Smear test inquiry must be ‘prompt and public’

Vicky Phelan.

The woman who exposed the cervical cancer screening scandal is adamant that she wants investigations into the affair to be held in public.

Vicky Phelan said she wanted an investigation that was “prompt and public”. She wrote on Twitter: “Too much has already happened behind closed doors.”

Her views were echoed by her solicitor, Cian O’Carroll, who said if it took a full-scale tribunal of inquiry to get to the truth, then that’s what would have to be established.

The Government is reluctant to consider a tribunal because, based on past experiences, it would be costly, cumbersome, beset by legal argument on behalf of witnesses and take years to complete.

Instead a “scoping exercise” has been ordered to establish the main facts and make a recommendation as to whether a more detailed statutory inquiry is needed.

That decision will also be influenced by the findings of two separate medical reviews of the cases of women known to have had abnormal smears wrongly declared clear, and of the screening history of women in all cases of cervical cancer in the last 10 years.

But if an inquiry is ordered, the Government is already gravitating towards a commission of investigation which, unlike a tribunal, would be held in private.

Mr O’Carroll, who represented Ms Phelan in her claim against the US lab where her smear test was outsourced for analysis by the HSE and where her now terminal cancer was missed, said that would not be acceptable.

He said one possibility could be a tweaking of the commission of investigation legislation to place it in a public forum.

The scoping exercise would give us a good flavour of what is there, where the appropriate trails of investigation are and from that you learn then whether you can create or craft a tight set of terms of reference.

“If that means that there is no alternative to a tribunal in order to ensure a public investigation of these matters well then that’s what it has to be,” he said.

He said some other mechanism such as a modified commission of investigation might be effective but he stressed it would have to be statutory and have powers of compellability.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said it was also opposed to the idea of holding an inquiry in private. Director Liam Herrick said the evidence given to commissions of investigation was given in secret, sealed, and not covered by freedom of information legislation.

“The subject matter here is not just about violation of people’s health. It’s about the refusal of the State to provide information to individuals,” he said. He said if the inquiry was held in private, those people would be denied their personal information again.

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