Yesterday I attended the Transparency Ireland (TI) meeting where a report was launched which calls for whistle-blower protection similar to that legislated for in the UK. John Devitt, head of Transparency Ireland, chaired the discussion. Completing the panel were Justine McCartney of The Sunday Times, Fintan O’Toole, assistant editor of The Irish Times, AIB whistle-blower Eugene McErlean and Tom Clonan, who brought to light sexual abuse and bullying in the Army.
Note: Nat O’Connor of TASC has a thorough post on Progressive Economy which covers related topics, it’s well worth reading.
I spoke briefly from the floor, putting it to the panel that there is a need to change wider Irish culture and attitudes to corruption before whistle-blowers get the respect and admiration they deserve. While I agree legislative protection for people who ‘shout stop’ would be beneficial, what is required is a changing of the perception of corruption (legal or otherwise) to encourage more people to take action. I’m not sure if a law will do that.
This issue around the misdefinition of corruption (or even right and wrong) in this country mitigates against the possible blossoming of any sort of a whistle-blowing culture. The symptoms of this misdefinition include a widely held ‘fair-play-to-ya-Willie’ attitude to tax evasion/avoidance, the unchallenged overuse of tax amnesties by (and weaknesses of) Revenue, apathy to non-punishments by regulators and the re-election of criminals. The people of Ireland, in the majority, commend – or at least don’t report – those who work the system, so would many more whistle-blow? Are they not whistle-blowing due to a lack of protective legislation? I’m not confident a lack of legislation is the reason.
If these corrupt actions and attitudes aren’t redefined in the national psyche as contributing to corruption, or perhaps as elements of the overall at least semi-corrupt nature of the political system (see Sunday Times editorial, two weeks ago) general corruption of the State and its society (general apathy to all forms of corruption) then we’ll be having the same transparency advocates’ meeting in 20 years time. In the same way as I’m sure there were similar meetings after the Beef Tribunal and again after the DIRT scandal, there was a meeting yesterday because what is defined as corruption (or even shameful) hasn’t changed in Ireland. A vote for certain politicians is still seen as a vote for a man or woman who is great for My Constituency as opposed to a vote for corruption. Why?
Yesterday I said it was partially down to the elite in Irish society not taking any action – bar Fine Gael’s (delayed) expulsion of Michael Lowry – against those whose actions were, to be kind, ‘questionable’. In short, the leadership never set an example. But then again the elite weren’t forced to take action against those questionable individuals because the wider public was, for the most part, apathetic. In fact, said individuals, and by extension their actions, were encouraged by the People who either returned them to office or simply didn’t show their feelings.
Maybe whistle-blowers’ legislation will go some way to altering that attitude – at the very least it would officially recognise, in a single document, whistle-blowing as a patriotic act – but I fear what we consider (and don’t consider) corruption is too ingrained in our mindset to vanish on foot of a law. Especially a law that will live or die on how it is (or is not) enforced.
So how do we change that broader attitude?
Is it a long-term advertising campaign that is required to recast whistle-blowers as gladiators not “rats” and tax evasion as shameful not cute? Transparency Ireland doesn’t have the money for that, unfortunately. Though they do accept donations.
Do we need a campaigning daily newspaper to commit to constantly blackening this attitude? One that uses language like “Criminal and Galway councillor, Michael Fahy”, “Cheat and liar, Michael Lowry TD”, “Scam-merchant, conman and fraudster, Councilor Michael Clarke” in news copy, not just on the opinion pages? It would help but it won’t happen, at least not in the next few years.
So, what can be done?
Comments box, open, as always.