PAC should be a thorn in the side of powers that be

Many of those in power, and their eager cheerleaders in the media, have made it their business to seek to undermine the work of what is the most important Oireachtas committee of all. But if they get their way and manage to nobble the Public Accounts Committee, then it will be to all of our costs. Picture: Billy Higgin

You can hear the calls already.

It’s time to nobble the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Put it back in its place.

They are out of control. They need to be taught a lesson.

The ink on the provisional Supreme Court judgment is not even dry and the fate of the Dáil’s leading committee appears doomed.

But we would weaken the PAC at our peril.

In November 2001, 36 gardaí won their High Court challenge to the Oireachtas sub-committee inquiry into the shooting dead of John Carthy in Abbeylara.

The 95-page judgment found that such inquiries do not have the power to make findings of fact or expressions of opinion adverse to the good name or reputation of citizens.

This judgment was a major blunting of the force of such committees and then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern conceded it would have a profound impact on the workings of such bodies.

Alan Shatter, then an opposition TD and a member of the committee, said the consequences of the judgment created a major constitutional crisis for the Oireachtas.

During the boom of the Celtic Tiger, where light touch was the order of the day, the weakened state of committees meant very little. But by 2011, having done its best to destroy this country, Fianna Fáil was thrown out of office.

At the heart of that vote was anger.

Anger at how the country could be bankrupted. Anger at the lack of oversight or regulation on those who wilfully set out to gamble with the fortunes of the Irish people.

Alan Shatter, pictured in 2011.
Alan Shatter, pictured in 2011.

Anger that those who did the most damage, politically and at the higher echelons of our main banks, could swan off into the sunset with their multimillion-euro retirement pots.

There was a palpable desire for tougher rules, greater accountability and more transparency as to how our country is run.

The newly-installed Fine Gael/Labour government sought to capitalise on this move by again giving politicians enhanced powers to investigate matters.

This could only be done by way of referendum. Then justice minister Shatter along with his Labour ministerial colleague Brendan Howlin took the lead in selling the virtue of giving politicians the power to make findings of fact against people.

The week before the referendum, which was held on the same day as Michael D Higgins was elected President, a dramatic intervention came from no less than eight former attorneys general.

In what was billed as an unprecedented intervention, which caused consternation in Government circles, the eight — from a variety of political backgrounds — wrote to the national newspapers expressing their opposition to the proposed wordings. The signatories were Patrick Connolly, Peter Sutherland, John Rogers, Harold Whelehan, Dermot Gleeson, David Byrne, Michael McDowell and Paul Gallagher.

They stated that the proposals would seriously weaken the rights of individuals to their good name and provide insufficient protection for the independence of the judiciary: “We are strongly opposed to the current proposals to amend the Constitution for the following reasons. The proposal in relation to Oireachtas inquiries seriously weakens the rights of individual citizens, firstly to protect their good names, and secondly to have disputes between themselves and the Oireachtas concerning their constitutional rights (especially their rights to fair procedures) decided by an independent judiciary.”

It was a key intervention and the referendum was lost, amid much acrimony between Howlin and Shatter, each blaming the other for the defeat.

A majority of people were not comfortable with the idea of a committee of politicians having the ability to sit in judgment on private citizens, which the powers would have allowed them to.

This week’s provisional Supreme Court judgment in the Angela Kerins v members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) case has brought the decision of the people to vote down the referendum back into sharp focus. The court found that the PAC, in its dealing with Kerins in 2014, was “acting very significantly outside of its remit” and therefore unlawfully.

In what was a truly significant judgment, the court overturned the opinion of the High Court that the immunities and privileges conferred on the Oireachtas by the Constitution and by statute are absolute.

For the first time, the court has adjudicated that the courts can sit in judgment on the actions of politicians, in certain limited circumstances.

The judgment in a related case involving an action by businessman Denis O’Brien against the Oireachtas is due on Tuesday. Were it to succeed, it would further seek to limit the rights of politicians to exercise their duties in the public interest without impediment.

Denis O'Brien
Denis O'Brien

But politically, the impact of the Kerins judgment is already being felt. Some of the country’s top public officials have warned the judgment could cost the taxpayer “millions of euro” in damages. The judgment must “radically change” “unfairly hostile” Oireachtas committee hearings, or they may refuse to appear, they say.

Senior officials have described the behaviour of some committees as increasingly “outrageous” adding some have descended into total show trials for the benefit of the politicians.

But in truth, before it was even delivered, a lengthy queue of people was lining up to take shot at the PAC. Many of those in power, and their eager cheerleaders in the media, have made it their business to seek to undermine the work of what is the most important Oireachtas committee of all.

They feel the PAC and other committees have become overly hostile forums in which people’s reputations are shredded for the benefit of the politicians questioning them. That it has become a place to chase cheap headlines and grandstand.

As someone who was present for all seven hours of the 2014 Kerins appearance, the exchange was certainly robust, fiery and gruelling. No one doubts it took an extremely serious toll on her and her family.

But it was an exceptional meeting. It was not in keeping with the normal modus operandi of the PAC.

No right-thinking person can, in the cold light of day, defend a committee which repeatedly defied its clearly defined remit. Yet, before we all join the chorus to rein in the PAC, its important role and that of other leading committees. They should be robust. They should be uncomfortable places for secretaries general and other accounting officers to go to.

As the editorial in this newspaper on Thursday morning stated, in recent years the PAC has been the forum where many public scandals have been unearthed and forensically probed.

CervicalCheck, the Grace foster abuse scandal and the saga of the Garda training college in Templemore are a few which spring to mind from the past couple of years. In truth, the PAC at its best should be a thorn in the side of the powers that be.

The inevitable attempts to use the Kerins judgement to further restrict the already limited powers of committees will not be in the interests of those value accountability. Weak committees were as much a part of the reasons why no one in Government saw the crash coming a decade ago.

The PAC, since the crash, showed some teeth and achieved some real successes in the public interest. The excesses shown in the Kerins episode may have sealed its fate, and the powerful insiders may get their way and nobble it. But it will be to all of our costs if that is allowed to happen.

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