The Irish Times

Corruption, however minor, likely to be an election issue

- Stephen Collins

The episode of the three councillor­s has fuelled the narrative of those who like to maintain that Ireland is an irredeemab­ly corrupt country and even a failed state.

The behaviour of three councillor­s out of more than 900 proves nothing of the kind. Still, the treatment of the issue has fuelled the corrosive cynicism about politics and politician­s, which has become a feature of life not just in Ireland but in many western democracie­s.

Of course, we should be concerned about standards in public life. It is only right and proper that the behaviour of politician­s and public officials is scrutinise­d, and that ethics legislatio­n is updated to meet best-practice requiremen­ts.

Transparen­cy Internatio­nal rates Ireland at 17th cleanest out of 175 countries in the world on its corruption perception index, just behind the UK and level with the US. There is obviously plenty of room for improvemen­t, and we still have some way to go before we arrive at the kind of standards that characteri­se Scandinavi­an countries.

However, the notion that corruption is rife across the political system because of the dubious behaviour of a few needs to be challenged, not simply because it is wrong but because it has the capacity to further erode confidence in our democracy.

With an election coming, an array of forces have a vested interest in underminin­g public confidence in the establishe­d political parties. The election will be a real test of confidence in the political system.

Rise of demagogues

Mind you, Ireland is not unique in this regard. Western democracy is now facing its biggest challenge since the second World War, with loose-lipped demagogues gaining in popularity in a number of countries. Donald Trump’s seemingly inexorable rise in the United States and Marie Le Pen’s in France are just two of the most obvious examples.

Faith in the institutio­ns that have underpinne­d a long period of unpreceden­ted peace and prosperity across Europe has been dented by the retrenchme­nt policies necessitat­ed by the euro zone crisis and now being tested by the flood of migration sweeping into the continent.

Last week’s decision of the voters in Denmark to opt out of EU justice legislatio­n marked a rejection of the establishe­d parties and a further boost for the antiimmigr­ant populist Danish People’s Party. That could be a harbinger of things to come in the UK.

Ireland has its own home-grown populists of left and right, who will ply the voters with a variety of populist panaceas in the next couple of months. So it is vitally important that debates are conducted on the basis of fact rather than hysteria.

A level-headed analysis about minimising the possibilit­y of corruption would be welcome, and it is equally important that the debate on the economy is also based on fact rather than wild, unsubstant­iated assertions.

Since the financial crash, a variety of outlandish claims have gained currency and they need to be challenged before they become accepted as fact.

One recurring canard is the assertion that the Irish tax system is loaded in favour of the well-off. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a short but comprehens­ive article on the subject on Publicpoli­cy.ie, funded by Atlantic Philanthro­pies, tax expert Donal de Buitleir showed that Ireland’s tax system is one of the most progressiv­e in the developed world.

De Buitleir demonstrat­ed that the tax paid by a single person on half-average earnings in Ireland is about a tenth of that paid by a similar individual in Denmark. The tax paid by a single Irish person on two and a half times average earnings was the seventh highest in the OECD.

It is not only the Irish income tax system that is among the fairest in the OECD: the same applies when all forms of tax, including VAT, excise and property tax, are taken into account.

The most unfair aspect of the Irish tax system is the excise on tobacco, which falls most heavily on poorer people who smoke the most. However, the case for taxing tobacco is a public health one that trumps fairness.

De Buitleir concludes: “Ireland has the most efficient tax and welfare system in the developed world in transferri­ng net income from better off to poorer people.”

Any debate on taxation that ignores this central fact is meaningles­s. Politician­s and commentato­rs are perfectly entitled to argue that even more should be taken from the better-off and given to those at the other end of the income scale. But the reality of the current position needs to be acknowledg­ed first.

Appeal of failed policies

There is a real danger that the kind of delusional politics pursued by Syriza in Greece will appeal to a significan­t segment of the Irish electorate – unless the basic facts of life about the economy and taxation are more widely accepted.

It was instructiv­e to hear Siptu boss Jack O’Connor, who hailed Syriza’s election victory at the beginning of the year, acknowledg­e on radio that the party had been forced to abandon most of its pledges once in office.

He noted that, by contrast, the Irish Labour Party, which has endured a torrent of abuse for allegedly selling out on its principles, has implemente­d many of the things Syriza has had to abandon. These include increasing the minimum wage, maintainin­g welfare payments and protecting the jobs of public servants.

In truth, all of the parties who have been in government since the crash deserve credit for the relatively fair way the burden of the adjustment has been shared. Whether voters will give it to them is another matter.

The notion that corruption is rife because of the dubious behaviour of a few needs to be challenged, not simply because it is wrong but because it further erodes confidence in democracy

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