A culture exposed - Committees too weak to force any real change

Oireachtas committees have shown how very feeble our parliament’s powers of investigation are. They have also shown how very independent some arms of State — and some agencies at an arm’s length from direct State control — perceive themselves to be.

A culture exposed - Committees too weak to force any real change

In some cases this idea of autonomy stretches to where executives imagine it unnecessary to answer questions from elected public representatives. The committees have shown how the culture of secrecy, an us-against-the-world omertà, or at least something approaching a disingenuous silence, eats away at this society by hiding wrongdoing or shielding less than optimal performance.

That former Central Remedial Clinic chief executive Paul Kiely did not feel obliged to give the full details of his unacceptable retirement package to the Public Accounts Committee at an initial hearing is just one example of this shabby behaviour. That Angela Kerins, the chief executive of Rehab, an organisation that gets €80m a year in State funding, felt she could be so evasive, so very coy about her salary is another.

This attitude was echoed in the health sector, where executives employed by organisations dependent on State funding thought their terms of employment were not a public issue or influenced by public pay limits.

The case of Irish Water is another example of the weakness of the investigative process. Indeed, it is questionable if that organisation, set up in the most secretive circumstances, would have come under the spotlight at all if not for the skill of RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke, who got the €50m for consultants figure from Irish Water chief John Tierney. Dáil investigations of Irish Water have, sadly, been reactive rather than proactive.

Last week’s visit to the PAC by Garda commissioner Martin Callinan brought this barely concealed disdain for public accountability to a new level. Even after the initial shock at his language and attitude has modified, it is hard to think of a stronger argument for new structures to ensure accountability and oversight.

Yesterday Conor Brady, who served on the Garda Ombudsman Commission (GOC) between 2005 and 2011, gave an insight into how deeply entrenched this attitude of being untouchable is and how it is facilitated. He pointed out that the GOC has been denied access to the Garda pulse computer system, a situation that stymies their work, diverts their investigations and wastes considerable resources. If Government was serious about the work of the GOC this would not be the case. How can a Government elected to champion transparency stand over this? Who is, and why are they, facilitating this stonewalling to hinder the GOC?

In Oct 2011 an amendment to the Constitution to strengthen Oireachtas powers of investigation was rejected by 53.3% to 46.7% of the electorate. That was a considerable setback for Mr Kenny’s Coalition and its promise of openness in public life. Every day that passes, and as the mind-set of so many of those entrusted with great public responsibility and funds is revealed, suggests that it was also a setback for the principles of accountability and control. The need to revisit that amendment and its game-changing ambitions becomes ever more pressing.

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