and there are now new controls put in place then they can be circumvented tomorrow.

The trouble is that we don’t really know for sure what’s happening behind closed doors and in murky backrooms where political capital can be traded for the real deal. If rules are being broken, we’re powerless to know and the organ responsible for keeping politics honest is about as useful as a raincoat in a swimming pool. And we don’t have any insight into who is trading cash for influence – And let us be clear, anyone who is donating up to €5,000 to a political party is a rational economic actor in most cases. It would be nice to know even who they are.

Aside from donations from private individuals and businesses the other major source of political funding is you and me, Joe and Jill Taxpayer. On top of their salaries, expenses, staff and dry cleaning we chucked our politicians €12.6m in exchequer funding to the parties last year. Quite what they spend that money on is unclear, because the disclosure rules are about as transparent as those for private donations. From past glimpses we can see that things like media training and a car featuring Enda Kenny’s face were procured using the exchequer funds.

Exchequer funds are designed in principal to wean political parties off of private donations. We have a typically Irish way of doing it, however, in that the funding is gerrymandered to favour the existing stalwart parties and prevent any upstarts from gaining traction. The Oireachtas has voted in a system whereby parties can only receive funding based on their representation in the Dail, which is a rather narrow way of apportioning funds.

‘There are serious issues at the heart of the relationship between politics and money’

Somewhat amusingly, though hardly surprisingly, the funding for parties was linked to civil service pay increases. As SIPO glibly observes there was no accounting for what should happen to political funding if pay decreases.

Just like the weakness of SIPO and the holes in the rules around donations, it suits the bigger parties in Ireland to ensure that they cream the majority of funds and ensure that any upstarts are outspent and outshined by default. Perversely, the only real way for any new political movement to gain traction is for it to have a number of deep pocketed donors.

While we may joke that asking for reform of the political funding system is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, there are serious issues at the heart of the relationship between politics and money. We’ve suffered too many indignities at the hands of politicians who have preferred the pound to the judicious exercise of power; and it is not fair that our tax money should be gobbled up by political parties who, not coincidentally, design the system for apportioning it.

SIPO should get teeth to police political parties, to the point of having surprise audits of their accounts and showing up unannounced at church gate collections to observe and – more importantly – let the parties know they’re observing. Declaration limits should come down to a petty cash amount, like €20 or €50. We can vote in secret, but every vote is equal. When giving money it should be declared and out in the open.

The political funding system should also be opened up to help seed new entrants to the field of politics. Not a bottomless pit of money, but an amount apportioned based on things like local election results or national membership figures. Giving more money to incumbents who already have a host of natural advantages simply cements their position in life.

We could look at a totally state funded political system, but only if the funding is severely curtailed – frankly, less money for wasting on wall to wall postering and pestering – and if the arbiter and watchdog is an independent body with real teeth.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

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