Monday 16 September 2019

Corruption bill could change political culture

WHILE IN the short term this government may be remembered for cutbacks and the imposition of a punishing austerity programme, the history books may look on it with much greater favour as a result of a pioneering piece of legislation that was brought before the Dáil in the last week.

The new corruption bill introduced by Justice Minister Alan Shatter is potentially one of the most innovative pieces of anti corruption legislation introduced by any government in the world, provided, that is, that it isn't watered down too much as it makes its way through the houses of the Oireachtas.

For too long politics and public life in Ireland has been tainted with the whiff of corruption and the Irish people's grudging regard for the cute hoor led to a culture of shady dealings and backhanders in the country's corridors of power.

Public life in Ireland has been under a shadow of corruption for decades. After years of tribunals, which exposed seedy backroom deals that helped drive the country back into penury, it is hard to shock the Irish public. Corruption has become so endemic in Ireland that whenever the latest scandal emerges it is generally met with a resigned shrug of the shoulders and that well worn refrain 'sure aren't they all at it.'

Hopefully the new bill can change that. It is a genuinely groundbreaking piece of legislation which, like the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau in the mid '90s, could make Ireland a world leader when it comes to combating corruption and will benefit the country's image in Europe at a time when this is most needed.

One of the key features of the bill is what has come to be dubbed the 'Haughey Clause'. The 'Presumption of Corrupt Enrichment', to give it its proper title, means that if a public official has a standard of living well above their official income it can be presumed to have come from corruption and can be investigated. It would mean, drawing on the Haughey example, that a politician who owned an island off the Kerry coast, a yacht, and a palatial home in Dublin would be obliged to explain how he came to possess such luxuries.

Perhaps of even greater importance is the fact that the bill would, for the first time, bring the donor, a euphemistic phrase for those who bribe politicians, into the net. Until now while politicians who accepted 'gifts' from businessmen could be deemed corrupt those offering bribes have been able to escape censure or prosecution. Lengthy tribunal haven't always been enough to establish that corruption took place. This legislation can change that.

We've had expensive tribunals that have done good work, but at too high a cost and the feeling remains that they have only scratched the surface. What we need is to put laws in place to define and deal with corruption and which can fundamentally change the cute hoor culture in which corruption thrives.

Coming at the same time as constituency reform, the proposed corruption legislation shows a government willingness to make long needed reforms. Let us hope that willingness will be transferred into decisive action and that this extraordinary bill isn't allowed wither on the vine.

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