by Gary Murphy (July 29 2010)
It seems that the Minister for the Environment John Gormley is ready to move on implementing a register of lobbyists. Speaking at a meeting of Green Party members in Limerick last weekend, he said that he intended to change the way politics was funded and to curb the influence of lobbyists, when the Dáil returns in September. Gormley said that his planned reforms on corporate donations to political parties would also involve the introduction of a register of lobbyists to regulate their activities. Strongly criticising the influence of lobbyists in the political process, Gormely noted:
“These individuals or companies who are paid handsomely by companies to achieve certain policy objectives have ready access to those in power. Many of them have previously been involved in political parties and know the system and the personalities. They also know the journalists and opinion formers. The influence of lobbyists is pervasive and at times pernicious. This is why we need a register of lobbyists to regulate their activities. It would immediately allow the public to identify these individuals and the causes they espouse.”
And for those of us who have been calling for such a register for a number of years, we might say hurrah for John Gormley. The trouble is that John Gormley has been saying it for years too. A register of lobbyists was part of the Green manifesto in the 2007 election. A register for lobbyists is mentioned in the Fianna Fail – Green – PD programme for government. An even firmer commitment to such a register is mentioned in the revised Fianna Fail – Green programme for government agreed in October 2010.
The Department of the Environment has been considering a register of lobbyists for even longer than the lifetime of this government. In a report for the department in August 2006, Raj Chari of TCD and myself advised them that “being proactive in establishing some sort of register of lobbyists would be a good initial first step in ensuring that the perception of undue influence is something that is not an issue in Ireland. One would have thought that such a first step would be warmly welcomed by politicians, officials, lobbyists and citizens alike in order to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance in the Irish political system”. Our report in which we were asked to examine and assess how lobbying regulation worked in different states across the world, and to recommend how it might work in Ireland, came after an earlier report in 2004 from Mary Malone, when the department sought an itinerary on global lobbying regulation. The Labour Party has introduced legislation designed to regulate lobbying on five occasions; twice in 1999, then again in 2000, 2003 and 2008. In 2007 the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, after much deliberation on the issue, called for the establishment of a credible registration system under which lobbyists would regularly declare the clients on whose behalf they were working. And of course Fine Gael has now also got in on the act with its own version of a lobbying register.
Recent research work that I have carried out with Raj Chari and John Hogan suggests that there is in fact little opposition in Ireland from either politicians or practitioners to a register of lobbyist. So what has kept John Gormley from bringing such forward such legislation prior to the forthcoming Dáil session. Why has it taken so long? The most important issue of all though, as I have pointed out in a previous posting on this site, is what type of register will be implemented. Noises emanating from journalists, quoting government sources, say that any such register of lobbyists is likely to be of a voluntary nature. A voluntary registration of lobbyists would, however, be virtually worthless and would be against all best practice internationally. If John Gormley really wants to live up to his fine words in Limerick to his fellow Greens, he needs to win the argument in government that the registration of lobbyists cannot be based on any voluntary system. Such a system will not ensure accountability and will not to use Minister Gormley’s own words “immediately allow the public to identify these individuals and the causes they espouse.” If the forthcoming legislation recommends a voluntary system then the government would be better off not implementing it at all and would serve the citizens of this country much better by continuing to put a mandatory system on the long finger. That’s how pointless a voluntary system would be.