Dáil Speech Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Bill. The first point I would like to make is that we in this House are in a very privileged position to be elected and representatives of the people. Obviously, that honour is something we should cherish and not in any way tarnish by our activities. I sometimes very much regret the willingness within political discourse to undermine the actions and words of our political opponents in such a way as to imply incorrect motives to them. Obviously, in the cut and thrust of political debate there will be disagreements on policy and ideology, which is very acceptable. However, very often we cross the line in our efforts to make political points to such an extent that, in fact, it draws the profession of politics into disrepute. Collectively, that is something on which we should reflect.
There are very many people who are willing to subscribe to a view that this Chamber is a heaving mass of corruption and self-indulgence. The truth is different and I acknowledge this across the political divide in regard to people with whom I would be uncomfortable ideologically. I would not second-guess the bona fides of all those sent here. It is true to say that, in all of my time here, there have been a small minority who have betrayed the public interest by promoting self-interest ahead of the public interest and, of course, we should always have adequate checks and balances and laws to deal with this. However, our willingness to undermine the profession of politics marks a slippery slope that will ultimately fracture the close links between public representatives and the public they serve. We would do well to reflect on the dangers of creating a \”them and us\” approach where the public\’s confidence in the political process – not in Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Independents, Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin but in the process itself – is damaged. That is something on which we should reflect.
I acknowledge this is not the perfect week or day for me to be making these points. I put up my hands and say the current debacle in which the Taoiseach is involved in respect of the appointment of a Fine Gael candidate in a Seanad by-election to the board of the IMMA is regrettable, to say the least, and has not done much to dispel the image of malpractice and cronyism. In preparing for the debate on the Bill I took to reading what some might call works of fiction, although it is interesting reading. One is the Fine Gael manifesto in 2011 and the other is the programme for Government. It is interesting to note that a lot has been achieved in the area of political reform on which our absent friends in the press gallery are very often reluctant to report, whereas they use as a stick to beat us the things that have yet to be ticked off and delivered on.
I welcome this legislation, although I have some concerns which I will bring to the Minister\’s attention in the course of the debate. However, it is important to acknowledge that quite a lot has been done, while other things remain to be delivered on. One of the interesting things I found in the Fine Gael manifesto of 2011 is, in the context of the current controversy, worth reading. It states: \”Vacancies for all remaining paid directorships on public boards will be advertised on the website of the Public Appointments Service, and short-lists of qualified applicants will be presented to Ministers\”. I welcome the Minister\’s recent announcement in this regard. It is something that will serve to reinforce the fact that the overwhelming majority of Members today and during the history of the State have always been and were motivated by public service. We run a risk in continuously undermining and second-guessing their motivations and by making unsubstantiated political charges that we will actually bring the profession of politics into disrepute. I suppose what I am saying is that we need to play the ball all the time, not the man, something that is at times lost here.
As I said, I consider it to be a great privilege to be a representative in this Chamber of the people of my constituency of Cork North-West. We live in a representative parliamentary democracy. I would be very slow to introduce or support legislation that in any way undermined the interaction I have on a daily and weekly basis with my constituents, or placed any impediment between my constituents and me or between any representative here and his or her constituents in terms of their unfettered access as individual citizens to their public representatives. That has to be something that should be subject to the closest possible scrutiny.
