Major reform is essential to tackling white-collar crime – 14 recommendations

30 Jun 13

My draft working paper assessing Ireland’s white-collar crime oversight agencies and 14 recommendations for reform can be accessed here - Fit for Purpose

 

Our system of fighting financial corruption needs to be completely overhauled

Sunday Independent 30 June 2013

I spent three years of my life writing a book about the history of scandal in Ireland since the foundation of the State. The only theme that runs through it is this sense of impunity and the absence of consequence. We are remarkably good as a country at establishing inquiries, publishing reports and ultimately complaining that nothing has changed.

The debate on the Anglo tapes is dominated by the clamour for a banking inquiry. Absent in all this is how to stop such a scandal from ever happening again.

The deaths of Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin, 17 years ago last week, and Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, convulsed cross-party political will to establish the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) – one of the most innovative criminal investigatory organisations in the world.

We need to take this type of action again.

Ireland has failed to tackle white-collar crime. The outgoing financial regulator, Matthew Elderfield, bluntly told the Public Accounts Committee this month that our system for confronting financial crimes was not fit for purpose.

The number of white-collar prosecutions has fallen dramatically despite an increase in the number of offences. Just 178 convictions were recorded in 2010 compared with 579 in 2003. The chair of the Revenue Commissioners, Josephine Feehily, noted that although 289 cases of illegality were identified in relation to the largest tax evasion scheme in Irish history, not one person has been prosecuted over the Ansbacher tax scandal.

Why?

Although the workloads of the agencies tasked with the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of fraud have increased as a consequence of the fallout from Ireland’s economic collapse, their resources have been cut.

CAB’s budget was chopped by almost 15 per cent from 2008 to 2012. There are only three forensic accountants within a team of 70 officers. Every white-collar crime investigation is heavily dependent on the specialist skills of forensic auditors.

Likewise, the capacity of the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation to investigate white-collar crime is limited somewhat given the absence of solicitors or barristers on its staff – and it has just two full-time forensic accountants on its books. Its budget was slashed by 21 per cent between 2008 and 2011.

The ODCE, responsible for the Anglo investigation, has had 11.6 per cent in cuts from 2010 to 2013. Mr Justice Peter Kelly remarked last year that notwithstanding the complexity of the Anglo case, the investigation was nevertheless taking “a very, very long time”. He expressed his surprise that just 11 gardai were seconded to the ODCE to work with eight ODCE officials on the “largest and most serious” investigation in the State’s history.

The Garda Siochana’s budget was cut by €39m in 2013. The Director of Public Prosecutions’ finances fell by 18 per cent between 2009 and 2011. And so on.

Privately, senior officers from different agencies have confided that diminished resources are “strangling” their ability to do their job effectively. The Croke Park Agreement means that in reality a “six-year gap between recruitment drives” now exists.

Breaking the Croke Park embargo to recruit vitally needed specialists is not the only answer. Four key reforms are also necessary: an independent audit; the creation of a new taskforce; the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements; and paying whistleblowers.

An independent audit of the capacity of oversight agencies, as a matter of urgency, must be conducted. This would consist of an overall appraisal of the operational ability of CAB, ODCE, Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, Central Bank, Revenue, National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Competition Authority and so forth. This is what the UK’s Serious Fraud Office has done since the financial crisis.

Such a review has been achieved with the Department of Finance. The 2010 Wright expert report noted that the department was “not fit for purpose” and “often operates in silos, with limited information sharing”. The Wright report’s criticisms echo that made by the ODCE in its submission to the Department of Justice way back in 2010.

The ODCE noted that a disparate set of agencies have responsibility under one legislative code only – be it company, competition, revenue or financial law, etc. But white-collar criminals do not conduct illicit activity within the confines of one piece of legislation! So multiple agencies may need to be involved, but information sharing is not always possible because of confidentiality requirements. That’s madness.

In response to why an Anglo tapes investigation is difficult to conduct, the Minister for Finance said, “There are tea chests – hundreds of tea chests – full of documents, and then there are tapes as well.” Michael Noonan went on to say, “So it’s very difficult to put the book of evidence together.”

That is unacceptable. The fact something is difficult does not mean it should not done.

Political will right now is distracted by the heat generated with statements of “the axis of collusion” and “political thug and boot-boy” nonsense. Compare that to the swift response back in 1996 when a national crisis prompted the establishment of CAB after only a few weeks.

Ireland does not have a police-led multi-agency taskforce with a singular focus on white-collar crime. This is left to CAB which centres on the proceeds of crime. Such a body, with a ring-fenced budget, would be populated by officials from the Central Bank, Revenue, Fraud Squad, ODCE, the Department of Justice and other appropriate agencies.

