Why per­cep­tion trumps po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity

De­nis Naugh­ten didn’t act cor­ruptly, but his ac­tions cre­ated an aura of cor­rup­tion, writes Liam Weeks

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Politics -

THE for­mer Min­is­ter for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, De­nis Naugh­ten, felt vin­di­cated by the re­view of the pro­cure­ment process for the Na­tional Broad­band Plan, which was pub­lished last week.

The au­thor of the re­view, Pe­ter Smyth, con­cluded that De­nis Naugh­ten, forced to re­sign be­cause of pri­vate meet­ings he had with one of the bid­ders, ‘did not in­flu­ence, nor seek to in­flu­ence, the con­duct of the ten­der process’.

Does this mean that Irish pol­i­tics is not cor­rupt? I ask this very ques­tion ev­ery year in my lec­tures at UCC, where I en­cour­age stu­dents to avoid sim­plis­tic sound­bites about cor­rupt politi­cians, and to in­stead use com­par­a­tive ev­i­dence to lo­cate Ire­land in the global sphere.

One such means of do­ing so is Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex (CPI), cal­cu­lated from ex­pert as­sess­ments in 180 coun­tries of the per­ceived lev­els of cor­rup­tion in the pub­lic sec­tor.

Scores on this in­dex range from 0 to 100, with 0 mean­ing very cor­rupt and 100 very clean. In 2017, more than two-thirds of coun­tries scored below 50. So­ma­lia, South Su­dan and Syria had the low­est re­spec­tive scores of 9, 12 and 14.

The coun­tries with the five high­est scores, rang­ing from 85 to 89, were New Zealand, Den­mark, Fin­land, Nor­way and Switzer­land.

Ire­land came 19th with a score of 74, below the UK and the US, but above Ja­pan and France.

On this ba­sis, most of my stu­dents con­cluded that, de­spite the ev­i­dence from the Ma­hon and McCracken tri­bunals, to men­tion a few, Ire­land seems to be, rel­a­tively speak­ing, not so cor­rupt.

How­ever, as some of the more dis­cern­ing ob­servers pointed out, the CPI is not a mea­sure of cor­rup­tion per se, but rather a mea­sure of the per­cep­tion of its ex­is­tence.

So, it could be that a coun­try is quite cor­rupt, but gets a high score on the Cor­rup­tions Per­cep­tion In­dex if this cor­rup­tion is hid­den from so­ci­ety and the ex­perts mea­sur­ing it.

What this re­ally in­di­cates is whether the per­cep­tion of cor­rup­tion is more im­por­tant than its ex­is­tence?

Is it worse to live in a so­ci­ety that is not cor­rupt, but which we be­lieve to be en­demic with cor­rup­tion, or in a cor­rupt so­ci­ety that we be­lieve to be clean and fair?

A per­cep­tion of cor­rup­tion can lead to ci­ti­zens hav­ing less faith in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, in­creas­ing their sense of alien­ation, and re­sult­ing in higher lev­els of dis­af­fec­tion and with­drawal, all of which have the po­ten­tial to un­der­mine the fab­ric and sus­tain­abil­ity of democ­racy.

This very is­sue was the fo­cus of the re­view into the bid­ding process for the Na­tional Broad­band Plan. The re­port high­lighted the dan­gers of per­cep­tion, when seem­ingly no ev­i­dence of ac­tual cor­rup­tion ex­isted.

Pe­ter Smyth found that De­nis Naugh­ten did not act in a cor­rupt man­ner, while also stat­ing that to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the process, it was right that Naugh­ten re­signed, be­cause it ‘in­su­lates the process from any ap­par­ent bias’.

At the time, the Min­is­ter was pretty an­gry that the Taoiseach had de­manded his res­ig­na­tion, stat­ing in the Dail that the out­come was more about “opin­ion polls than tele­coms pole”, and more about “op­tics than fi­bre op­tics”.

But the then Min­is­ter was miss­ing the point. Of course it is about op­tics, and of course they are im­por­tant. I have not heard any­one sug­gest that De­nis Naugh­ten acted cor­ruptly, but his ac­tions cre­ated an aura of, or po­ten­tial for, cor­rup­tion, and that can be just as dam­ag­ing as cor­rup­tion it­self.

In to­tal, Min­is­ter Naugh­ten had 40 meet­ings with the four con­sor­tia bid­ding for the Na­tional Broad­band ten­der; al­most half were with the Grana­han McCourt group.

The lat­ter was the only bid­der with whom the Min­is­ter had din­ner. As well as a sep­a­rate cof­fee meet­ing in Jan­uary 2018, Naugh­ten dined with David McCourt of the Grana­han McCourt con­sor­tium in Septem­ber 2017 (along with Min­is­ter Pat Breen), as well as in Fe­bru­ary, March, April and July of this year.

