Irish Examiner, Friday, March 14, 2014: Political lobbying – The power to influence Government

Political lobbying – The power to influence Government

Irish Examiner: Friday, March 14, 2014

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Political lobbying and funding political parties are two sides of the same coin. They are about trying to ensure that a certain view shapes Government decisions and legislation.

This is entirely appropriate in a democracy — but only if they are done in an open way and if all parties to the process are aware of the objectives and status of everyone involved. Parity of access, to adapt a well-worn phrase, for all views is essential too. Achieving that level of transparency is a huge challenge but one worth pursuing. Events of recent days showed what happens when those lines are blurred or ignored.

Last month the European Commission published the EU Anti-Corruption Report which showed that 81% of us believe corruption is widespread in this country, 5% above the EU average of 76%. Once again, events of recent days, in more than one sphere, justify those suspicions. While the report found that Government had “undertaken substantial reforms in its anti-corruption policies” it also suggested “more work could be done to improve the capacity to prosecute and punish corruption cases”. The authors also argued that “further work could also be required to address the few remaining concerns around the funding of political parties”. So many recent developments vindicate that contention.

One aspect of this murky business that does not get the attention it deserves is how access to the highest levels of power can facilitate one view and frustrate another. For instance, in recent weeks Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney shared a meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Alf-Helge Aarskog, chief executive of Norwegian fish-farming world leader Marine Harvest who hope to secure more licences for salmon farms along our shores. Would — or have — those who oppose salmon farms been offered the same high-level opportunity to influence decisions? This meeting would not have come to light had Mr Aarskog not spoken of it elsewhere. It must be assumed these off-radar meetings take place on a range of subjects without the knowledge of other, equally legitimate, interests in decision-making processes.

The role of former politicians in lobbying is more than questionable too, especially if they move seamlessly from one career to the other. The practice of retired senior civil servants joining corporations interacting with the area of public life they were so recently involved in seems pretty dubious too. It should not be too difficult to put a clause into these pension packages that would prevent this gun-for-hire approach. Ex-politicians should be subject to a cooling off period too, one measured in years rather than months, before they could join a lobbyists’ register — if only we had one.

However, no matter how stiff measures to prevent inappropriate lobbying or funding are made it is impossible to hermetically seal something as human as government from those determined to influence it. It is not, however, impossible to impose convincing sanctions on those who would breach those disciplines —if we had them. That such measures are still pending suggests that Government realises, as we all do, that they would be honoured more in the breach than in their observation. We, it seems, get the politicians we deserve in more ways than one.

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Friday, March 14, 2014–the-power-to-influence-government-261941.html

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