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Ethics watchdog with teeth: Taoiseach says sanctions and penalties should be part of Sipo review

Micheál Martin said any review of Sipo rules must include foreign funding issues.

Sipo has been asking for its powers to be boosted for a number of years.
Sipo has been asking for its powers to be boosted for a number of years.
Image: Sam Boal

SANCTIONS AND PENALTIES should be attached to any cooling-off period used by office holders that move into the lobbying sphere, according to the Taoiseach. 

Calls for additional powers and more teeth for Sipo fell on deaf ears over the years, until yesterday when the government decided to sign off on a review of the legislation governing the the State’s ethics watchdog following the case of Michael D’Arcy.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said yesterday that he did not approve of a former minister going into a post that he had responsibility for as an office-holder.

The lacuna in the ethics watchdog’s powers have been continuously raised in by the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) annual reports over the years. But no action has been taken.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to connect the dots between the State and former officials turned lobbyists. Support this project here.

In 2018, the commission called for the legislation to be amended to expressly deal with situations where a TD or senator may have contravened their obligations under the law and the matter only comes to light after the member has left office.

It repeated its concerns about how it is too easy for senior public servants to leave their roles and immediately move into lobbying positions.

Even now, no timeline has been given by government as to when it would like to see legislative change, so whether this review will result in Sipo getting the power it needs to really hold office-holders to account is debatable.

However, the ongoing controversy surrounding the former junior finance minister and Fine Gael Senator Michael D’Arcy has put the so-called revolving door between politics and big business under the spotlight since it emerged he will be taking up a position as chief executive of the Irish Association of Investment Managers (IAIM).

D’Arcy was Minister of State at the Department of Finance from 2017 to 2020. He had responsibility for financial services and insurance, and worked on policy related to the funds sector.

Opposition parties yesterday sought clarity on D’Arcy’s appointment to the IAIM, expressing concerns it could be in breach of Sipo regulations and section 22 of the Lobbying Act, which state that a person in public office cannot engage in lobbying for 12 months after leaving that office.

However, a spokesperson for the IAIM insisted D’Arcy and the association “will not be engaging in any lobbying activities until the 12-month cooling off period has been completed, in adherence with the regulations”.

Criticism 

Members from his own party have raised concerns about D’Arcy’s actions.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said D’Arcy should have contacted Sipo prior to taking up the role, stating that in his view, it is appropriate for any such individual, whether that’s a former minister or any other relevant person, to engage with Sipo on matters such as this.

It is understood D’Arcy only wrote to Sipo yesterday to outline his position.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, who was once D’Arcy’s senior minister, told reporters that he should have contacted Sipo and should have made them aware of his plans.

“I believe that the powers that the Standards in Public Office Commission had were effective in dealing with this issue. But I do think it is appropriate now that we look at if those powers do need to be strengthened and Cabinet agreed that that would be done today,” he said.

“The particular issue that has arisen here by minister D’Arcy leaving public life and into a role in financial services should have been dealt with by the existing SIPO guidance in this area being adhered to before this issue had happened,” added Donohoe.

Whether Sipo’s powers need to be changed in the future will now be reviewed, but no minister can give a timeline of the review.

Donohoe said he is confident that once the budget is done Minister McGrath will “rapidly look to do this”.

So what does Sipo do?

Currently the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) can investigate breaches of ethics rules by office holders, such as ministers and ministers of State. It also administers the Regulation of Lobbying Act, which makes transparent lobbying of public officials. 

It also oversees:

  • The Ethics in Public Office Acts, which set out standards of conduct for public officials, elected and appointed;
  • The Electoral Act 1997, which regulates political financing, including political donations and election expenses;
  • The Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Activities) (Amendment) Act 2014, which regulates expenditure of public funds to political parties and independents

Dara Murphy controversy

This is not the first time questions have been asked about whether Sipo should be beefed up. 

The watchdog said it had no role to play in the case of former Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy late last year, stating that it could not investigate complaints made against the former TD over expense issues. 

This was despite the Taoiseach telling the Dáil that it could at the time.

Questions had been raised about Murphy working in Brussels while also being a sitting TD in the Dáil. Questions had also been raised about how Murphy had been in Leinster House on 24 sitting days out of 70 in the first nine months of 2019 and just 42 of the 104 sitting days during 2018.

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The commission said that under the Ethics Acts, complaints relating to a former TD who is no longer an ‘office holder’ (eg a Minister) would be a matter for the Committee on Members Interest for Dáil Eireann, and not Sipo.

Speaking at his parliamentary party meeting last night, the Taoiseach said any review of Sipo rules must include foreign funding issues and their impact on Irish politics. Government sources indicate Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is also keen for this to be included.

Yesterday during Leaders’ Questions, Martin said Sinn Féin has raised about $15 million  over the years in the United States.

“I’ve long been concerned by the fact that parties and movements can raise foreign donations to an extraordinary amount. I think that should be examined by Sipo,” he said.

“I worry about that,” he added.

 

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