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You can’t have too much of the best political virtues.

How failure to regulate for ethics created a climate where a PR man could deride transparency.

By Vanessa Foran.

I want to take you back a few months to a mad little incident that keeps coming back to me.

“You are almost too transparent and informative”.  This is what PR man and registered lobbyist, Conor Dempsey, a self-declared ‘close confidante’ (sic) of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, DMed to Dr Anthony O’Connor earlier this year.

Dr O’Connor is a practising clinician, a public healthcare activist, and a Labour Party member who has put himself forward for the position of Party Chair.

Conor Dempsey’s implausible claim that the doctor’s social media profile undermined his clinical role,  provoked Dr O’Connor’s announcement, also on Twitter, that he was deleting his Twitter account; temporarily as it turns out.

The Minister distanced himself even though Dempsey worked for him on his first general election campaign in 2011 when he was elected as an Independent TD.

This of course amounts to little more than that particular day’s local Twitter skirmish, and is not the point of this article; Accountability is, Ethics is, Probity is, Transparency is, and I will take us there with this: 

Why would anyone suggest that being ‘transparent and informative’ is a liability? 

Why would anyone suggest that being ‘transparent and informative’ is a liability?  Or a professional flaw?

Someone said to me, about this very comment: “This apparent impossibility is at the upper end of Irish Newspeak and clearly merits stringent analysis”.

I cannot promise ‘stringent’ but I can attempt to explain how strange and dangerous it is that someone would want to make the point  that it was possible to be too transparent and informative.

As our Government and establishment continue to trip themselves up with leaks, aborted rollouts, careless public-procurement awards and slippery sideways senior appointments, I am not prepared to let the next sequence of failures and breaches come upon us without tying them to regulatory failures. Specifically, the lack of an enforceable probity regime that at the very least establishes a minimum compliance code that cannot be messed with, no matter what office you are elected or appointed to.

Ethical and legal standards inevitably feed off each other

Ethical and legal standards inevitably feed off each other, a mutually enhancing partnership that is essential if probity is to thrive, or as regulators would say “embed”.  

Only the lack of legal standards, or a culture of inherent ethical behaviour, or even a fear of accountability can explain why an associate of a senior Government Minister could so comfortably declare (or perhaps admit) that being “too transparent and informative” was not an advantage in his world.

‘Less is more’ is what the influential in Ireland prefer when it comes to Accountability, Transparency, Probity and Ethics.  Conor Dempsey knows that well.  

But it should be the very opposite, no matter how normalised chancing the arm has become in Irish political culture.  Being ‘transparent and informative’ is a good thing – to  be celebrated, and taught, not undermined, or made appear dubious, by anyone.

Where the law has not been firmly established or even made clear, Irish Politicians, and their back-room apparatchiks, will continue to insist on extracting accountability and transparency from everyone else, but not from themselves.  To the point that one of them can ventilate his ambivalence about openness to a virtual stranger.

This adopted sense of them and us is how our current Government can act with impunity.

The impunity is rampant.  

This is why vulnerable  people have been denied access to their own birth and adoption records.

This is why a former Government TD could have a second whole-time job in another parliament, yet still be entitled to all the trappings that came with his job representing  the people of Cork North Central.  

This is why a former Government Minister accepted invitations from the principal participants in a significant Government tender competition.

This is why a private hospital CEO picks up the phone to family interests when a vaccine opportunity arises without a flicker of consideration for public waiting lists or the HSE Services Agreement he signed his organisation up to.

This is why a big stockbroker’s got to carry on their business-as-usual, even while under investigation from the Government regulator. 

This is why our current Tánaiste dropped off confidential information to a personal friend like he was returning a DVD.  This is why he didn’t immediately recognise he might have been encouraging and participating in apparent corruption.  That these violations of strict confidence and disregard for the Official Secrets Act that Cabinet members sign a promise to uphold, were considered options by such an experienced Government official questions his general trustworthiness to manage confidential information.  

Who knows what ‘Intelligence’ he might have shared from his duties as Minister for Defence.  I certainly would not like to be one of his former patients, would you?  

