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Whistleblower Bill Buried

Posted on: June 6th, 2010

THE brightest of Ireland’s civil servants, James Hamilton, sounded a bit grumpy on RTE’s The Week in Politics three weeks ago.

The Director of Public Prosecutions was making a rare public appearance, bemoaning the nation’s relaxed attitude to protecting whistleblowers. He even suggested that lack of legal protection for whistleblowers meant fewer witnesses in court.

Fewer witnesses means fewer convictions; fewer convictions mean more white-collar criminals.

Hamilton is not the only top civil servant to seek a charter for whistleblowers. A second heavyweight, Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan, is in the same camp. At the end of last year, he made a similar appeal.

It must have gone down like a lead balloon with officials in the Department of Finance — especially as Honohan is the first governor not to have been plucked from within their ranks. Honohan’s appointment already carries a bit of history.

Has no one told Hamilton and Honohan that there is no white-collar crime in Ireland?

Last week, I suddenly understood why.

The response to Hamilton’s public outing was almost instant. Within days, Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern announced that the Government had magicked up plans for fighting white-collar crime. His speech was well flagged to the media and delivered to the annual bunfight of the Law Society. He even insisted that “whistleblowers” would receive blanket protection when reporting suspicions of corruption in good faith.

There was an initial round of applause for the minister. Serious anti-corruption legislation was on the way.

The Government even promised a Senate debate on whistleblowers to prove its bona fides.

Somewhere between Dermot’s speech and the Senate debate, the Government’s zeal for protecting whistleblowers was dampened.

My guess is that the mandarins got to work.

Whistleblowers are not the mandarins’ flavour of the month. They fear that changes in the law could open the door to wild accusations.

Perish the thought that a lowly employee of the banks will be allowed to spill the beans on his bosses — without retribution.

The speech delivered in the Senate by Minister Dara Calleary had all the hallmarks of a script handed to a busy member of the Government as he entered the chamber.

It had the fingerprints of the faceless men with an iron grip over the two elite branches of the civil service — Justice and Finance.

It was a mandarin’s masterpiece.

All the illusory problems of introducing whistleblower legislation for the banks were trotted out — the issue was complex; there were legal obstacles; God help us, even the Official Secrets Act was dragged in.

The excuses offered for inaction were painful. But all was not lost, the Government was prepared to “look at” what the mandarins tortuously termed “possible enabling” whistleblower legislation in the financial sector. Some time.

All in all, it was mandarin- speak for “no dice”. Here comes the long finger, perfected by Sir Humphrey Appleby of the BBC TV series Yes Minister fame.

The minister warned of the need to consider a raft of matters “in great depth” before any decisions could be made.

“Great depth” is a novel political imperative, possibly a first.

The mandarins in Justice and Finance are playing the game they know best: delay, obfuscation and control.

Just imagine what would happen if one of Ireland’s best-known whistleblowers, Eugene McErlean, was given protection. McErlean blew the whistle on AIB in 2002, was victimised viciously, was ostracised and lost his job.

Today, eight years later, McErlean steadfastly refuses to tell tales about the bank, presumably because he is bound by a gagging clause. He is snookered, exactly where the bankers want him.

So McErlean remains a prisoner of AIB. Whistleblowing has cost him dearly. Ironically, if his case is the norm, the price of whistleblowing is a vow of silence.

McErlean is not alone. There is a prospect that there are scores of whistleblowers waiting in the long grass.

If protection was granted, a flood of stories about what really happened at Anglo Irish Bank, Allied Irish and Bank of Ireland could come pouring out of the cupboard.

The appalling vista beckons: the truth might emerge.

According to the Minister, the Government in the past gave “careful attention” to a Bill from the Labour Party’s Pat Rabbitte.

And when was that published? Eleven years ago, in 1999. The Government gave it 11 years of “careful attention”.

Such diligent guys, these mandarins.

Rabbitte had spotted that we were way behind global standards on whistleblowers. The Government responded not by introducing a blanket whistleblowers’ bill, but with what in mandarin-speak is called a “sectoral approach”.

In layman’s language, this is a dodge for excluding the financial services sector.

Last Wednesday, Labour’s Alex White reminded the Senate that Deputy Rabbitte had reintroduced a Whistleblower’s Bill this year. The Government has not given time to debating the Bill. No doubt they are giving it further “careful attention”.

Despite their key role in bringing the country to its knees, the mandarins in Finance appear to have retained an iron control over the most powerful department of State.

The same Department of Finance is awash with talent. It contains two potential Taoisigh under one roof.

The Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan has done wonderful work convincing overseas investors that Ireland is recovering. Alone among Irish ministers, he has won stature abroad; but his micro-management of recent banking promotions and his laissez-faire handling of the whistleblowing controversy has created an impression that he has allowed the mandarins to run amok at home.

His deputy, Dara Calleary, is the outstanding performer in the junior ministerial ranks, — but last Wednesday, deputising for Lenihan, he read a script on the whistleblowing issue that should have made the minister in Yes Minister — the Rt Honourable Jim Hacker in the BBC series — blush.

Both politicians should dump the mandarins and heed last month’s resolution at the Council of Europe, which set minimum standards for whistleblower legislation. Ireland fell far short.

Who should Messrs Lenihan and Calleary listen to? The mandarins ? Or the objective views of Transparency International’s John Devitt, their own DPP James Hamilton or Patrick Honohan, the first Governor of the Central Bank to arrive without baggage from the Department of Finance ?