Senator Mary White has announced her intention to seek a nomination for the Presidency. Though some may question the timing (the election won't be until 2011) and her ability to persuade her own party to nominate her, it is certainly not too early to assess candidates’ suitability for the highest constitutional office. And given her conduct at a Dail Committee meeting back in 2004, it is not too harsh to suggest that Senator White is not suitable to hold that office.
Back in 2004 there was a flurry of media stories regarding the high prices of supermarket products. Surveys were published purporting to show that the same products were costlier in the Republic than in Northern Ireland and Britain, even accounting for exchange rates. This was particularly the case regarding the multiples – Tesco for instance. It was a matter of considerable public interest, especially as the phenomenon of ‘Rip-off Ireland’ was getting traction.
The Dail Committee on Enterprise and Small Business invited representatives of Tesco and Superquinn to attend a committee meeting, to make a statement and answer questions from TDs and Senators. Chief Executives of the two companies duly attended. What resulted was a lively, if ultimately unrevealing, exchange with committee members attempting to get to the bottom of allegations of rip-off, high costs and supermarkets’ pricing policies.
Cue Senator White, co-founder of the Lir Chocolates. No doubt, she was in a difficult situation. Tesco and Superquinn were important customers for her successful company. And she was upfront about this by declaring her interest from the outset. But she didn’t leave it at that. Below is her full contribution to the Dail Committee's investigation into high prices:
Senator White: I declare my interest as a co-founder of Lir Chocolates which supplies Tesco and Superquinn. I wish Deputy McHugh to note that. I am doing so as he referred to vested interests. A small to medium-sized company like Lir Chocolates which does not have management accounting or engineering staff must bear the costs of consultants in accountancy, engineering and plumbing which are extraordinarily high. Outside consultants who advise us on the day-to-day running and sustaining of our business represent our most significant expense. We do not find labour costs to be extraordinarily expensive as we choose our staff carefully. Good staff represent value for money. We have had staff in the past who did not represent value for money which is very frustrating for a small company. The results cannot be hidden. Costs in Ireland are very high.
Chairman (Deputy Donie Cassidy): Does the Senator have a question for the Tesco delegation?
Senator White: When Connie Doody and I started our business, Superquinn was our first customer.
Chairman: Other members have questions for the Tesco delegation. Time is against us.
Senator White: Superquinn was our first customer and never let us down from day one. I take this opportunity to say that Tesco and Superquinn have been loyal and trusting supporters of our company which has allowed us to employ 65 people.
Deputy Lynch: Chairman——
Deputy McHugh: This is not proper.
Senator White: This is about employment in Ireland.
Deputy Lynch: Senator White should have submitted a written testimonial in the same way as everyone else who supplies Tesco.
Senator White: I care about employment.
Deputy McHugh: This is not correct procedure.
Chairman: Does Senator White have a question for the Tesco delegation?
Senator White: I just want to say that——
Chairman: You record your appreciation.
Senator White: We started Lir Chocolates to create employment.
Chairman: You are very happy with your business with Tesco and Superquinn.
Senator White: I thank Tesco and Superquinn formally. Connie Doody and I supported Senator Quinn in his election to the Seanad and I was nominated as a result of the export business our company carries on with the United Kingdom. My nomination came from the Irish Exporters Association and I feel strongly the need to record that contrary to the perception of multinationals and large Irish companies, Lir Chocolates has never been squeezed or exploited. I am delighted to be able to say that. I thank Tesco and Superquinn for sustaining our business which employs 65 people.
Let’s be clear about what Senator White did. She used her office and her position on the Committee to flatter her business associates. Totally ignoring the purpose for which the representatives were there – to discuss issues of prices – she used a Dail committee to ‘formally thank’ the supermarkets for letting her company supply them. Not only that, she wanted the Superquinn representative to know that she supported Fergal Quinn’s independent candidacy for the Senate. The sub-text of all this (actually, there’s very little ‘sub’ at work here, so crude and sycophantic was her conduct) was that the companies she does business with could be assured of her political support, to the point that she would, without apology, use here public position to extol their virtues. In short, Senator White used her office to nurture her business interests.
TDs and Senators with business interests and experience can make important contributions to political debates – especially given the need to foster indigenous enterprise. The perspective they can bring to other issues can be helpful (I highlighted one such case regarding Deputy John Curran’s questions on another Dail Committee). Where there are conflicts of interests, the better public representatives know the line they cannot cross. Not only did Senator White cross that line, she acted as if there is no such line at all.
Which is a pity. Lir Chocolates is a highly successful Irish company. Senator White and her partner, Connie Doody, started it off in the latter’s kitchen. It quickly became a success, creating nearly 100 jobs with a turnover of over €8 million, exporting to a number of markets. It was recently bought up by a UK company but the operations will remain here.
Senator White could have used this experience to explore the issue of high prices. If she felt that the presence of her two major customers before the Dail Committee was too much of a conflict she could have just made a statement to that effect and allowed the Committee to continue its work. She did neither, much to the obvious annoyance of the Committee chairperson and other representatives. She held up the Committee in order to ingratiate herself (I doubt it had much impact, though, as Chief Executives are pretty ruthless in these matters – if an item doesn’t sell in their stores, they take it off the shelves and tear up the contract; no amount of lickspittling will change that commercial dynamic).
Given her wholly inappropriate conduct, Senator Mary White’s embryonic candidacy should not be treated seriously by a public that has a right to expect better behaviour from their representatives.