Entry type: Single project
Publishing organisation: Noteworthy, The Journal
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 2022-11-10
Authors: Stephen McDermott, Cormac Fitzgerald
Stephen McDermott is a journalist and editor with The Journal, based in Dublin, Ireland. His interests as a reporter include ‘watchdog’ issues such as politics, fact-checking, transparency, freedom of information and the financing/functioning of state bodies.
Cormac Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist, who focuses on social issues and the arts.
Noteworthy investigated thousands of entries on Ireland’s Lobbying Register over the seven-year period in which the register has been in effect. The investigation discovered that former assistants to Government ministers, who have since become lobbyists, failed to declare that they worked for the Irish Government (as required under Irish law) on hundreds of occasions. The series also mapped the relationship between lobbyists and current Ministers and, for the first time, the extent of lobbying by individuals who used hold senior public sector roles in Ireland.
More than 250 returns filed on the Lobbying Register were changed to accurately reflect that almost 30 different lobbyists – including some working on behalf of Google, Huawei, Diageo, GSK and Merck – were individuals were former officials in the Irish Government and had connections to current Government ministers.
We also named a number of so-called ‘former Designated Public Officials’ (DPOs) – those who worked at a high level in Government as ministerial assistants or in other civil service roles – who were or are now working as lobbyists after leaving public roles, for the first time.
We similarly named for the first time several individuals who received exemptions to the mandatory one-year ‘cooling off’ period for lobbyists, whereby those who work in a public role where they are designated as a DPO must wait one year before becoming a lobbyist unless they can receive an exemption. The identities of these individuals are kept secret by the Standards In Public Office commission (SIPO), which oversees the regulation of lobbying in Ireland, refuses to disclose who they are. We also found one individual who breached this mandatory one-year ‘cooling off’ period.
For this investigation, we mainly relied on Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel.
We downloaded .xls files from the Lobbying Register from a seven-year period and created a column of individuals who were listed in the spreadsheets as former Designated Public Officials.
To find which former special advisers are or were involved in lobbying, we collated a list of every adviser employed by government departments since 2015, the year legislation on lobbying was introduced.
We checked responses to 11 years’ worth of Parliamentary Questions and read Statutory Instruments that gave effect to the employment of every adviser since the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in 2011.
Every special adviser we sourced was then inputted into the Lobbying Register to see if the individual had lobbied and if they had done so within a year of leaving public office.
We also sought out those who named themselves as former advisers on lobbying returns since 2015, and likewise checked if those individuals lobbied within a year of leaving office.
This allowed us to uncover the names of individual lobbyists who had not disclosed that they were former DPOs until that point, as well as to confirm that returns were inaccurate by not listing them as such.
When downloading the spreadsheets, we also found dozens of returns that did not feature on the front end of the Lobbying Register’s search feature. Through this, we discovered that several people who were listed as former DPOs in some returns were not listed as such in several others.
We also checked how long after leaving public office certain former DPOs began lobbying, and asked them – if they began lobbying less than a year later – whether they had received an exemption to the one-year ‘cooling off’ period, asking for proof where they claimed that they did.
Context about the project:
Concerns about a ‘revolving door’ between the public and private sector came to the fore two years ago, when former Irish minister of state in the Department of Finance, Fine Gael’s Michael D’Arcy, left his role as a senator to become chief executive of the Irish Association of Investment Managers (IAIM).
His appointment caused controversy when it emerged that neither he nor his new employer had contacted Sipo to seek permission to waive the cooling-off period.
Between 2016 and 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, 24 individuals – not all of them special advisers – applied to Sipo for an exemption to this mandatory one-year cooling-off period.
However, Sipo refuses to name those who successfully sought this exemption, citing reasons of confidentiality – including through Freedom of Information requests.
And although the regulator says how many people apply for the exemption each year in its annual reports, it no longer says the number of those who have applied successfully, as it did until 2020.
This means that transparency around the ‘revolving door’ nature of lobbying can be lacking. along with the connection of certain lobbyists to their former ministers or colleagues in the public service.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
The Lobbying Register is seen as a very transparent and functioning tool that enables both journalists and the public to see exactly how lobbying functions in Ireland.
However, the flaws we have uncovered with individual entries and the functioning of the register itself shows that this is not always the case and that the data contained on the register isn’t always accurate.