Tribunals end up as corporate welfare for overpaid lawyers

CRIMINAL activities, whether committed by common criminals or political ones, should be investigated by the gardaí.

If an investigation fails for some reason, then a public inquiry might be held to get to the heart of the matter. But in this country that whole process has been turned on its head.

We have had lawyers investigating at exorbitant rates of pay, and their investigative methods seem to make it virtually impossible to convict the culprits.

How many people have actually been held responsible for the massive wrongdoing that has been exposed? In other walks of life people are jailed for serious crimes, but the tribunals were used to frustrate the legal process.

In the case of Charles Haughey, for instance, the McCracken tribunal exposed him for perjury and obstructing the tribunal, but he was never brought to justice. He lived out the rest of his days on a handsome pension at the expense of the public.

Ray Burke was convicted of perjury in his obstruction of a tribunal, but he still enjoys an extravagant ministerial pension. For what? For shamelessly abusing his office and then wasting tribunal time? Because of the behaviour of people like Haughey and Burke, the state has been saddled with costs running into hundreds of millions.

It was estimated during the week that the Mahon tribunal alone will end up costing the state between €171m and €194m — a huge margin of error that betrays the financial recklessness.

The Mahon, Moriarty and Morris tribunals could cost in the region of €370m. Will any of the criminals involved ever be brought to justice? Some extra tax collected as a result of the exposure of tax abuse? The Revenue Commissioners recovered some €32m as a result of disclosures before the Mahon tribunal and the Criminal Assets Bureau seized a further €18.7m. It is probably impossible to quantify the amount of extra tax collected from people who would otherwise have continued to operate within the black economy.

In the first 60 years of the state there were a total of 20 public inquiries. The country had been rocked by a civil war during which the forces of the state committed some horrific massacres, but there were no public inquiries into those events.

There have been a number of major public inquiries into garda conduct — the 1967 inquiry into the death of Liam O’Mahony while in custody, the Kerry babies case, the Abbeylara shooting, the Hartnett inquiry into the death of Brian Rossiter and the Morris tribunal of inquiry into the misbehaviour of gardaí in Donegal. But there was never any inquiry into the activities of Eoin O’Duffy as Commissioner of An Garda Síochána. There was evidence he tried to arrange a coup d’etat to prevent Fianna Fáil from coming to power in 1932. Ironically he was largely undermined by the work he had done in requiring members of the force stay out of politics. When he tried to involve them in 1932, they were not interested.

Eamon de Valera heard something of those plans and that was enough to justify O’Duffy’s removal from such a sensitive position. O’Duffy was offered another post, but he refused it. The opposition made the mistake of hailing him as some kind of a martyr. O’Duffy became the leader of the Blueshirts and the opposition joined with him to form Fine Gael, which elected him as its first leader. He was in reality a fascist, and his denunciations of democracy became so embarrassing that Fine Gael soon ousted him.

By later standards those incidents would have justified a judicial inquiry, but Irish society was so polarised at the time it made sense to play down such matters. There were wrongs on both sides in the civil war, and one could understand why — in the necessity of getting on with their lives — people decided to ignore the past.

In the 1930s Fine Gael repeatedly accused de Valera of starting the civil war. He essentially called their bluff by advocating an historical commission to look into the causes of the conflict. Fianna Fáil would appoint three historians and WT Cosgrave could appoint three, and the two of them could agree on a bishop to preside. But Cosgrave contemptuously rejected the suggestion.

The idea undoubtedly had some merit, but Cosgrave and his colleagues already knew they had been unable find any evidence to support their wild charges against the Long Fellow. In 1923, after de Valera was arrested, the attorney general was instructed to bring charges against him with the least possible delay.

“We have arrested the man who called up anarchy and crime, and who did more damage than anyone could have conceived, or than was ever done by the British,” Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins announced. “Through him, and at his instigation, a number of young blackguards had robbed banks, blown up bridges, and wrecked railways, and that in the name of an Irish Republic.”

The attorney general reported weeks later, however, that the only evidence that could be found against Dev was a letter he wrote allegedly inciting the secretary of Cumann na mBan at the height of the civil war. If he had only been charged with inciting Cumann na mBan, it would probably have turned into the biggest political joke of the 20th century. Even though there was no evidence against de Valera, the Free State government held him in prison without charge for 11months.

This would have been grounds for a judicial inquiry. In 1946, the de Valera government did set up a tribunal to investigate allegations against his parliamentary secretary, Dr Ward. The tribunal was critical of Dr Ward’s activities and de Valera duly sacked him. There was outrage, however, when it was learned that the whole proceedings had cost £4,389.

THE following year there was another tribunal established to look into the sale of Locke’s Distillery after the opposition politician, Oliver J Flanagan, made serious allegations. The tribunal found no substance to those allegations, but it concluded that Flanagan had deliberately lied in his evidence to the inquiry, yet nothing was done.

The Cosgrave government did set up an inquiry into allegations made against Labour party minister Jim Tully, but those turned out to be unfounded.

There was no apparent political dimension to judicial inquiries into the Whiddy island and Stardust disasters, or the subsequent Lindsay tribunal of inquiry into the infection of haemophiliacs with HIV and Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products.

Maybe the various tribunals inquiring into the conduct of the gardaí were necessary because otherwise the gardaí would have been investigating themselves. But in all the other instances the gardaí should have investigated first. Only if they were unable to make satisfactory progress should a judicial inquiry have been held and that could also have consider to lessons to be learned from the failure of the gardaí in that specific case.

The McCracken, Moriarty, Flood and Mahon tribunals all exposed gross political and criminal misbehaviour, But they were dragged out over so long a period that the culprits have essentially been getting off.

The tribunals have been an extravagant waste of public money on what amounts to corporate welfare for overpaid members of the legal profession.

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