What happens when the ‘watchdog’ is watching the wrong people?

Brendan Ogle UniteDo you remember the infamous ‘Galway Tent’? As a symbol of the sort of gombeenism that pertained as the nation was led to penury, the ‘Galway Tent’ is a good example. Basically, Fianna Fail party fundraisers would hire a marquee at the Galway race festival in Ballybrit and invite their friends to enjoy their ‘hospitality’. Here beer and wine would flow, a canape or two maybe, and brown envelopes packed with wads of cash would be handed to the political worthies as ‘donations’. €150,000 a year is admitted to having been raised in this way. There were even long waiting lists of cash-clad citizens hoping for cancellations so that they might get in, get to dine at the ‘top’ table, and also hand over an envelope full of ‘green’. Of course no favours were ever asked for, or offered, in exchange for this largesse. That would be corruption. In Ireland? Of course not!

It was stopped in 2008 amid widespread public concern. And Ireland got cleaned up. Didn’t it?

The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) had been established seven years earlier in 2001. Political donations, disclosure of interests of politicians, expenditure of state funding, party leaders’ allowances and the like were genuine causes of public concern in relation to ethics in public office, and SIPO was established to deal with these matters. It should also be said that community and volunteer-led campaigns, trade union activism and social protest were not genuine causes of public concern then, or ever (except possibly in the sense that there wasn’t enough of it), so SIPO were set up to get a handle on that which was or concern. The hint is in the title. Standards in Public Office.

Just how well they were doing in this task was revealed on a Primetime Special on RTE television on Monday 7th December 2015. The show revealed to a startled public the fact that elected politicians all over Ireland, national and local, were failing to properly register their interests, as well as falsely claiming expenses they weren’t entitled to. A number were also trying, and succeeding, to elicit third party payments to them that shocked viewers.  Who could ever forget ex Fine Gaeler, ‘Pocketman’ Hugh McIllvaney, being secretly recorded laughing at the very idea that he might be caught doing anything wrong. As he pulled out his pockets and waved them about to a potential client, he asked ‘what’s in it for me?’, and ‘are you going to pay me by the hour or the job’? And remember Fianna Fail’s Joe Queenan? Queenan was forced to resign from the party after being secretly filmed offering to act as an intermediary for a wind farm company in return for an investment in a business he was planning. The malpractice was so widespread and out of control that a contributor to the show from SIPO itself, Principal Officer Brian McKevitt, looked for new powers to reel in such blatant corruption.

I remember that show, and the date, very well. I remember it because within two days SIPO had summoned Dave Gibney and myself to a meeting in their offices in our capacity as co-ordinators of the Right2Water campaign. It was an extraordinary meeting. The Right2Water campaign is not an organisation in any sense, it is a campaign, yet we sat and listened as we were told we had breached all sorts of SIPO regulations and we would have to give the money spent running the campaign back. Now, almost all of the money spent on Right2Water was from the Right2Water Trade Unions, and Trade Unions are not ‘public office’ holders. They are trade unions which are ‘friendly societies’ of members regulated under different legislation.

As I pointed out in last week’s blog, and as we pointed out to SIPO on the day, trade unions are regulated by law (the Trade Unions Acts). Trade Union rules and objectives must comply with these acts. And they do. For example Unite’s Rule 2:1:4 states as an objective:

To have a strong political voice, fighting on behalf of working peoples’ interests, and to influence the political agenda locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, so as to promote a socialist provision …….for a more equal society in which wealth is distributed from the rich to the poor, including by means of progressive taxation and other regulatory measures to restrict excessive wealth’.

This isn’t just a permission for Unite and its Officers and members to campaign politically. It is an obligation. And it is an obligation legislated for. It’s a part of who we are and what we do and are established to do. In short, our trade union role in a campaign to prevent the privatisation of our water by the neoliberals, and our determination to have water paid for through progressive general taxation, is not ‘political lobbying’. It is trade union activity.

We explained these matters to SIPO face to face, and they had their legal advisors present. They may have utterly failed to regulate politicians but they had the big guns out for Right2Water. I asked them whether they had seen the show the previous Monday. There was a sheepish silence. Dave asked them, why us? Why were they targeting Right2Water? He pointed out that while Right2Water was not ‘an organisation’ but ‘a campaign’, there were plenty of actual ‘organisations’ who spent multiples of what was spent on Right2Water on actual political lobbying, and who didn’t have the protection of the Trade Union Acts yet who weren’t in front of SIPO. What about IBEC? The American Chamber of Commerce, or a massive campaign for lower VAT rates for business which was then underway? All of these organisations and campaigns had somehow apparently not hit the radar of SIPO at all. ‘How could this be?’ we asked.

‘You must be a victim of your success’ came the staggering response.

We left our ‘victimhood’ behind and took our ‘success’ with us as we left by telling SIPO that if they believed that the legislation under which they were required to operate somehow trumped our required role in rule, and in law, to politically campaign, then they would have to do what they would have to do.

And they did. Letters followed. Strong letters. Threats were contained in them too about what would happen if we didn’t ‘comply’ with their demands. We answered politely but firmly, assuring them that we would continue with our campaigning. Eventually, they made a formal complaint to An Garda Siochana. As one of two named persons of a form in SIPO’s office I was interviewed twice. A couple of others were interviewed too. I had our rule book and the Trade Union Acts with me. The Gardai (Detectives they were as it happened) were very nice. Understanding. Professional. I could perhaps say ‘embarrassed’, but I can’t read minds. They explained that they would have to send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). I explained that I understood. I explained that if the Trade Union Acts were trumped by the legislation enacting SIPO, then it was clearly a matter for the Courts anyway. Nobody had told the Trade Union movement about it though. Nobody had explained this in the Oireachtas when the legislation was enacted. I’m quite sure that there would be nothing in the notes, records or transcripts of the discussions and debates that led to the SIPO legislation being enacted that cut across trade unions’ rights to campaign in accordance with rule and already existing law. And there had been no widespread public concern about trade union campaigning being a contributor to the issues SIPO were established to address. And neither had there been any Primetime expose of corruption in the trade union movement.

Was somebody missing the point?

Anyway, it has come to pass that the DPP has deliberated on the matter and that there is no case to answer. The Detectives involved have formally advised us of this. They have also advised us that SIPO may continue to make complaints. And so they may.

For my part, I’m looking forward to the RTE Primetime Special outlining the work done since 2015 to clean up the issues SIPO were set up to pursue. After all, if they have spent the same effort going after the truly corrupt in Ireland as they have after trade unions doing their job, it should be some show.

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2 thoughts on “What happens when the ‘watchdog’ is watching the wrong people?”

  1. As usual Brendan Ogle , You not only know your stuff, you do not bend to Corruption and that is what it is , Corruption comes in all shapes and forms and the Quango SIPO is trying to scare the wrong men . Go get them .

    Like

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