The resignation of the president of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) over revelations about the extraordinary pay, pensions and severance package for the general secretary of the lobbying organisation — effectively the chief administrator/ bureaucrat — highlights again the struggle in Ireland with providing transparency that has traditionally protected insiders.

 

Pat Smith, a 25-year long staff member of the IFA is reported to have received a €2m severance package on top of his €2.7m pension. The severance deal was to comprise of an upfront payment of €1m, to be followed by €100,000 annually for 10 years.

After years of stonewalling by the leadership, Smith’s salary was revealed at a special sitting of the IFA executive council in Portlaoise last Friday. The former general secretary's 2013 salary was €535,000 in total — comprising a basic salary of €295,000, a €150,000 pension contribution and a €60,000 bonus as well as a €30,000 sum from IFA telecom. In 2014 he earned €445,000 — €295,000 basic salary and a €150,000 pension contribution. Smith also had the use of a company car.

Eddie Downey, president of the State's most powerful lobbying organisation, resigned on Wednesday.

During the recession, Danny McCoy, director general of Ibec, the chief business lobbying organisation, refused to disclose his salary as did many trade union heads. The Irish Times reported in 2013 that the former head of the Irish Medical Organisation had left it with a €9.7m retirement package.

The pervasive culture of secrecy maintained by insiders also resulted in secret top-ups of salaries of chiefs at charities and hospitals during the recession — the proceeds of the tuck shop were used at St. Vincent's Hospital in Dublin.

We reported earlier this year that the governments in Ireland, Greece and Hungary were ranked the worst of 33 European countries for open and transparent government.

Colm McCarthy, the economist, last Sunday commented on the likelihood that the Banking Inquiry into the crash will produce a useless report because of legal restrictions.

The balance between bank confidentiality and the public interest was the subject of a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the National Irish Bank’s 1998 tax scheme. If the law officers of the State haven’t made a case for the public interest in the banking crash, and a whitewash is produced, it will be a shameful outcome.

However, Brendan Howlin, public expenditure and reform, on Monday acknowledged the powerlessness of ministers and the Oireachtas.

It is something that is a matter of norm in other countries, for example in the United States or in Britain but they don’t have the constitutional restraints we do, nor the readiness of some to run to the courts at the drop of a hat. We have to live within the constitutional restraints, within the law.

We will welcome Pfizer as the world's biggest drugs company becoming Irish, but the existing company regulator has taken over 7 years already on investigations of alleged breaches of company law during the bubble.

Howlin was the minister responsible for the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 — it was opposed by the IFA and Ibec, and the Government gave into internal lobbying to cut the 2-year cooling off period for former ministers and officials from taking lobbying jobs to one year. It also surrendered on the details of the subject matter of the lobbying that can be made public.

Apart from paid lobbyists, persons with more than 10 employees are covered and: only if the communications are with Designated Public Officials and relate to “relevant matters” — if the likes of Tim Cooke, Apple CEO, requests some favour, don't expect it to be published. Besides, lobbying for example IDA Ireland, who may then lobby a minister is not covered  — which of course wouldn't be practical.

However, the chief limitation is that the Standards Commission can delay publication of information on specific grounds: 1) Commercially sensitive 2) Financial interests of the State 3) Government’s ability to manage the economy having regard to the public interest these are effectively the 3 reasons traditionally given for the cloak of secrecy.

The commission can request delayed publication of up to 6 months (can reapply for further period if needed).

Ireland, secrecy, transparency

In 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to permit freedom of the press. The principle has been part of the constitution since 1809 and in that year Sweden established the position of ombudsman — the word ombudsman comes from Swedish, as a person who acts as a representative. In 1809 it was decided that an institution independent of the king was needed to ensure that laws and statutes were obeyed. The first Parliamentary Ombudsman was appointed in 1810, and the same basic principles apply today.

Ireland still has a long road to travel in ending the culture of secrecy that protects insiders.

Pic on top: Members of the IFA protesting at the Dublin offices of EU Commission last August, demanding more handouts from Brussels.