Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Funding of Political Parties

Addressing the McGill Summer School in Co. Donegal, former Taoiseach Dr Garret Fitzgerald called for an urgent end to the funding of political parties by big business. Or so it was reported by certain sections of the media. I have not seen the text of his speech. His precise words are not reported by any of the media outlets that picked up on it (Irish Examiner, Newstalk). Other accounts would suggest that the issue was just one of many that he addressed in a fairly wide-ranging attack on political corruption in Ireland.

But lets assume the reported comments are an accurate reflection of the former Taoiseach's views on the matter. If he wants to come on this blog and correct any misapprehensions, he is more than welcome. "The risk of political corruption must be removed by stopping politicians from being funded by business," was how The Irish Examiner reported his speech.

Interestingly the debate has re-ignited in recent days with Fitzgerald's party colleague, Lucinda Creighton, apparently lashing out at her party leader for accepting a political donation. (Irish Independent, 21/7/10, Kenny furious as Creighton attacks party over donation). Also, if memory serves me correct, the Green Party have similar apprehensions about big business funding for political parties and raised the matter in the context of their programme for government with Fianna Fáil.

In the absence of any concrete proposals, it is hard to see how various people believe the political process should be funded. Maybe it shouldn't be funded? Maybe we've reached a stage where we can do without it? Somehow or other though, I don't think the people who are raising the issue at this time are anarchists. Is business supposed to be above politics? Or politics above business? Or are the two entirely separate realms that should never even come within proximity to each other, let alone overlap or collide?

The truth is that business and politics are not separate pursuits, activities in themselves, nor should they be. Of course for some people, politics is their business, their mainstay, their means of procuring a livelihood. We're not just talking about elected representatives here either. It is well known that these people are more often than not in a position akin to feudal barons, supporting a host of ancillary 'industries'.

The confusion arises when a lot of stuff that isn't really politics, passes for, and gets debated as politics. For politics to happen the primary question it must address is the relations that human beings enter into with each other in the course of procuring a livelihood. For society to work, the question has to be addressed in a manner that is all-encompassing, involving each and every social strata and anyone else who has an opinion. Any other debate, if it doesn't have this central objective in mind, is just waffle, a diversion possibly.

Idealistic types will always be victims of deception, duplicity and deceit in political and other affairs until they learn to discern the real interest behind each and every moral, religious, ethical question, crusade or call to action. Personally I'm not sure how the proposal (sketchy at best) to ban big business donations to political parties will address any issue. It could, in all possibility make matters an awful lot worse, harder to live with.

Take the issue of political corruption or sleaze. None of the high profile cases in recent times, resulting in 'tribunals of inquiry' that have lasted years, even decades, arose out of big business donations to political parties. For the most part they arose due to under-the-counter payments (brown paper envelopes) to individuals who were part of the political system, yet seemed to be operating outside of it. They use their positions in public life for personal gain and self-aggrandisement.

'Big Business' is an ambiguous term yet all businesses, big are small are required to operate in ways that are accountable, audit-able even. The same could or should be said for political parties. To my mind, banning big business donations to political parties will only exacerbate the problem, not remedy it. 'Business' big or small will continue to find ways (perhaps even more effective ways) to influence the political process.

Such a ban could end up suiting precisely those people that it is targeted against. Denied the right to influence the political process in the 'lawful way', they will instead seek out those within the political system whom they consider to be 'leaders and influencers'. They will win such people over, not through an open system of political patronage, but by financing their private lifestyles. It might even prove to be a whole lot cheaper than having to underwrite the entire political system.

If you don't believe that such a thing can be done, let me tell you - it has been done.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2010


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