The ODCE and Transparency International have both proposed the introduction of Deferred Prosecution Agreements. In the US, DPAs are common. Companies are encouraged to report wrong-doing in order to avoid prosecution.

The US introduced the “Office of the Whistleblower” in 2010. The UK is considering something similar. Whistleblowers are paid between 10 and 30 per cent of the money collected in cases where high-quality original whistleblower information leads to an enforcement action of over $1m in sanctions. Controversial, but it works.

Let’s fix the problem, not keep talking about it.

 

A reborn Libya must endow the Berbers with a new status

21 Sep 11

Elaine Byrne, Sunday Times, 4 September 2011

My photos of Morocco

‘Power is like being with a woman for the first time. You always want more.” Over our third pot of Berber herbal tea, the male elders of a small village in central Morocco are doing their best to explain the nature of political power to me.

The liberation of Libya has reawakened a political consciousness of events beyond its borders in a people that had grown accustomed to assuming nothing would ever change. “Gadaffi is gone because the people did not want a person who thought he was the country, they decided they wanted just a country instead,” was the verdict of Mohammed, a Berber farmer who said he was 50. Harsh mountain life has aged him by another 20 years.

Personality politics and terms of office being notched on bed posts are characteristics of Middle Eastern as well as northside Dublin politics. The unintended consequences of Gadaffi’s collapse have yet to be fully appreciated, but they may be consequences which Ireland can legitimately support, given our shared historical experiences with North Africa’s Berber people.

read more »

A thirst for change stops at the border of Morocco

21 Sep 11

Elaine Byrne, Sunday Times, 28 August 2011

My photos of Morocco

My interview on RTE’s John Murray Show about Ramadan, the thirty days of fasting from water & food from sunrise to sunset – from Marrakesh. Also with two Irish women who are converts to Islam, Carol-Ann Duggan & Charlotte Morshed. (about 30-40mins in)

‘You weren’t at mass this morning, of all mornings,” my sister said to me on the phone. “He praised you from the altar for representing the local community in the national media.” “He” is one of my closest friends, a Monsignor nearing retirement who is hoping that Rome will overlook him when it comes to appoint Irish bishops.

“You haven’t told him yet,” my sister guessed. A little defensively, I replied that I was going up to have breakfast with him. “Father,” I told him, “I’ve decided to do Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, to experience what it’s like to be a Muslim.”

We had been over this ground before – Passover in Jerusalem, the evangelicals in Ghana, the Dublin Protestant phase, and then those factory rituals of Havana graveyards. “I’ll be travelling for a month, mostly to the Moroccan villages near the Sahara,” I told him. He laughed. “Are you sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for?” he cautioned. As it turned out, I hadn’t a clue.

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Internships

29 Jul 11

I’ve been getting a lot of emails and phonecalls from undergraduates and Masters students from universities around Ireland about the “next step” – the graduate job search. Instead of repeating myself, here’s some internship and graduate programme suggestions and maybe this blog post can crowdsource some other suggestions and I’d add them to the list.

I went through the UN internship programme. Apart from the experience of living abroad, working with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, it provided the opportunity to translate academic training into the policy world and ultimately led to consultancies with the UN and the World Bank. Although many internships are not paid, the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term financial pain.

How to get an internship ;-)

Irish Aid – interviews each Autumn
OECD – keep checking website
World Bank - Junior Professional Associate programme, also see summer internship programmes
UNDP - internship, junior professional programme
European Union stagier - (paid!)
Asian development bank - Ireland is a member of most of the international banks, therefore Irish people can apply as interns but most Irish people are not aware and they particularly promote women
UK political and policy jobs and internships
EU political and policy jobs and internships

Academic opportunities
OSCE – also contact the individual field offices
Canadian fast-track civil service programme for non-nationals (need to root around to find)
European Youth Forum
College of Bruge

Best of luck!

The Tank Field – update

29 Jul 11

If the Tank Field in Cork was in Dublin, the issues it raises would probably receive the national attention it deserves. The issues around the Tank Field are not unique to Cork but have relevance to the administration of local government nationally and the decision making process within the Department of Education. It is a case-study in governance and public policy.