I made reference to the question of whether this was a heaving mass of corruption or whether most Members of the House were well motivated. I believe they are.  It is interesting to note that Transparency International, which is an international body of some standing, reported in 2009 that we were the 16th least corrupt nation out of 180 nations it surveyed in its index of corruption globally. That is something for which this Chamber should take a bow. However, I accept that this must be assessed side by side with the results of various tribunals of inquiry, which have put a stain on the reputation of our system of parliamentary democracy. One can go back as far as the beef tribunal, the Mahon tribunal and the plethora of incidents that have been referred to by other colleagues in this debate. We must tread very carefully in respect of that interaction that is critical to our functioning democracy and the social cohesion we enjoy, and anything that puts an impediment in the way of the link between our representatives and the public. I would be very slow to support legislation that raises a question mark about the entitlement of a constituent of mine to step into my constituency office in Macroom or any of my clinics around the constituency from Ballincollig to Charleville. That would be a flawed piece of legislation. I raise this issue in the context of the Bill because I wonder whether this will be a lobbyist\’s charter. If a citizen cannot walk into my constituency office unfettered, must he or she then pay money to get a lobbyist to come in? It is a very interesting time to have this debate because we are in the middle of the pre-budget season and lobbying is at its peak. Today alone I had breakfast with Teagasc and elevenses with the Irish Road Haulage Association, while tomorrow it will be the turn of the INTO and the Simon Community, while earlier this week it was the Society of the Irish Motor Industry. I have heard from the drinks industry and the IFA. One has the whole gamut of society from the business community to the trade union movement to non-governmental organisations. They often raise general issues about which individual constituents come to me for 12 months of the year. For example, the IFA, which is probably one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country, has had its day in Dublin and met with all of us. We jump when it says it is having a lobbying session because it is an important voice for rural communities, as are the other farming organisations from whom I have heard, such as the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers\’ Association, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers\’ Association and Macra na Feirme. Very often, what happens is that subsequent to that lobbying session, the local IFA activists will come to my constituency clinic. As I understand, a particular interpretation of the legislation before the House could mean that the local branch of the IFA could no longer come to me. It would have to send its PR company or lobbyist. I see the Minister shaking his head and I hope that is correct, because that would be a real danger.
I am a lobbyist and I am lobbied. That is my duty as a public representative. I am lobbied all day every day, and rightly so. If a woman comes into my constituency clinic who has a problem with the Department of Social Protection about her social welfare payment, a parent comes to me who is concerned about the number of children in a classroom or the pupil-teacher ratio, or a farmer comes to me with concerns about Common Agricultural Policy reform, I am being lobbied. That is part and parcel of what I do. I must be able to differentiate between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Ultimately, I am held to account in the most telling of fashions, and I have been on the winning and losing sides of that telling procedure, which is an election every so often. That is the ultimate form of accountability. We need to tread carefully in terms of placing impediments before my constituents in having unfettered access to me, as is their right.
I know the other side of the argument and I understand the motivation behind the legislation. I think it is coming from a significant number – I will not say a small number – of high-profile events relating to planning corruption. As I said, I am a lobbyist and I am lobbied. I am a lobbyist when I come here. I am invariably at the back of the Chamber bending a Minister\’s ear. It might be the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when I am looking for something in my constituency. It might be the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in respect of the N22 bypass from Macroom. It might be any one of a range of Government Ministers. Where do I fit in? I am at the receiving end of this legislation insofar as I am one of the aforementioned people who will have legal requirements placed upon them as people who are lobbied. On the other side, I am also a lobbyist.
In respect of the organisations covered, could the Minister dwell in his reply on why certain organisations are not mentioned? For example, the Judiciary, the gardaí and the HSE are not mentioned. I am interested in knowing why they are not specifically mentioned in the legislation, given the very significant roles they play. The HSE would seem to be a glaring omission given the size of its budget.
On balance, it is a step in the right direction. I would like to be reassured by the Minister that this in no way interferes with the traditional engagement between a public representative and his or her constituents. I know there is a view out there and among our absent colleagues in the Fourth Estate, who are not listening to this debate now, that rural Deputies in particular are excessively involved in clientelism and spend too much time listening to our constituents and that the country would be far better if we did none of this menial stuff and got on with the business of fine flowery intellectual contributions in this Chamber about the important issues. I consider myself to be best informed in debates by virtue of practical experience because of the engagement I have with ordinary people – I do not use the term in any pejorative sense – whose lives are affected by the daily decisions we make. The challenge as public representatives is getting that balance right. Obviously, we must be our own moral guardians in the interim between one election and the other, when the public will adjudicate on us. I acknowledge that the actions of a small minority within this Chamber have betrayed the overwhelming commitment to public service that is manifest in all Members across all political parties.

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