Once a year Transparency International, an international organisation assessing the state of corruption across the world, produces its Corruption Perceptions Index. This assesses and measures the degree of ‘public sector corruption’ in 180 or so countries. The results of this can be seen on a map produced by the organisation, and this shows one thing immediately: there is a significant link between corruption and poverty, so that poor countries do not just suffer deprivation, disease and starvation, but also exploitation by those who rule them. But the map also makes clear that the relative absence of corruption is quite heavily localised, and whether we find this easy to believe or not, here in Ireland we are in a country that has comparatively low levels of corruption, and moreover one that has improved its record fairly consistently over the past ten years or so.
It may be worth saying this, because if you read some comments in the media (such as this piece in the Irish Independent by Kevin Myers) you might be forgiven for thinking that corruption pervades everything in Ireland. This is not so. Ireland ranks as the 14th least corrupt country in the world, better than (for example) the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium and France; equal in standing to Germany; but not as good as Luxembourg, most Scandinavian countries, Singapore and New Zealand (which is the least corrupt country). For the record, the most corrupt country is Somalia, which in turn is only just ahead of Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan.
But back to Ireland. For 2009, Transparency International summarises the position here as follows:
‘Ireland has made substantial progress in strengthening legal and institutional safeguards against corruption over the past fifteen years. In addition, the scale of ‘petty corruption’ is perceived to be amongst the lowest measured anywhere in the world. In spite of a number of revelations of political ‘grand corruption’ during the 1980s and 1990s, there is little evidence that this type of corruption currently poses a major threat to the integrity of the State.’
There is an important point in this. Those who promote the ‘Ireland-is-systematically-corrupt’ thesis with such energy probably do more than most to impede the fight against the corruption that we do have, because they over-egg the pudding and prevent a proper focus on what matters. We do need to combat all forms of corruption, but we need to do it from an objective perspective on what it is that constitutes the main problems here.
In fact, Transparency International does highlight some issues in Ireland. Some of this is described in the country report as ‘legal corruption’ explained as follows:
‘While no laws may be broken, personal relationships, patronage, political favours, and political donations are believed to influence political decisions and policy to a considerable degree. The situation is compounded by a lack of transparency in political funding and lobbying.’
More specific weaknesses in our national framework are also identified, including political weaknesses (with the Oireachtas too heavily influenced by the government, and with lack of transparency in political funding), inadequate audit checks in local government, inadequate protection for whistleblowers in the public and private sectors, inadequate procurement safeguards, and so forth.
Corruption raises both ethical and practical issues. A corrupt system is morally unacceptable, but it also compromises business and trade and hinders economic and social development. The third world cleptocrats who have ruined some countries did not just steal their citizens’ resources, they also undermined the capacity of these countries to escape from poverty through trade.
National integrity can be easily lost and is hard to regain. In Ireland we are not in a bad position, but we must always be vigilant. It is perhaps one of the tasks of the academic community to support that process by taking a direct interest in issues of corruption and integrity and to assess it in a variety of different contexts. DCU has its Institute of Ethics, and other universities have other individuals and groupings that provide scrutiny and analysis. As we seek to recover from our economic problems, these activities are more important than ever.