The Lobbying of a Minister, a Stagnant Seanad and the Politics of Self-Survival; Naughten Broke the Rules but Won't Pay a Price

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 22, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Lobbying of a Minister, a Stagnant Seanad and the Politics of Self-Survival; Naughten Broke the Rules but Won't Pay a Price


Byline: gary murphy PROFESSOR OF POLITICS AT DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY

SURVIVAL is the name of the game when it comes to Irish politicians. It has been yet another weird and wonderful week in our politics. First we have the story of a minister discussing a matter of public policy with a lobbyist in a purely personal capacity, notwithstanding that his department has statutory responsibility in the area. Then we have the never-ending saga of Seanad reform and the announcement that we will have a 26-member Oireachtas committee to review the Manning report of 2015, which was charged with coming up with ways of reforming the Seanad and the manner in which it carries out its business.

Your columnist has some skin in the game when it comes to both stories. For over a decade I have been writing and commenting about the regulation of lobbying across the world and even wrote a book about it with some colleagues back in 2010.

I also acted as a pro bono adviser to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform when it was considering what should be included in the then government's 2015 Regulation of Lobbying Act.

In 2013, I was involved with the Democracy Matters group, which campaigned successfully to save the Seanad. I have long been of the view that having senates is inherently a good idea and I continue to believe that a reformed Seanad can be a useful body in making Irish politics and Irish democracy better for citizens.

And that's what politics should be about. Alas the evidence on show this week suggests that Irish politics continues to work in odd, self-serving ways where survival remains the primal instinct for politicians.

LET'S take the strange case of the minister and the lobbyist. The Regulation of Lobbying Act was introduced in September 2015. The purpose of the Act is to provide for a web-based Register of Lobbying to make information available to the public on the identity of those communicating with designated public officials on specific policy, legislative matters or prospective decisions. In essence its aim is to inform the public about who is lobbying whom about what.

The legislation covers practically the full spectrum of the lobbying industry. It has clear definitions of what lobbying involves and of which policymakers and what policy issues are involved. The act also makes clear what information lobbyists must disclose. Lobbying includes telephone calls as well as face-to-face meetings.

The lobbying register clearly provides citizens with vital information on the lobbying process and is an important arm of the State's promotion of open and transparent policy-making.

The great beauty of the register is that it is easily searchable and Eoghan O Neachtain, the lobbyist involved in this week's controversy, has registered 10 acts of lobbying including two meetings with the Minister for Communications and Energy Denis Naughten.

The phone call between the two men in November 2016 is not registered, perhaps because the lobbyist, O Neachtain, viewed it as a simple relaying of factual information which is not regarded by the Act as lobbying.

This is where things get complicated. While technically O Neachtain did relay information to Minister Naughten, that the Competition and

Consumer Protection Commission cleared the proposed merger between INM and Celtic Media, he also seems to have elicited what Minister Naughten was going to do, which was basically to refer INM's proposed bid for Celtic Media to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

It is difficult to see this as anything other than lobbying. Across the globe, gaining information which might be of any use whatsoever from a politician or a public official is defined as lobbying.

If O Neachtain's purpose was to find out what Minister Naughten's view was, then that was lobbying and it should have been registered. …

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