The RTÉ Prime Time Investigates report on corruption among some councillors broadcast last night inevitably draws a reaction of how do we rid a country of corruption. A simple answer might be to stop electing probably corrupt candidates. Charles Haughey continued to get elected even though rumours that he amassed his fortune corruptly were rife. Michael Lowry continues to get elected despite the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal, and if a fellow with the nickname ‘Stroke’ later gets convicted for corruption, surely his electors knew what they were doing.
Another reaction is to think corruption is a uniquely Irish phenomenon, bred into us by dark historical forces. Of course corruption in Irish political life isn’t ‘endemic and systemc’ despite what Judge Mahon says (I suppose if you spend so many years studying one thing it’s natural to assume the phenomenon is everywhere and important).
The programme approached 15 people, and three of those behaved in ways that suggest they’re corrupt. 12 didn’t. And presumably the 15 that were approached weren’t selected randomly. RTÉ probably had a reason to suppose that they were likely targets for corrupt propositions.
On indices of corruption, for instance Transparency International or the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, Ireland performs pretty well. Out of a possible anti-corruption score of 100 in the WGI indicators Ireland’s 2014 score was 91.5 – not quite at the level of Denmark (99.5), but far better than any of the other PIIGS we were used to comparing ourselves to. The Transparency score isn’t as impressive, but shows us in the top half of the rich world.
While measures based on perception aren’t ideal, they have some face validity. Few of us experience corruption in day-to-day life. We don’t have to pay bribes to get an x-ray, or pass a driving test or nearly any of the myriad daily interactions we have with the state. The Irish Revenue Commissioners is widely regarded as utterly clean.
So Mahon was wrong that corruption is systemic and endemic in all aspects of Irish public life. Too many of us know enough clean politicians to suspect that his assertion couldn’t be true. It’s a problem in the area of planning. One of the most interesting aspects of last night’s programme was that it was focussed on just this aspect of public decision making. Why is this?
The programme makers didn’t choose planning randomly. They didn’t pretend to be a high-tech start-up. They chose planning and councillors because it’s one of the areas that political decisions can make someone exceptionally rich at the stroke of a pen (the awarding of a phone licence is another). The decision to rezone land or allow some development can make someone exceptionally rich (though changes in taxation have largely dealt with profits from rezoning). In few other areas can political decisions make people so much better off.
So the solution to the problem might be to consider how to ensure that decisions that can make people very rich are taken cleanly. This might be to minimise this number of decisions. A reform of the planning process with a principles-based planning process might be less open to corruption as opposed to a developer-led planning process (i.e. one where the person seeking to develop land requests permission). This is because it would limit the number of decisions that can benefit identifiable people, and instead decisions would apply to a broad class of people. I’ve yet to hear of anyone accused of taking bribes from Apple for the low corporation tax rate it gets, because that tax rate applies to a class of companies, not a few individual companies each based on separate decisions.
There is some evidence for the proposition that liberalised markets are less corrupt than ones in which the state plays a large role. Liberalising the market limits the impact of political decisions. For instance why limit licencing to a certain number of radio stations (another area perceived to be corrupt at one time)? It should also require that where major decisions are taken which can make people wealthy – such as the awarding of state contracts – clear criteria are set out in advance and the process is transparent.
We should also be alert to the fact that creating statutory agencies doesn’t necessarily fix things. They don’t work unless they have real powers and incentives to do their job properly. SIPO is a reporting agency, but it relies almost entirely on the honesty of the participants. It has few real power of investigation. This silly assumption that an agency for something once set up will fix a problem still exists. The Register of Lobbying won’t work because it’s easy to get around, but temporarily helps d0-gooders think something is being done.
Hopefully the standard calls that ‘something must be done’ will give way to a clearer analysis of what the problem is and how it can be tackled.
Eoin O’Malley, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University @AnMailleach