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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
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Column Living with the legacy of corruption

Young Dublin Fianna Fáil councillor Paul McAuliffe says the corruption revealed in the Mahon report makes it difficult to repair public’s trust in politics.

BEING A CITY councillor has many challenges, but the role is made all the more difficult by the actions those who were involved in corrupt payments.

Their actions have fundamentally undermined the confidence which people have in our political system and it is a legacy which new people in politics are forced to live with.

As a politician, each week I get to see the amazing work taking place in local communities. Elected representative are warmly welcomed at these events and our presence is seen to lend support to particular causes.

Also at an individual level, people respect the effort put in by those politicians they are familiar with but when we are considered as a collective, the word politician is more often used as a term of abuse or derision.

The release of the final chapter of the Mahon Tribunal report again outlines a series of payments which it determines as corrupt. It will reinforce the perception that politicians are all ‘at it’, that they are feathering their own nests and willing to participate in corruption to better themselves.

The actions of the corrupt make it difficult to attract good new people to politics

The reality of course is that these corrupt payments were limited to a small number of councillors but their actions have tarred the reputation of good councillors who have served in the past and makes it all the more difficult to attract new people to politics. When I read the names of those mentioned in today’s publication, from my own party and others, they are people who, in the main, I don’t know and refer to incidents which took place many years ago – and yet their legacy permeates today’s political culture.

How we can repair the trust of people in politics is a difficult question and there is no doubt that corruption is not the only reason for public cynicism. Overly generous payments to some and broken promises by others all play their part but corruption undermines the very credibility which elected representatives have and therefore undermines their ability to persuade on important issues.

As the Mahon Tribunal rightly said, corruption is a deeply corrosive and destructive force which undermines social equality and perpetuates unfairness. The changes over the past decade governing donations and campaign expenses have made it far more difficult to engage in the blatant cash for votes type corruption but the Mahon report also identifies another potential source of corruption – ‘conflicts of interest’.

Conflicts of interest are a root cause of corruption which according to the report “arises where an elected or appointed public official has a private interest which is likely to be affected by the exercise of his or her public powers”. In my experience the system of regulating these private interests is too loose and in the main is self-regulated.

Declaring a conflict of interest

As a councillor I have on a number of occasions exempted myself from discussions because the outcome could benefit either myself or a ‘connected person’. On those occasions that decision was one largely left to me and I have no doubt that if I had not exempted myself, there would have been no repercussions. In fact by declaring a conflict and removing yourself from a vote, you can often attract the ire of local residents who may be relying on you to vote in a particular way.

The very nature of local government which pays councillors an allowance rather than a proper salary is also problematic. Councillors, many of whom have a much-needed second job, are exposed to the pressure which comes with that. Could a councillor who holds a certain political view freely express that view without jeopardizing their regular employment? Could a councillor working in the insurance industry speak freely about reducing the cost of insurance? No one wants to create a political class removed from reality but the reality of combining two roles has lead to something far worse, ineffective local government.

Our current system of local government is broken

Our current system of local government is broken and the government’s proposals ‘putting people first’ does little to change it. In fact in Dublin, where they have added 53 extra councillors, they seem to have made a bad system worse. International experience tells us that in a city like Dublin, we actually need fewer councillors who have more of their time dedicated to running the city and scrutinising the decisions of unelected officials.

Unfortunately the current government’s failure to fully implement the recommendations of the Mahon Tribuanal coupled with their failure to really reform local government means that while the corruption of the past is unlikely to be repeated in such a blatant way, the system is still vulnerable to those who wish to corrupt it.

Paul McAuliffe is a Fianna Fáil Councillor on Dublin City Council where he represents Finglas, Ballymun, Glasnevin and Santry.

Read more about the publication of the final chapter of the Mahon Tribunal’s report>

What WOULD it take for a politician to lose their pension?>

How to prevent corruption in the future: Mahon’s recommendations>

24 events that have changed our world in the time it took Mahon to conclude>

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