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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Clientelism exposes hypocrisy of politics

Clientelism exposes hypocrisy of politics

The Irish Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

There may be reforms, but they will not touch the heart of the existing culture – the idea of the politician as fixer, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

LET’S WIND the clock back to the beginning of this year. A broad consensus was emerging in relation to the dangerously decrepit state of our political culture.

It was obvious that cronyism and clientelism had contributed to the implosion of the State and of the economy. Things had to change. We had to end the idea of pull, of fixers and stroke merchants. We had to make a decisive break from the notion that the job of a politician wasn’t to legislate and to scrutinise the use of public resources but was rather to influence the system on behalf of individual voters. Fine Gael and Labour responded to this public mood and promised radical change.

Last week, we had the starkest evidence yet that the Government has little intention of following through on this promise. There may be reforms, but they will not touch the heart of the existing political culture – the idea of the politician as fixer.

Last week, I suggested here that David Norris had been guilty of an inexcusable abuse of office in the way he made representations on behalf of a man convicted of statutory rape. I also expressed concern that Norris should not be singled out in this regard, with one standard for him and another for everyone else. I had no idea how open, brazen and shameless that double standard would be.

Norris’s withdrawal from the presidential race apparently set a new benchmark in public life: politicians can’t make pleas in mitigation for people convicted of serious crimes. As of last Tuesday, the new standard was that any attempt to do this makes you not just unfit for high public office, but unfit even to be a candidate for high public office.

This is a pretty tough rule, but so be it. There’s a bad history of TDs churning out letters in mitigation to be presented at sentencing hearings, pestering ministers for justice with requests for special treatment for convicted constituents and putting down Dáil questions looking for the early release of prisoners.

It’s a good thing to recognise that this has to stop. Ireland is a small place, with a highly politicised system of appointing and promoting judges. The need for strict safeguards was made starkly obvious in the Philip Sheedy affair in 1999 but very little was actually done. So it is long since time that we had a basic rule that politicians keep their noses out of court cases, sentencing and issues like early release. As of last Tuesday, that rule had been established.

The price for David Norris was very high, but the change in the political culture arguably made his demise a price worth paying.

Except that the new rule didn’t even last for 24 hours. By Wednesday morning, Leo Varadkar was on Morning Ireland, responding to a proposal from Independent Senator John Crown that representations to judges by politicians be outlawed. Crown had put forward the obvious follow-on from the collapse of Norris’s campaign: “It is unethical for politicians to attempt to influence the judicial process and it ought to be illegal.”

Varadkar’s response, presumably on behalf of the Government, was that political attempts to influence the judicial process are fine and will continue: “No, I don’t think representations should be banned. It’s part of the normal course of politicians to make representations. I don’t make representations to judges myself and that’s a decision that I made when I first got elected four or five years ago, but there are circumstances where people will make representations on behalf of their constituents and that can be valid.”

There is a history to this. Twice before, in 2002 and 2008, in response to controversies over pleas by TDs on behalf of convicted child rapists, we’ve had promises from the party leaders that they would draw up a code of conduct to stop this kind of thing happening again.

In 2008, Fine Gael and Labour (in the person of Eamon Gilmore) supported this idea. But nothing happened. Talk of a code of conduct continued just long enough to get the system through a period of public concern and then simply died.

This time, there’s not even token talk of a code of conduct. It is just business as usual. Asking judges to go easy on constituents convicted of serious offences is simply “normal”. TDs will keep doing it, with the explicit blessing of the Government.

So why did Norris have to go? The only distinction that can be made is that the person on whose behalf he acted was not a constituent. It’s okay to plead for criminals – provided there’s a chance that they or their families might vote for you.

It’s all part of the service. When Tony Killeen was caught making representations for a child rapist, he defended himself by saying that he hadn’t even read the letters – his office had just churned them out. This stuff is part of the game of demented clientelism, a game that will go on. However high the stench of hypocrisy, ethical consistency must not be allowed to get in its way.

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