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'As a councillor, RTÉ Investigates was a huge let down - but we're not all the same'

While it’s clear that these are a distinct minority of elected officials, they let us all down and in a way tarnish the already battered reputation of politics in Ireland, writes councillor Noel Rock.

Noel Rock

LIKE MANY PEOPLE I am deeply angered and frustrated by what I saw last night on RTÉ Investigates.

The programme will, naturally, cause all of us to ask: “Are they all the same? Will Irish politics ever truly change?”

I feel hugely let down by what I saw last night. Frankly I am glad that one of the people involved is no longer in Fine Gael. I firmly believe his behaviour has no place in modern politics.

I feel let down as a citizen, because it appears that somebody who is elected and paid to do right by us, the public, has decided to attempt to supplement their income by doing something which may not be in the public interest. This is the very opposite of public service.

I feel let down as a politician because, while it’s clear that these are a distinct minority of elected officials, they let us all down and in a way tarnish the already battered reputation of politics in Ireland. The poll at the end of the programme also brought this into view, as do the annual Edelman Trust Barometers, which consistently show politicians – of all parties and none – are distrusted by the public in Ireland.

This morning, I woke up completely exhausted by the whole thing. In a discussion with a few people after the programme, somebody remarked that they found a councillor’s defence – where he spoke about how hard the forms are to fill out – to be almost as depressing as the undercover material in itself.

It showed that the establishment were completely missing the point.

I hope he’s not right, I hope the establishment do take this seriously. For my part, I have written to the Taoiseach this morning outlining some of what I believe could be achieved under the heading of political reform in the first six months of the next Dáil.

What the government has done

The last four years under this government has seen actions taken to stamp out exactly some of the behaviours shown on RTÉ Investigates.

We have shone a light on finances, by bringing about an end to unvouched expenses and cut politicians’ salaries. I am the only councillor on Dublin city council who has taken €0 expenses, as they are unvouched and I disagree with that in principle.

I have also brought forward a motion to end unvouched expenses in the Council, to match the government reform in the Oireachtas. Small steps, but worthwhile ones.

Reforms that are perhaps most relevant following this programme are the ones which are breezed over regularly. This government has introduced the toughest anti-corruption laws in Irish history, including legislation on whistleblowing, severe restrictions on the receipt of donations, and the Registration of Lobbying Act.

The Lobbying Act has been praised internationally as one of the most thorough such Acts anywhere, and is being studied by other countries as a model. As well as this, there is both the strengthened Freedom of Information Act and the creation of a lobbying register – both of which increase transparency and accountability.

There is also the Criminal Justice (Corruption) Bill which is due to go before the Oireachtas this session. Transparency International has described the new bill as ‘‘innovative”. It allows for prison sentences up to 10 years as well as unlimited fines for bribery or corruption. Office holders can be removed or banned from holding office for up to ten years.

Corporate donations are now also effectively banned. Naturally, there are ways to attempt to circumvent this ban, but the mere existence of the ban prevents the possibility of a quiet cash-for-favours culture existing. This is no doubt a good thing.

We’re not all the same

Some of these reforms will hopefully begin to restore public faith in politics in the years ahead. Some of these reforms will also, inevitably, put off less scrupulous individuals who seek political office as a way of enriching themselves with ill-gotten income above and beyond that which they receive for serving the public.

However, what RTÉ Investigates uncovered may well make people forget about these reforms and instead remind us of the corruption scandals which many of us grew up hearing about in all-too-regular news reports and tribunals.

Make no mistake, there are more reforms to be made, including granting of further powers to the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO). We can’t simply rely on politicians to furnish statements and not investigate them further.

I sincerely believe all politicians are not the same, but I can understand why cynicism about politics pervades among reasonable people when things like this happen with a depressing regularity.

It’s at times like this that it is worth recalling the above reforms and hoping they point towards a better future where people can have faith in their politicians.

It’s also at times like this that it’s worth noting that the councillors featured, regardless of their party (or independence), are a distinct minority and were looked into after an investigation of almost 1,200 elected officials across the country.

However, one corrupt public official is one too many, and I feel a great sense of anger and disappointment, as I imagine everybody watching last night also does.

Noel Rock is a Dublin city councillor and Fine Gael general election candidate in Dublin North-West. 

State of the Nation: What should be done when politicians are caught dealing dirty?

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