Previously published as a column in The Sunday Business Post.
Is there any phrase that makes the Irish eye roll more than “people with information on corruption should contact the Garda Siochana”? It’s not that we think the Guards will try and cover it up, or worse still, be involved, as much as we just don’t believe that the Guards are that pushed on fighting white collar crime.
Murder, terrorism, big bank jobs, battering Shinners and mates of Paul Murphy named Sebastian, Arabella and St.John off the streets, that’s what the Gardai do. But white collar corruption? Truth is, the Garda record is that if it can’t be beaten with a truncheon, they don’t seem that interested. To them, a spreadsheet is something put under the bag of curried chips to stop the sauce going all over the duty sergeant’s desk.
In fairness to the Guards, it’s not a reflection on their intelligence, but rather how they see themselves in the social arena. There’s no kudos to be had from the Irish people in fighting corruption. The Guards feel, probably rightly, that the Irish people won’t thank them for directing resources towards public corruption and away from stopping some gurrier getting in your bathroom window and stealing your plasma screen.
In the late 1980s a young US Attorney, which is a form of federal DPP, ordered the arrests of various Wall Street bigwigs on charges of insider trading. Eschewing the genteel practice of the time of quietly arresting the suspect with much discretion, the US attorney ordered that they be brought out in front of the media, with handcuffs, the message being that no matter how rich and powerful you were, the law applied to you as much as it did to the little guy. By 1993 that US Attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, had been elected Mayor of New York City, primarily on the reputation of sticking it to the corrupt powerful.
Would that be possible in Ireland? Could a deputy get elected building a name on fighting corruption? The evidence says no. Jim Mitchell was fired by his constituents for spending too much time on the DIRT inquiry, recovering millions in taxes for their public services. Trevor Sargent, who actually got into physical fights over corruption in Dublin County Council, was dismissed by his voters. The truth is, we don’t regard fighting corruption as a vote winner, and if the voters don’t care, why should the Guards?
Yet we have to fight corruption. Primarily because other countries notice if we don’t and start making a holy show of us, putting us on lists with the sort of guys an Apple executive would not like to be seen with. So what do we do?
Supposing we decided we did care. What would be the best way to fight Irish corruption? I’d suggest we create a National Anti-Corruption Agency and tender its functions out to the private sector, with bonuses paid on every conviction achieved. All of a sudden we’d have lawyers and forensic accountants and ex-FBI agents actively going out looking for corrupt politicians and civil servants and semi-state officials because it puts money in their arse pockets. We’d have ropey county councillors wondering every time someone offered them a few quid to get a rezoning through was the guy real or a NACA operative setting him up for a sting. All the cases would have to go through a court same as any Garda case, with the same civil rights protections, the only difference being that they’d actually be happening.
And here’s the beauty of the thing: because it’s private it will have to pay its own way or we can scrap the tender in a few years. Unlike, say, certain public transport companies that seem to see running public transport as a hobby to do in their spare time, NACA will actually have to carry out its task. In fact, as we’ve seen with Aer Lingus and Dublin Bus, a bit of competition tends to do wonders for the focus of the existing crowd. We won’t able to move for Gardai and Corporate Enforcement falling over themselves tapping councillors’ phones trying to out perform that crowd over in NACA.
But surely if its private sector, NACA will be open to corruption, learned counsel will say indignantly. Maybe so, but no more than our current public bodies, and unlike them, we can sack it. When did we ever do that with a public sector body? Sack them? We just give them a new logo.
Serious about wanting to fight corruption? Then put on the table the one thing Irish people respect more than loyalty towards our dodgy relatives and cronies: not integrity, not honour. Cold hard cash.