Report points to need for ban on party donations
THE WHIFF of corruption has long hung over the refined air that circulates around the relationships that exist between politics and business in Ireland and the damning findings of the Moriarty Tribunal report do much to add substance to this. However, after almost 14 years and a cost of possibly €250 million, the greatest lesson that can be learned from the Moriarty report is that tribunals are not an effective way of dealing with such issues.
When the Moriarty Tribunal was set up by the Oireachtas to inquire into payments to Charles Haughey and Michael Lowry, nobody envisaged that it would drag on for so long or cost so much. At the end of it all we have a 2,348 page report containing the findings of Mr Justice Michael Moriarty. His conclusions are damning of former minister Michael Lowry and businessman Denis O'Brien and paint an unsavoury picture of connections between business and politics that will do nothing for Ireland's reputation abroad.
Barring a successful challenge against Justice Moriarty's findings, the report will set a benchmark for what is and is not acceptable in the dealings that are conducted between business and politics in Ireland. This is no small achievement but it hardly justifies the time and money invested in the vast project. Added to that is the fact that the tribunal doesn't have the power to impose sanctions on those it found to have been involved in wrongdoing.
Justice Moriarty was empowered to draw inferences based on the evidence he heard over the long years that the tribunal sat. Using this power, he has found, among other things, that Denis O'Brien made covert payments to Michael Lowry, the then Minister for Communications, around the time Esat Digifone secured Ireland's first mobile phone licence - the most lucrative licence ever awarded by the State.
But if such corrupt practices took place - and both Lowry and O'Brien strenuously deny any payments were made or favours given - then the tribunal has no power to punish anybody; instead that is a matter for the gardaí and the courts.
As it stands, the Government has quite rightly referred the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the gardaí - and the Criminal Assets Bureau is also understood to be scrutinising Justice Moriarty's findings. However, it is considered unlikely that any criminal proceedings will follow because the chances of securing a prosecution are too slim.
Justice Moriarty's findings are based on the opinions he formed about the evidence he heard. This was the extent of his remit and he has carried out this function thoroughly, but it falls far short of the greater level of proof - beyond a reasonable doubt - that is required to convict a person before a criminal court. Despite almost 14 years of hearings, the Moriarty Tribunal doesn't seem to have gathered the kind of hard evidence that would stand up in court, although its findings would make a central contribution to any further investigation that might be carried out by the gardaí.
A weekend poll found that 81 per cent of people believe the findings of Justice Moriarty. It is now clearly incumbent on the Government to set out a template of standards for those who are honoured to hold public office. We also need to remove any need to ever again set up a tribunal to inquire into dealings between politicians and business people by ensuring there is full openness and transparency in how politics is conducted.
The simple fact is that questions about payments to politicians and whether those payments influenced political decisions wouldn't need to be scrutinised for years by a tribunal if there was a simple ban on any political donations. Successive governments have dodged this core issue but it is clearly what the people want and it would help give a sense that something of lasting value came out of the Moriarty Tribunal.