By Richard Moore
As a fresh tray of canapés makes its way across the drawing room at the beautifully appointed Irish Ambassador’s residence, Frederic Delano House, in the leafy suburbs in the embassy belt not far from Washington’s Dupont Circle, the bell at the front door sounds.
The St Patrick’s Day party is already under full swing. Having enjoyed the run of the White House earlier in the day, most of the select group at the Ambassador’s residence are beginning to unwind. The drawing room is full and the guests have colonised the large marquee which takes up almost all of the Ambassador’s backgarden.
It is just after 7pm in the evening. The guests are drawn from the ranks of prominent Irish Americans, Irish business leaders, some industrialists, American and Irish politicians and a selection of Assembly members from Northern Ireland, including the First and Deputy First Ministers. The diplomatic community of Washington is also well represented. The Irish always throw a good party, after all. No one wants to miss out.
It is now, however, that the ranks of the well fed are bolstered by the lobbyist. And they in the main appear to be straight out of central casting – mainly young, clean cut and with impeccable manners and teeth whitened in the sunshine of middle America.
For someone from Ireland their arrival and introductory lines are something of a culture shock. They are usually on the coattails of Congressmen, invited to the embassy party. They immediately proffer their business cards and are more than happy to explain who they represent – oil, energy, trade unions, pharma, IT – and are inevitably delighted when questioned about their clients’ sectors and prospects.
It is a major industry in Washington DC. The city has over 12,000 registered lobbyists and it is accepted as part and parcel of the democratic process. They are there to communicate their clients’ position, make friends and influence people. Lawmakers make laws that impact on people’s lives and how business, industry and organisations and bodies operate. It is serious work and lobbyists’ task is to ensure that when lawmakers eventually craft and adopt legislation that they are armed fully with the facts and how it will impact on the lives and livelihoods of their citizens.
The US Senate Office of Public Records latest figures for lobbying spend reveals the startling sum of $3.21 billion last year. The big spending sectors are pharma, insurance, energy and oil and gas. Last year, however, the single largest spend was the $75 million invested in lobbying by the American Chamber of Commerce.
Quite frankly we are only in the “ha’penny place.” But change is happening in the small lobbying sector here driven by growing concerns in political circles about the ad hoc manner in which up to now we as a nation have conducted such lobbying.
The current Government is in the process of introducing legislation to regulate lobbying. Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin TD says the new law is expected to be published in the second quarter of this year – any week soon – with substantial legislative enactment achieved by the Summer recess.
The law will effectively draw up a list of registered lobbyists – or as we like to call them this side of the Atlantic, Public Affairs Consultants. In theory it will mean that when a Minister or senior civil servant meets with an interest group, industry sector or organisations who want to have their input into legislation, it will have to be logged.
Much of the clamour for lobbying legislation followed the publications of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunal reports. Those wordy documents contained significant insights into what was effectively unfettered access by wealthy developers to Government and, in the instance of Mahon, local councillors who ruled on land zoning.
It sounds fine in theory. But Ireland is a very small country and our politicians and senior civil servants tend to be accessible because that is our nature and the manner in which we conduct our affairs. Any Tuesday or Wednesday evening in the golden mile surrounding Leinster House, it does not prove too difficult to “bump” into a politician. Locating a Minister is more difficult with significant formalities involved but again, because of the informal and more intimate manner in which as a people we interact, they are accessible. And quite rightly so, too.
Our major strength as a people is our ability to converse and retain our sense of empathy, regardless of our position in life. One of the significant drivers of the Celtic Tiger was the fact that inward foreign investors were effectively about two, possibly three, phone calls away from meeting or talking directly to the Taoiseach or any of his key Ministers. Unlike the United States, we do small Government.
Doing small Government is a good thing. The new lobbying law is also a welcome development in better governance. The public are entitled to know what may have influenced legislation that impacts on their lives. We just have to ensure that we don’t build walls around our legislators and decision makers that will ultimately prevent us from continuing to play to our strengths as a people.
(An abridged version of this article is in the current edition of BusinessPlus magazine)