Speech by Micheál Martin TD, FF Constitutional Amendment on Banning Corporate Donations

Published on: 18 November 2011

In February nearly every member of this House stood on a platform of banning corporate donations.  There was no equivocation and no party put a get out clause in the footnotes of its manifesto.  This is a reform which the public demand and which we have a duty to deliver sooner not later.


Deep restrictions on corporate donations can be introduced in legislation but a complete ban can only be implemented by amending the constitution.  The text which is contained in this Bill incorporates the simple and powerful premise that elections should be funded by the people entitled to vote in elections.


No organisation or company has a vote and their complete removal from the funding of parties would be an important symbol in the battle to restore faith in Irish politics.


This is the first constitutional amendment to be considered by the House since the Oireachtas Inquiries measure was defeated.  We have to consider the manner in which the government mishandled that referendum and the public anger at being taken for granted.  Inflexible and arrogant ministers refused to accept that anyone else could have a valid opinion and chose to attack people personally rather than consider their arguments.  Therefore we need to consider in this debate how we should go beyond the normal Oireachtas scrutiny procedures before this measure would be referred to the public.


If we pass this Bill there is time to hold inclusive consultations, agree amendments and facilitate an informed public debate.  A vote can and should be held before Easter next year


Second Push for Reform

This is the second time that I have brought legislation on corporate donations before the House since the general election.  In May I introduced a bill to enact a range of restrictions which would to all ends and purposes have led to an immediate end to corporate donations.  At that stage I acknowledged that a constitutional amendment would be required for a full and unchallengeable ban.  The core of that Bill involved measures which are indistinguishable from those which the government claims to want to implement.


At the end of May’s debate 99 Deputies elected on platforms of banning corporate donations voted against it.  Speaker after speaker from the government side rose not to talk about the bill but to make cheap political attacks.  It was a cynical display which had the required effect: Both government parties were left free to ramp-up their corporate fundraising ahead of the presidential election.


Labour targeted businesses through fundraising letters and Fine Gael did it through exclusive events such as the K-Club golf fundraiser.  Fine Gael raised so much money that in the summer it was briefing journalists that it had €1 million available for the election.  Given that it failed to spend anywhere near that amount in support of Gay Mitchell they might use this debate as an opportunity to explain what happened to the rest.


The only credible speech during that debate was from then Minister of State Penrose. In spite of prompting from Minister Hogan to be more partisan, he had the good grace to say that an enormous amount of regulation had been introduced on political donations already.  He read out a long list of measures enacted by the last government and supported the thrust of Fianna Fáil’s Bill but cited a series of technicalities in opposing it.


Other than that one contribution the Government speakers concentrated, as they do in most debates, on trying to cover their embarrassment by attacking their predecessors.  Government Deputies seasoned and new alike spent their time talking about people having the ‘cheek’ to introduce the Bill.  The indications are that we will hear more of this today.


All that contributions such as these do is to confirm how the government parties have not even the merest understanding of the issue.  As far as they are concerned they do not have to detain themselves with examining their own record.  Ethics is something which should concern other people.  Who can forget Minister Shatter’s attack on journalists for having the temerity to even ask why he was appointing a donor to a senior state position.  As we saw during Leaders’ Questions yesterday, when challenged on behaviour worse than anything they have previously condemned the response of the government is to shout down opponents and shut down debate.


All Parties Have a Role

I have talked at length in this house and elsewhere about past serious failings in my party in the area of fundraising.  It is my intention to introduce further voluntary reforms as part of our reform of our rules and I will be responding quickly and without equivocation to the Mahon Tribunal when it is published.


In contrast, what we have never heard is a single deputy from another party willing to admit any failings in their own parties’ history of fundraising.  Justice Moriarty produced a detailed report which found that tens of thousands was spent targeting Fine Gael to assist a business to win a valuable state licence, yet not one member of Fine Gael has been willing to stand up here and acknowledge that evidence.  The same goes for their failure to acknowledge how much of the Mahon Tribunal relates to their councillors.  For them accountability is for other people.


