“Differences arise between and within parties, but the tradition of this committee is to try to stick together and do the job in the interest of the people who put us here — the electorate and the taxpayer.”
The spirit of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was captured by Bernard Allen, when the former Fine Gael TD addressed fellow-members on his appointment as chairman in 2007.
The PAC, which meets almost weekly, is a place where TDs leave their party allegiances at the door.
While whipped into line by their parties to agree to ministerial decisions in the Dáil chamber, at the PAC, they work independently, as a single group.
Their job: to examine how State money is being used in a way that often exposes huge scandals and malpractice that might never have otherwise seen the light of day.
When the current incumbents met behind closed doors yesterday evening, to decide how to proceed with what’s been one of its most contentious inquiries ever, that very principle of cohesion that has been central to its work, was at risk.
It met to decide whether it should go ahead with a planned meeting with a Garda whistleblower, who alleges the loss of millions of euro to the State by a failure to properly implement the penalty point system.
The question of reversing an earlier decision to hear from the garda was prompted by a last minute intervention by the Justice Minister, Alan Shatter.
He urged the “ill-equipped” committee to halt its inquiries while he referred the matter to the Office of the Garda Ombudsman Commission.
The minister used the opportunity to question whether the committee was doing its job, and to raise questions about the integrity of members who he said were had pre-judged matters.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin said he was “personally concerned” about how members were going about their business.
The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, rightly told the Dáil that he could not interfere with the work but pointed out its remit “relates to value for money as opposed to matters of governance”.
The view from the senior ranks of Government was clear.
When the committee met, a number of Labour and Fine Gael members made the case that they should step back and allow the ombudsman proceed with its work.
TDs such as Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Shane Ross — who had always felt strongly that the committee should not have its “wings clipped” by the Government — had other views.
They claimed they were entitled to proceed with an examination on the basis that it involved the loss of public money, and was based on a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Both TDs wanted to push the issue to a vote, prompting Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell to call an adjournment so the nine Government TDs could discuss their position.
It was decided that, on the basis that the whistleblower would address them in private, that he would be confined to discussing the loss of public money, then his appearance would be “inconsequential” enough so as not to warrant risking a split in the committee.
One observer who had spent years on the PAC during previous administrations privately suggested that if the issue had come to a whipped vote, the committee would be irreversibly damaged.
The very principle which gave the committee its weight and authority — of speaking with one coherent strong voice — would have been lost.
By taking the decision it did last night, members rejected political pressure and affirmed their independence.
And they preserved the tradition of consensus and “sticking together” that has secured the PAC’s important place in our democracy.
The members of PAC
By Michael O’Kane
* Shane Ross (Ind)
One of PAC’s most high-profile members, the Dublin South Independent TD was a senator for 30 years, from 1981 until his election to the Dáil in 2011. He is a strong advocate that the PAC should continue its investigations into the Garda whistleblowing controversy alongside the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission investigation.
* Mary Lou McDonald (SF)
The Sinn Féin deputy leader was an MEP from 2004 to 2009 and was first elected to the Dáil in 2011 for Dublin Central. She has been one of the PAC’s most prolific inquisitors and believes “the case to hear from the whistleblowers is absolutely compelling”.
* Seán Fleming (FF)
Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on Public Expenditure and Public Service Reform was first elected for Laois-Offaly in 1997. He is a strong supporter that the PAC investigation should proceed into the & report on the loss of revenue to the exchequer.
* Kieran O’Donnell (FG)
The Limerick City TD is a qualified accountant and is known for his calm, methodical questioning on financial issues and value for money, especially during HSE appearances before PAC. It’s believed he generally supports Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s assertion that the appropriate place for the whistleblowers’ evidence to be heard is at the GSOC investigation.
* Áine Collins (FG)
The Cork North-West TD was elected to the Dáil on her first attempt in 2011. She is believed to support the line that the Garda Ombudsman is best placed to investigate.
* Eoghan Murphy (FG)
Known as an independent thinker, the 32-year-old was elected in Dublin South-East on his first attempt. On Monday night, he said Mr Shatter had established the right process and it should be followed as “there cannot be a parallel process”.
* Simon Harris (FG)
The 28-year-old Wicklow TD welcomed Mr Shatter’s referral of penalty points allegations to GSOC saying it was in the public interest.
* Paul Connaughton Jnr (FG)
The Galway East TD is likely to agree with his party that the best place for a comprehensive investigation into the penalty points fiasco is at GSOC.
* John Deasy (FG)
The Waterford TD has been a member of the Dáil for 12 years. He had strong words with Mr Ross last week when he argued for the PAC to hold off on calling Rehab until it had more information. He won when the PAC opted to seek the information.
* Robert Dowds (Lab)
The Dublin Mid West TD has been considered outstanding in his questioning and analysis of the financial scandals at the Central Remedial Clinic. He previously taught at a school for young people with disabilities.
* Gerald Nash (Lab)
Another well-regarded member of PAC, he described Irish Water’s spending on consultants as “astonishing”. The Louth TD from Drogheda criticised fellow PAC member Mr Ross for writing about a private meeting last week in his Sunday newspaper column, saying there was no hint of separation between the two roles.
* Derek Nolan (Lab)
The Galway West TD worked for many multinational companies in Ireland and Germany before becoming a local councillor in 2009. He was also critical of Mr Ross’s newspaper column saying Mr Ross had gone against the tradition of PAC to leave party politics outside the door.
* John McGuinness (FF) chairman
The Carlow-Kilkenny TD and former Fianna Fáil junior minister has being the driving force behind calling the CRC, HSE, Irish Water, and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan appearances before PAC which, at times, captivated the nation and uncovered scandals which rocked the in the charities sector. He is adamant that the PAC has always remained within its legal brief and is acting in the interests of watching the public purse.
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