The Tank Field has divided the local community, split the council and focused attention on::

  •  
    • the dominant role of the county manager in local government
    • the power of a city council to take over a community resource
    • how competing priorities within the Irish planning process are decided upon
    • the deficiencies in the planning process
    • the deficiencies in the Department of Education decision making process
    • the role of the GAA in the planning process
    • issues regarding the expenditure of public funds
    • issues regarding the preferential treatment afforded to Gaelscoileanna

 

    More information:

  • The Tank Field remains a live issue. Local councillors voted last month against a request to rezone the land for a new Gaelscoil. Irish Examiner report - Tank Field Examiner
  • Eoin English of the Irish Examiner put both sides of the argument for and against the Tank Field here. Eoin English Tank Field
  • The Gaelscoil invited public representatives to an open day today to hear its side of the story last week.
  • Dr Aodh Quinlivan from University College Cork recently published a book chronicling local government in Cork. One of the chapters of Inside City Hall examines the issues around the Tank Field.
  • My 2009 Irish Times piece on the tank field:
  • The response to my piece by the Gaelscoil:
  • FOI documents and further information on the tank field
  • Those pro the tank field have set up a website – http://www.tankfield.ie/

We the Citizens

08 Jul 11

We the Citizens concluded its assembly in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Sunday June 26th after two months of regional meetings in Athlone, Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Tallaght, Blancherstown and Letterkenny.  RTÉ’s Prime Time did an audience special on We the Citizens last Monday. You can catch the episode here.

 
The first session on Saturday morning was devoted to three main themes: the role of the TD; whether a new electoral system might change that; and whether the number of TDs should be reduced. The results of the 31 recommendations, voted on by members of the citizens’ assembly, can be found here. The second session focused on the Seanad. The final session on Sunday centred on tax and spends choices. Recommendations will be posted here as soon as they are collated.

The academic team of Eoin O’Malley, Jane Suiter and I were ably led by David Farrell. Together, we conceived and developed this project over the past year. The Executive Director, Caroline Erskine, was expertly assisted by Órla De Burca and Úna Faulkner in implementing the project. Luke Mcmanus did fantastic work recording the meetings.
The virtuoso, Fiach Mac Conghail, chaired all the sessions and was guided by the Board. The project would not have happened if it were not for the fantastic efforts of a large number of facilitators and note takers who ensured that the meetings were conducted in a deliberative fashion. Ken Carty, Clodagh Harris, Theresa Reidy, Nat O’Connor and Fergal O’Brien were very generous with their time giving expert testimony. Most of all thanks is due to the members of the public that attended and believed in the possibility of an idea that greater participation by people in-between elections is positive for Irish politics.

It’s time for us citizens to put democracy back into politics

08 Jul 11

Sunday Times, July 3 2011.

‘But sure, isn’t the Dail elected by the people, an assembly of Irish citizens? What are you going about trying to set up a parallel political system for? A citizens’ assembly doesn’t make any sense at all, Elaine, and I’m still waiting on my pint.”

The thing about my dad’s rural Wicklow pub is that the customers thrive on outdoing one another to get straight to the point quickest. Academics and PhDs hold no water here. These days, the customers are curious about We the Citizens, Ireland’s first national citizens’ assembly, which held a meeting at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin last weekend.

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Citizens’ Assembly – Royal Hospital Kilmainham

18 Jun 11

The weekend of June 24-26th, 150 randomly selected people (by MRBI) from across Ireland will meet in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham as part of Ireland’s first National Citizens Assembly. It has been a long road for all the team at We the Citizens since the launch two months ago — We The Citizens – youtube In the last six weeks we have travelled to Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Athlone, Letterkenny, Tallaght and Blanchstown and listened to the views of those that attended which have informed what will be discussed at next weekend’s event.

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For me personally, it’s especially exciting to see an idea from a couple of columns I wrote in the Irish Times last December 2009 and February 2010 come to life, thanks to Atlantic Philanthropies who believed in the idea of deliberative democracy through a citizens’ assembly. Irish Times February 2010: Let the people have their say on type of country they want; Irish Times December 2009: Mad-as-hell Icelanders won’t be taking it any more

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Declan Costello 1926 – 2011. Political idealist and judicial conservative

18 Jun 11

Sunday Business Post – June 12 2011

‘A member of parliament, a member of government, is concerned with social justice, with the creation of wealth and its distribution. As a judge one isn’t concerned with social justice as such, one is concerned with doing justice with the parties before him. It’s a different task.”

In this interview with David McCullagh, Declan Costello firmly made the distinction between the legislator who makes the laws and the judge whose job it is to apply them. Costello as a politician was radical on economic and social matters yet deeply conservative as a judge. These two public lives seemed at odds with one another. The 25-year-old’s inaugural Dáil speech in 1951 revealed two central tenets of his life – a belief in social justice and a strong personal faith -when he spoke of the ‘‘unChristian level of poverty’’ in Ireland.

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A new era, proof of how far my nation’s vision has changed

23 May 11

Elaine Byrne, May 18 2011 in The Times (behind paywall)