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Opinion: Ireland has dropped rank on the global corruption index - we can and should do better

DCU’s John Devitt and Robert Gillanders say the country must control corruption if it is to protect more than just its international reputation.

John Devitt & Robert Gillanders

THE 2020 EDITION of the influential Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) has been published and the news is not good for Ireland.

Ireland’s score has fallen from 74 to 72 out of 100 in the global anti-corruption index, with a score closer to 100 suggesting a country that is perceived to be relatively ‘clean’.

We are now ranked as only the ‘20th cleanest country’ in the world. This places us between Japan and the United Arab Emirates and behind most of our northern European neighbours. 

The CPI ranks 180 countries based on perceived levels of corruption and Ireland’s score is based on the findings of seven independent surveys, conducted by international think-tanks and political risk agencies.

Perceptions are used as a proxy for actual levels of corruption – it is impossible to say with certainty how corrupt a country is in objective terms, or to point to one reason why a country performs poorly on the index.

However, while our politicians might be more honest than they were in the past and our banks subject to better oversight than during the Celtic Tiger years, it would appear that we have a lot do to make up for decades of endemic corruption in politics and to repair our international reputation as a lightly regulated economy.

Should do better

While Ireland’s fall on the CPI this year is marginal, international perceptions have remained static over the past decade with Ireland’s performance lagging behind that of the UK.

This is despite relatively weak controls on political donations to British political parties and multiple allegations of corruption and cronyism in the management of the Covid-19 crisis there.

Ireland is also some way behind its Nordic neighbours and New Zealand which consistently feature near the top of the index and which are reputed for taking a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct in public office.

These perceptions matter for a number of reasons. Numerous studies tell us that countries that are perceived to be corrupt attract significantly less foreign direct investment. Multinationals, like domestic investors, are wary of putting their money into countries with unpredictable additional costs and risks.

Moreover, governance indexes such as the CPI are used by credit ratings agencies such as Standard and Poor’s to help assess risk and determine the cost of debt on international markets.

Transparency matters

Public perceptions of corruption also fuel populism by destroying trust and once in power, populists are more likely to wallow in the swamp than drain it.

This corrosive impact of corruption on trust and legitimacy is extremely costly for society. Recent work from the DCU Anti-Corruption Research Centre and Illinois State University tells us that compliance with Covid-19 lockdown orders in the US was weaker in states that are more corrupt.

Earning a reputation for clean government is important politically, economically and socially. The question then is what can we do? 

To earn a reputation for high standards in public office we must take the steps necessary to deter, detect, punish and learn from corruption in Irish public life. 

Previous Irish governments have made some progress towards that goal. New anti-corruption legislation introduced in 2018 should make it easier to prosecute companies as well as officials.

More recently, the publication of the Hamilton Review made some welcome recommendations aimed at tackling economic crime.

Nonetheless, if Ireland is to change the way international observers see it, it needs to continue the wider programme of government reform that began in 1997, with the Freedom of Information Act and which was revived for a period from 2011 to 2015 with the Protected Disclosures Act and Regulation of Lobbying Act. 

Since then, some promised reforms have yet to be realised. For example, the Public Sector Standards Bill was delayed for four years and then unceremoniously scrapped in 2020.

Similarly, long delays in establishing new judicial appointments and ethics regimes have led to criticism from the Council of Europe and United Nations

Glaring loopholes identified by the Standards in Public Office Commission that allow officeholders to break the Regulation of Lobbying Act without any consequences have yet to be closed.

Draconian defamation laws that deter journalists from exposing low standards in high office have yet to be reformed.

Legal reforms will not be enough on their own, of course. While an independent anti-corruption bureau would be preferable to the multi-agency approach to investigations currently being pursued, existing bodies such as the Garda Economic Crime Bureau and its Ant-Corruption Unit are poorly resourced and need to be equipped and empowered to investigate allegations of political corruption.  

Political support for open government initiatives and the fight against corruption has also been found wanting. Ireland missed its last deadline to draft its Open Government Partnership National Action Plan and runs the risk of being expelled from the global initiative launched by Barrack Obama in 2011.

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Lack of political will

It should be noted too that this is generally a cross-party problem. At the last two general elections, very few parties or candidates campaigned for greater transparency and accountability in public life.

This, it would appear, is a result of complacency and misplaced confidence that the days of the Galway Tent and brown envelope are completely behind us. 

Much like a virus, corruption is like a disease that adapts to measures aimed at controlling it and often spreads unnoticed through the body of its victim. To treat it, we need to know where it is and what form it has taken. We also need to be able to identify the symptoms that often go unnoticed and causes that go unaddressed. 

One such symptom is the prevailing attitudes to conduct in public office. Worryingly, the EU’s Eurobarometer public survey on corruption has shown a fall in the share of Irish respondents expressing the view that it is never acceptable to exchange money, a gift, or favour to get something from the public service.

The Eurobarometer of businesses in 2019 also found that 60 percent of Irish respondents believed that corruption was affecting business competition in Ireland and a similar number believed that nothing would be done by the authorities if corruption was detected.

In addition to the need for greater transparency and reform, these trends suggest that public outreach and education also need to be part of a national anticorruption strategy.

One of the most sobering findings in social science, as with its medical counterpart, is that it is usually much easier for a society to succumb to corruption than it is to cure it.

With this in mind, we should take recent trends in Ireland’s anticorruption norms and gaps in our anti-corruption defences very seriously indeed.

Our global reputation is not the only issue at stake. Corruption is an insidious force that entrenches poverty, inequality, distrust in democracy, and disproportionately harms the most vulnerable in society. We therefore owe it to ourselves and our children, to be alert to the risk of corruption as much as any virus.

John Devitt is founder and Chief Executive of Transparency International Ireland and Chairperson of the Whistleblowing International Network

Robert Gillanders is an Associate Professor of Economics at Dublin City University Business School and Co-Director and Co-Founder of the DCU Anti-Corruption Research Centre (DCU ARC). He has published numerous academic articles on the causes and consequences of corruption.

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John Devitt & Robert Gillanders

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