Fine Gael’s K-Club and Cricklewood fundraisers show only two differences from the ‘Galway Tent’ which they love to speak of so often – the Galway Tent stopped four years ago and journalists could see who was there.  For Fine Gael Ministers to come in here and talk about developers while targeting fundraising at the same people takes some neck even for them.  It was of course the Taoiseach as one of his first moves as leader of Fine Gael nine years ago who reintroduced corporate donations.


Every time I have raised the need to implement the promised ban on corporate donations Minister Rabbitte has taken a lead in heckling, generally saying that I have a nerve raising the issue.  It never ceases to amaze me how he and the Tánaiste believe that no one has the right to ask about the fundraising histories of their parties.  While the Tánaiste claims not to remember even the name of his first party, he can’t deny the overwhelming evidence of massive illegal fundraising, including robbery and counterfeiting used to fund that party for nearly twenty years. 


There are a number of ministers who plead amnesia about what happened in the building which housed their headquarters.  They also like to forget that much of their early campaign literature was printed by Repsol.  The printing presses of the same Repsol were used in the mass production of fake currency.


Direct funding from a totalitarian dictatorship came on top of this.  The operation of what was termed ‘Group B’ was set out most clearly in the excellent book “The Lost Revolution” about their once party and it would be good for Labour’s current and previous leaders to tell the public what they knew about the funding of their party in which they first became public representatives.


Sinn Fein has also had a lot to say about the past fundraising of others, but given their own record no one takes this seriously.   Sinn Féin beats anyone when it comes to a history of sinister fundraising.


If you all think that the sins of the past only concern other people then you just don’t understand the problem.  When you deliver speeches that allow for no self-criticism it exposes them as nothing but hypocritical cant.


Reform of Fundraising

In answer to the old line about ‘why did you do nothing for 14 years’ the answer is a very clear one; we did an awful lot and a ban on corporate donations would be in place today if the last Dáil had gone a full term.  Deputy Penrose’s May speech gave a lot of good detail on how the legal regulation of political funding has been radically reformed since the abuses being investigated in Dublin Castle.  Nearly every piece of these reforms were proposed or enacted by Fianna Fáil.


My former colleague Michael Smith was the first ever minister to publish a bill to regulate political funding.  He proposed the still working framework of limiting donations, declaring them over a certain limit and requiring full declarations of campaign spending.


Another of my former colleagues, John O’Donoghue, introduced the legislation which introduced strong penalties for the breeching of various controls and required the establishment of separate political accounts.


We also ended the practice of fundraising from non-citizens in other countries – something which Sinn Fein loudly opposed, claiming that it would somehow endanger the peace process.


In international terms Ireland today has a tough regulatory regime for political fundraising and campaign spending.  Our donation and declaration limits are much lower than in most countries, as are our spending limits.  For example, many donations which Sinn Fein has received in Northern Ireland in the past 14 years could not be legally made in this jurisdiction.  Most of the abuses of the past are not possible under current law, and certainly none of the defences used to justify the worst behaviour can now be deployed.


Addressing Public Faith in Politics

However, for all of these changes the fact is that the public’s faith in the cleanliness of politics is extremely low.  Part of this is historic. Part of it is a reflection of the opportunism of politicians who try to say ‘this is nothing to do with us’. Most of it is a core belief that elections should be funded and decided by the people alone.  Corporate entities, be they commercial or not, should play no role when it comes to elections.


Most politicians would say that it is unfair to assume that they can be influenced by a donation from a business which amounts to a fraction of the cost of campaigning.  It may indeed be unfair but it is clear that there have been abuses in the past, as has been seen in Moriarty and elsewhere.  The public has a fixed will on this matter and the need to restore public faith in politics is the most important objective for this Dáil.


The introduction of a ban on corporate donations will not restore public trust by itself.  It is important to proceed with other measures to reduce declaration and donation limits, increase scrutiny of party accounts and address large-scale pre-campaign spending.


The proposed amendment

The text of this proposed amendment is quite simple.  It provides that the only funding which may be provided for political campaigns should come from those entitled to vote in the relevant election.  It further provides that limits on donations and their public declaration may be prescribed by law.  The intention of this is to copper-fasten existing legislation and avoid the risk of future cases such as those recently seen in the United States which have dramatically undermined the control of political donations.


