The Popularity of Criminals and Cute Hoors

Why voters sometimes keep on rewarding corruption.

Government Buildings, Dublin

Mick Wallace, a property developer, once pocketed over a million Euros from his customers that were supposed to go to the taxman. Despite his dodgy tax affairs being common knowledge, he ran for TD in Wexford in  2011 and got a whopping 13,500 first-preference votes, clinching the seat. Since then he has shown a penchant for refusing to recognize the rule of law or the authority of courts who levy fines resulting in a prison sentence. None of this seems to put a dent in his popularity with his constituents.

Meanwhile in Tipperary, Michael Lowry, a former Fine Gael TD, was found by the Moriarty tribunal to be a tax evader who spent his time as Communications Minister assisting his friend Denis O’Brien to acquire a lucrative mobile phone license. The McCracken Tribunal found that Lowry had evaded tax and had a IR£395,000 extension added to his home as a gift from Ben Dunne, a supermarket businessman. Fine Gael ousted Lowry from the party after numerous criminal investigations, and he responded by running for the same seat as an independent. He promptly topped the poll and remains as popular in his constituency as ever.

Government officials are fond of touting Ireland as a good place to invest on account of the “educated workforce,” yet the voting habits of said workforce would seem to contradict this particular boast. A criminal record, a history of bribe-taking, and a contempt for the rule of law are not just good for the bank accounts of Irish politicians, it is also good for their poll numbers. So are Irish voters a bit slow? Or is there some twisted logic to this celebration of corruption?

In Italy they have two types of people. There are those who play by the rules, wait patiently in line for their turn, but run the risk of never getting served. They are seen as naive and foolish. Then there are those who don’t play by the rules, cut in line, get served first, and hence are seen as smarter. Silvio Berlusconi’s litany of shady dealings and abuse of power did not stop him from serving as Prime Minister for nine years. Such people operate in a society in which corruption is so rife that following the rules is seen as pointless, but flouting them is seen as smart. Hence, higher support for corrupt politicians who know how to game the system.

On the other hand, in countries like Sweden corrupt politicians are given short shrift. Transparency International, an NGO, consistently finds the Nordic countries to be the least corrupt and hence the best places in which to do business. These countries share characteristics that include high levels of press freedom, literacy close to 100 percent, high GDP per capita, low inequality, and a political commitment to combating corruption.

So how can Ireland start looking less Italian and more Nordic in this respect?

One solution is to ban corrupt politicians for running for elected office for ten years. The government tried to enact a rule that would place such a ban on anyone convicted of corruption, only to be told in 2016 by the Office of Attorney General that such a rule would not pass legal muster. Rules about membership of the Dáil are baked into Article 16 of the constitution, and the government’s proposal would violate this.

Subsequently Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Justice, issued a memo to the cabinet stating that “an important consideration here is that, where a person is convicted of corruption and subsequently stands for election to the Dáil, voters will . . . make their own judgment.”  Yes, quite. If past experience is any guide, their judgment will not be logical or even in their own interest.

If voters are to be protected from themselves by way of a ban on bribe-takers holding elected office, a constitutional amendment would be required and that would necessitate a referendum. Any government serious about tackling the problem would pursue the matter and hold such a vote.

That said, Ireland is no banana republic. Transparency International ranks the country fourteenth in the table of cleanliness, only four places behind the UK, not so far behind the Nordics who top the table, and certainly well ahead of Italy, to say nothing of the dictatorships of the global south. But that does not mean the governments should be complacent.

To give credit where due, the government is processing legislation that modernizes a series of anti bribery laws that date back to the nineteenth century and brings it up to date and into line with international agreements. France, Spain, the UK and Germany are all beefing up their laws to make organizations liable if they fail to take steps to prevent people acting on their behalf from making corrupt payments.

The government should also communicate the measures it is taking. The public perception has to be that the institutions work, decisions are made on merit, and bribe-givers and takers should be discouraged by harsh penalties in the high likelihood of getting caught. Only then will clowns like Mick Wallace be banished to the political wilderness where they belong.

As for the North, the upcoming Assembly election will be a referendum on how corrupt the people view the system. Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the executive in the hope that the voters will punish Arlene Foster and the DUP for their dubious dealings in the RHI scandal. If trust in the system is high, the DUP will pay a heavy electoral price. If trust is low and unionist voters are still more interested in thumbing their noses at Sinn Fein than doing anything productive, the DUP could well come back with more seats than before. As the case of Michael Lowry shows, stranger things have happened.