By Derek Brody
When one is forced to conjure up an image of the modern political system, it is likely that the illustration is rife with corporate lobbyists, bringing about the “Swamp” narrative that has become typical of American politics. This scene, however, is not the case in Ireland, where the Irish Parliament enacted extremely strict laws on lobbying transparency. The Regulation of Lobbying Act of 2015, put into effect in September of that year, is among the strongest anti-lobbying regulations in the world.
The law itself is fairly straightforward: “Any individual, company, or NGO that seeks to directly or indirectly influence officials on a policy issue must list themselves on a public register and disclose any lobbying activity.” The legislation ensures that all data collected in relation to lobbying activities would be published every four months, with mandatory disclosure standards that include all details of clients, the extent and type of activity, and the person of primary responsibility. Initially, there were concerns about the practicality of implementation. John Carroll, CEO of the Public Relations Consultants Association, commented that “There may be challenges of interpretation, especially ‘what is a technical matter.’” These concerns have dissipated in the intervening time period, as the government bureaucracy has decided on a more standardized understanding of the legislation.
Internally, support for this kind of transparency legislation had been growing in previous years beginning with the financial collapse in 2008. The effort was further emphasized in 2011 when a new government came into office and promised to “introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.” It was not until March of 2015, however, that Ireland became the 15th country with statutory regulations regarding lobbying activities. At the time, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) argued that this legislation was unnecessary and cumbersome. These MEPs, based in Brussels, complained that watchdog legislation focused too narrowly on member attendance at meetings of Parliament. In April 2015, the Committee on Budgetary Control issued an amendment that “decried the emphasis monitoring groups place on ‘quantitative criteria’ that may provide ‘the wrong kind of incentives and generate unnecessary work.’”
The success of the Irish watchdog program, however, has changed the tone of the discussion surrounding future attempts to regulate corporate lobbying. Sherry Perreault, head of lobbying regulation at Ireland’s Standards in Public Office Commission, has traveled across the continent in an attempt to demonstrate the success of the program. “Transparency is catching hold. To see this catching fire outside of Ireland is really terrific,” Perrault said. In fact, the lobbying industry itself has spoken out in favor of the legislation. Cian Connaughton, president of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, further emphasized this point when he stated, “Lobbying has gotten a very bad name because of the actions of some individuals. What the register has done is clarify to people what is happening, who is doing what. The fact that the new regime has hopefully increased people’s trust in the system, it’s a big plus.”
Large parts of the Irish regulations were based off those already present in Canada, which first enacted lobbying laws in 1989. Canada has strengthened those laws four times since the original enactment, suggesting that this is a quickly-evolving industry that requires continual supervision. Using the basis of the Canadian system, the Irish law uses an extremely broad definition of the term “lobbyist,” referring to anyone who “employs more than 10 individuals, works for an advocacy body, is a professional paid by a client to communicate on someone else’s behalf or is communicating about land development.” The expansive nature of the legislation’s wording means that it also applies to NGOs and other civil society organizations, rather than being limited to groups representing multinationals or local industries.
As the European continent has been ravaged with allegations of corruption in the polity, requests for legislation similar to that of Ireland are becoming commonplace. Transparency International EU, an NGO that campaigns against corruption, has been calling on EU countries to enact similar policies. According to the organization, members of the Social Democratic Party in Spain, Italy, and Germany have begun discussions on possible legislation. Likewise, the bold “Sapin Law” is currently in the process of being rolled out in an attempt to eliminate much of the negative stigma surrounding the policy. The regulations are inconsistent across countries, however, with Ireland’s standing above the fray as the strictest. Some countries require disclosures of money, while others do not. Likewise, the definition of “lobbyist” varies widely across country lines, creating uncertainty when dealing with multinational organizations.
Regardless of slight issues in implementation, it is clear that the Irish policy has set a standard for transparency that other countries now feel more compelled to reach. By doing so, the entire EU moves in a more transparent, open, and understandable manner for its citizens.