Something strange happened this week. A Bill was published with less noise and fanfare than you’d get out of a bunch of stiffs in a morgue.
So what’s strange about that? Well, in the normal course of events a Minister will unveil a new piece of legislation as if he’s just personally discovered a new planet in our Solar System, or is about to reveal the Third Secret of Fatima, or has just been announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
And it is especially so if it involves Michael McDowell. On the slightest whim the Tánaiste is wont to hightail it down to Templemore, where he inspects two columns of hastily-assembled trainee gardaí before delivering himself of a Martin Luther King style speech, full of aspiration and determination that his latest get-tough bill will be more get-tough than all the previous get-tough bills.
What went wrong this week when the Ethics Bill was published in an atmosphere of monasterial silence? This wasn’t an ordinary run-of-the-mill Bill. No sirree. This was the extra special Bill that was demanded by Michael McDowell during BertieGate as the quid pro quo for staying in power. This was the pound of flesh; the leash and muzzle on the profligate Fianna Fáilers; the rope that would spancel him from straying over to Manchester for the odd speaking engagement.
It is true that for technical reasons the Department of Finance was the sponsoring department. But there was no press release. There was no announcement on the Departmental website. The Bill was published and posted on the Oireachtas website, ‘snook out’ under the cover of darkness during the Easter weekend.
And what had happened to the Tánaiste. Had he been the unsuspecting victim of a snatch squad of Poor Clare nuns? Had he been struck dumb at the sight of Enda Kenny’s new bouffant quiff? Or had he finally run out of things to say?
And when you parsed the Bill, you began to understand the unusual silence. For far from curbing the spendthrift ways of FF ministers, the Bill increases the value of a gift (including a monetary one) that must be declared by three times. The previous limit had been E635 (and that was included in the 1997 legislation). But the increase of the threshold to €2,000 was an astounding concession. Sure, a politician who gets a loan or dig-out of over €2,000 must first get an opinion (essentially the sanction) of the Standards in Public Office Commission. But one reading of the legislation is that the politician could get a limitless number of dig-outs from Samaritans like Paddy the Plasterer, all below the value of €2,000, and not have to declare them.
It’s an exercise in goal-post shifting. It’s the same with political donations. Gone are the days when parties and politicians could rely on the likes of Ben Dunne being good for a hundred grand. Now a TD must declare a donation over €635, and can’t accept anything over €2,540. A party must declare any loan it receives about 5,078 and can’t accept more than €6,348. What parties have done is gone underground.
Instead of getting a small number of very large donations, they now get a very large number of small donations, none of which are declared. How much do candidates raise? How much do political parties raise? We’re all as much in the dark as we always were.
If you compare the heroic prose of Michael McDowell last October with this wan piece of legislation, you see a credibility gap of Grand Canyon proportions. Last October, it was all about a pound of flesh. Now, the Tánaiste is justifying the rise because of a lamp he received as a gift or cases of wine (must be some wine if it’s worth over E635 a case) he might receive.
Who was calling for this? Nobody. The Standards in Public Office Commission says it received less than one piece of correspondence per year from Government in relation to items that might have exceeded the E635 threshold. Some demand there.
Andrew Rawnsley wrote a majestic piece in the Observer last Sunday on Tony Blair’s decade at the top. One of the points he made in the course of a long piece was that New Labour’s catchy slogan of its three priorities – Education, Education, Education – was just that, a slogan, nothing more.
So many promises founder on the rocks of reality. But with soothing prose, our politicians try to massage and spin it as if the promises were never really made in the first place. Strong ethics legislation. Banning casinos. Café bars. Reducing class sizes. 3,000 hospital beds. Carbon taxes. Decentralisation. Electronic voting.
Between promise and delivery, reality barges rudely into the picture. The determined dream is quietly dropped, or watered down, or parlayed away. The opposition isn’t immune to it either. What’s happened, for example, to Enda Kenny’s Ard Fheis pledge to fine the ‘weekend warriors’, the drunks and fighters who clog up A&E wards? That too was quietly ditched.
It’s as old as humans are. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, especially if they’re worth over €635.