All this suspicion is because there is no accountability demanded from those in public office and no ethics regime that imposes a sanction for breaches.

Denying ethics a strict independently enforced function sets the tone and the background for  the  relaxed approach to probity and ethics that has co-opted itself into the everyday practices of our professional politicians.  

A voluntary adherence to codes of conduct and best practice is a common theme of our Oireachtas, even the ones published in the Government Members handbook, “The Government ask that Ministers and Departments comply fully with these guidelines.”

Instead of demanding that Ministers and Departments comply fully, with the risk of enforcement, sanctions and penalties, a polite well-paid anarchy has taken over, and not just within our senior civil servants, but around our Cabinet table. 

So, when Micheál Martin was questioned about former TD Dara Murphy, he clearly admitted that he was not sure if it was a breach of ethics. Yes, that is actually what he said, “not sure”.

‘Not sure’: the leader of the opposition could not see that ethics is more than legality.

This leader of the opposition, a former Minister for Education, a former Minister for Health, a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, and a former Minister for Enterprise could not see that ethics is more than legality.  

It is hardly a cheap shot for anyone to suggest our current Taoiseach learnt part of his ethics  from the cutest of them all, Bertie Ahern who famously couldn’t pronounce the word..  

Be clear, and there is zero room for uncertainty in this case: claiming whole-time flat expenses that are attached to a role that was not performed whole-time is unethical.  

What Micheál Martin was relying on were regulations.  Did Dara Murphy break the law?  

You will not find a better working example of the lack of basic ethical instincts in our politicians than the appointment of Geraldine Feeney to the Standards in Public Office Commission last year.

A former member of a Government party, who served as a Senator under the Fianna Fáil whip before making a career for herself as a registered lobbyist, a role that by its very nature requires making use of the working relationships she cultivated while being a Fianna Fáil activist and representative.  

Here is a stone-cold fact, in an ethical and transparent environment, every one of those conflicts should have disqualified that candidate before a CV was uploaded into State Boards/

The  independence of the Standards in Public Office Commission has been compromised.

Ethics are principles and your capacity for public office and public appointment should be measured by your understanding of ethics.

Ethics are what governs your own behaviour and how you should conduct yourself in your elected office.   Rules like how and when expenses can be claimed should be instructions on what to do. 

I am concerned that our public officials do not know what is right or wrong  or that they simply do not care as they have enjoyed the benefit of never really being held to account for too long.

The varieties of -Gates and  Tribunals in our recent political history are all outcomes of established political parties not instilling ethical standards within their own membership, or even going to the trouble of conducting any due diligence on a candidate they put in front of the voter.

Water only flows one-way:if high standards are observed and demanded within political parties themselves, then we can expect to see better conduct around our State Board rooms, our Banks and our Government Bond Traders.  As previously mentioned, when ethical and legal standards bond, probity thrives.

In professional services, it is mandatory to complete ethics training, in most instances, as in my own, it is an annual requirement.  So why should it not be the same for elected officials? Why am I held to a higher standard than our Minister for Finance, or our Minister for Justice?

It is now clear that our own Ministers, no matter how many terms they have already served still require basic induction training with the Cabinet Handbook when they accept the seal of office and put their signature to the Official Secrets Act.   

We have allowed PR, likability and even #mentions to be more important to our Political leaders than ethics and probity in office.

We must demand a fitness and probity regime that includes mandatory ethics training for our elected officials, with additional induction training for Ministers, every time they accept a seal of office.

If Politicians refuse to be accountable to us then at least make them all accountable to a strict ethics regime that is a requirement of holding office; and until the Oireachtas starts to appeal to and  attract members who already practise to a high ethical code, then that is the best we can do.

the failure of high ethical standards is the upshot of us not pinpointing their absence. 

Because, for all our handwringing and hashtagged outrage, the failure of ethics in public life is also the upshot of us not demanding them, not pinpointing their absence. 

Only this could leave Conor Dempsey thinking no-one would notice his unlikely little advice, so strangely offered and so little analysed.