As Pe­ter Smyth ac­knowl­edges in his re­view, “the meet­ings be­tween the for­mer Min­is­ter and Mr McCourt gave cause for con­cern as they sug­gest an on­go­ing en­gage­ment out­side of any for­mal need for them to en­gage with each other”.

While Smyth also says that “the fact that the for­mer Min­is­ter met with Mr McCourt… out­side of the process is not in and of it­self a ba­sis for find­ing that the pro­cure­ment process has been tainted”, no min­utes of these meet­ings are avail­able, and no govern­ment of­fi­cials were present.

In­stead, Smyth had to rely solely on the word of Naugh­ten and McCourt that no ethics had been breached in terms of what they dis­cussed at these din­ners.

The essence of the 50-page re­port in one sen­tence is that the whole af­fair had the po­ten­tial to be, and look, cor­rupt, but it wasn’t.

What this shows is not that Ire­land is cor­rupt, but that our politi­cians can main­tain a ve­neer of in­flu­ence (and by im­pli­ca­tion, the po­ten­tial to be open to a claim of cor­rup­tion).

To get elected, our deputies need to be able to show that they mat­ter, and can pull strings. They want to be able to show im­por­tant busi­ness­men that they are the real power-bro­kers; they want to be able to show vot­ers that they can get things done for them.

This is why for­mer Trin­ity pro­fes­sor Basil Chubb fa­mously wrote that the main pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of our TDs is “go­ing about per­se­cut­ing civil ser­vants” by mak­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions on be­half of their con­stituents.

TDs want to pre­tend that it is their in­flu­ence that gets some­one a med­i­cal card, gets pot­holes fixed, or pushes a voter up the hous­ing list.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to one Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, who re­searched Neil Blaney’s ‘Done­gal Mafia’, this in­flu­ence is ‘imag­i­nary pa­tron­age’. That is, the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the TDs have lit­tle ef­fect — but they man­age to con­vince vot­ers that it does.

The ar­gu­ment is that in a coun­try with a cen­tralised form of govern­ment, where lo­cal bod­ies have few dis­cre­tionary pow­ers of ex­pen­di­ture, and where there is a fair and mer­i­to­cratic bu­reau­cracy, there is lit­tle to no po­ten­tial for politi­cians to act in a cor­rupt man­ner.

While it is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that vot­ers would fall for this trick if it was en­tirely il­lu­sory, there is some merit to the claim that Irish politi­cians in­flate their in­flu­ence.

Take the ex­pen­di­ture that in­de­pen­dents al­lege to de­liver when a mi­nor­ity govern­ment needs their vote. Jackie Healy-Rae and Harry Blaney as­serted that they ex­tracted hun­dreds of mil­lions in fund­ing from Ber­tie Ah­ern in the 1990s.

In in­ter­views I con­ducted with for­mer taoisigh, how­ever, they said that most of the fund­ing in­de­pen­dents claimed to have de­liv­ered was a case of al­ter­na­tive facts.

Most of the projects were al­ready tar­geted for the in­de­pen­dents’ con­stituen­cies, who may have been given early news of it by the Govern­ment to beef up their al­leged in­flu­ence. This cost the Govern­ment noth­ing, but was in­valu­able in terms of votes for the in­de­pen­dents.

If we are to call this in­flu­ence cor­rup­tion, then what we have in Ire­land is an il­lu­sion of it. It may have an or­ange bill, webbed feet, and pos­si­bly quack, but it’s not a duck.

This does not mean that we should be com­pla­cent. The il­lu­sion and per­cep­tion of cor­rup­tion can be just as dan­ger­ous as its ac­tual ex­is­tence.

That was why De­nis Naugh­ten had to go. And why I will have to ask the same ques­tion about cor­rup­tion to next year’s co­hort of UCC Govern­ment and Pol­i­tics stu­dents. Dr Liam Weeks is direc­tor of the MSc Govern­ment & Pol­i­tics at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Cork

‘Pe­ter Smyth found that De­nis Naugh­ten did not act in a cor­rupt man­ner, while also stat­ing that to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the process, it was right that Naugh­ten re­signed — be­cause it in­su­lates the process from any ap­par­ent bias’ ‘The Min­is­ter was pretty an­gry that the Taoiseach had de­manded his res­ig­na­tion, stat­ing in the Dail that the out­come was more about opin­ion polls than tele­coms poles, and more about op­tics than fi­bre op­tics’

TRAP­PINGS OF OF­FICE: May 2017 and De­nis Naugh­ten is given the Min­is­te­rial seal of of­fice for the De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Cli­mate Ac­tion & En­vi­ron­ment by Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar at Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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