As drafted, the amendment would remove the right of non-resident citizens to make political donations.  This is done in order to under-pin the idea that elections should be funded by the people entitled to vote in them.  It should be noted that the ability of the Irish authorities to properly oversee such fundraising is close to non-existent.  They cannot compel the disclosure of information, the attendance of witnesses or take any serious step to ensure that laws are being complied with.


In the past the Labour Party has argued for retaining its privileged funding from trades unions.  They lifted this demand last December and such a ban would be covered by this amendment.


Amendments to the Bill

This text takes a core principle and enacts it in a simple and direct way.  This is not to say that I do not think improvements are possible.  I do not subscribe to the government’s approach of thinking that everything that bears my name should be pushed through the House unamended.  Deputies who served before this Dáil will acknowledge that I brought a number of constitutional amendments through the Oireachtas and accepted many changes to the text of both those amendments and supporting legislation.  I believe that the legislative process must be seen to work and amending proposals during their passage is essential to this.


Irrespective of the issues which Deputies raise during this debate, this is not a complicated issue and it is one where we should all be able to agree a text during the Committee Stage.  In contrast to the handling of the recent referendums, the passage of the second stage of this amendment should be followed by a new approach.


Specifically, I believe that the Committee Stage should first involve the hearing of witnesses on the implications of the text.  Instead of waiting until the campaign to allow people to have their say, they should be invited in at a stage where reasonable amendments can be accepted.


Legal, academic and broader experts should be invited in and asked to suggest improvements to the wording.  Once this is done, then we could reflect the evidence in the text.


In addition, once a text is agreed we should establish a referendum commission at a minimum two months ahead of polling day – reflecting this in when we pass the final stages and when the Minister signs the order for polling.


There is no need to delay proceeding with this matter.  It should not be referred to the Constitutional Convention and it does not require negotiation on the core principle.  If the government is unhappy with the text let it introduce amendments at committee stage.  Following the debate in May and this debate Deputies will have had more than enough time to reflect their views on the issue of corporate donations.  What is required is detailed work on the exact text to be put to the people.


For a number of Fianna Fáil private members’ bills the government has been eager not to be seen to vote against them but to stop them nonetheless.  As a result they have adopted the device of letting them through second stage but denying them any further time.  This procedure has been used at different times over the years but is now getting out of hand, with government working overtime in finding ways to both support and oppose reform in the same vote.


If you’re not going to allow this bill to receive a proper consideration and the chance to pass then do the honest thing and vote against it today.  Don’t pretend to be in favour of banning corporate donations in open debate but stop it from becoming law through parliamentary manoeuvres.


The government has promised this referendum.  The opposition supports it.  We don’t want to waste any more time before getting to work on the specific proposal to be put to the people.


Political reform was one of the biggest themes in the general election.  Since then it has played a major role in the programme for government and in ministerial speeches.  Yet there has been no actual political reform.  In fact even regressive moves like reducing the Taoiseach’s accountability to the Dáil has been hailed by the government as being political reform.  This is the triumph of hype over substance.


When the Minister for the Environment can describe the potential reduction of the Dáil by up to six members as a major reform, it is now clear that the reform agenda has not even begun.


Equally when the German parliament is given more information about the budget than the Dáil, the government’s claims that they want to increase the powers of the Oireachtas are exposed as empty.


Let’s all make a start to actually delivering on the promise of reform made in February by passing this Bill and allowing the public and experts to contribute to shaping its final form.


The broken promises are piling up every day for this government.  Even the clearest commitments made in front of the nation are being abandoned while fiscal circumstances today are exactly as they were when the promises were made.


You can’t pretend that the IMF is stopping you from agreeing to quickly ban corporate political donations.  You can’t claim that the budget is forcing you to abandon your promise to fast action.


You achieved your objective of being able to fund the presidential election under the old rules by voting down the ban proposed in May. There’s no excuse left.


Let’s today agree that all parties will combine to start delivering on a promise of reform we all freely made to the people when asking for their vote.

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