A refuge from accountability and a bulwark against transparency

Robert Watt made headlines when he appeared before two committees. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Robert Watt, secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, made headlines last week when he appeared first before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and then the finance and public expenditure committee on the same day. The issue, of course, was the National Children’s Hospital.

The headline was about the mandarin and the “mob”. Watt was too candid in private and overheard. Regrettably, the hospital overspend is spilt milk. Watt’s aside, if entertaining, is flotsam. The substantive issue, give or take a billion euro, is the fractious interface between senior civil servants and politicians, especially in Oireachtas committees. The underlying structural flaw isn’t our public procurement systems.

It’s the enveloping architecture intended to enable civil servants support elected politicians, and then account to them. An untold joke of Irish politics amid constitutional conventions, citizens’ assemblies and endless conversations about constitutional referenda, many unsought, is that the single instrument of far greater importance than most constitutional clauses, the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 remains undisturbed.

It is a haven of tranquillity, a refuge from accountability, and a bulwark against transparency. It transposes what in its theoretical origins is literally medieval mist, via 19th-century British parliamentary practice, into Irish law. It is, in essence, fully intact 95 years later. That legislation provides that ministers “shall be a corporation sole” and “shall have perpetual succession and an official seal”. T

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