Why "T" for Tribunal is more toxic than "F" word in Ireland

The Leveson probe in the UK shows a determined chairman can make an enormous difference to an inquiry, writes Dan Buckley

IN IRELAND, the ‘T’ word is probably more toxic than the ‘F’ word.

It stands for tribunal, a form of official investigation that began in ancient Rome and reached its zenith here with the Mahon Tribunal set up to investigate payments to politicians relating to planning decisions.

Beginning with a sprint as the Flood Tribunal, it became a tortuous marathon that lasted 15 years, with 900 days of sittings, and cost the taxpayer in excess of €250m.

One thing’s for sure: There is no public appetite for such a gargantuan investigation into the banking fiasco, despite the fact that the Sept 2008 decision to guarantee all retail and corporate deposits has had consequences far beyond the murky world of planning corruption.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is demanding an investigation akin to the Leveson investigation into press standards in the UK. Enda Kenny, while chiding Martin’s brass neck, insists that a parliamentary inquiry will suffice.

But Martin has a point. Considering the revelations from the Anglo Irish tapes, it is unlikely that bankers will live in dread of a toothless parliamentary investigation. The most recent attempt to give Oireachtas inquiries real teeth bit the dust in Oct 2011 when a referendum to increase their powers was defeated by more than 100,000 votes.

At the time, the Taoiseach said that, though disappointed at the result, “the Constitution is something that belongs to the people and we acknowledge and accept the people’s democratic decision”. Now, however, he is hinting of re-running that referendum, so, perhaps, Martin is not the only one with a brass neck.

The reference to the Leveson inquiry is apt. It started in Aug 2011 with written submissions and the first hearing began in Nov 2011. Despite the broad scope of the inquiry, judge Brian Leveson had it done and dusted by Nov 2012 at a fraction of the cost of our Mahon Tribunal.

A determined chairman can make an enormous difference to an inquiry and lend added weight to acceptance of its findings. A skilful chairman will also aid efficiency and keep costs under control.

What is still considered to be one of the best and most thorough inquiries is that held in the wake of the Whiddy disaster in 1979.

The Whiddy Inquiry was set up to investigate and report on the circumstances behind the Betelgeuse incident, in which 50 people were killed when an empty oil tanker exploded in Bantry Bay.

Presided over by Justice Declan Costello, the tribunal took barely a year to hear evidence and prepare a 480-page report. It was highly critical of oil multinational Total, the operator of the Betelgeuse.

Speed isn’t everything, though. Equally important is that an investigation must be seen to have done its work thoroughly. The Ryan (previously Laffoy) Commission took 10 years but the final report was almost universally accepted as a devastating indictment of ecclesiastical and state authorities.

The inquiry into the Magdalene Laundries, chaired by former senator Martin McAleese, was less satisfactory and was hampered from the start. The inquiry, which took the form of an inter-departmental committee, was empowered to ask only for the voluntary submission of information and there were no public hearings.

McAleese found that the State played a significant role in sending thousands of young women to the institutions but groups representing the women argued that it did not fully capture the prevalence of abuse in the laundries.

The UN Committee Against Torture also criticised the inquiry, saying it lacked many elements of a “prompt, independent and thorough” investigation.

MORE than three decades on, the report into the Stardust disaster is still the subject of heated debate.

That inquiry followed a fire which took place at the Stardust nightclub in Artane, Dublin, in the early hours of St Valentine’s Day in 1981.

Of the 841 young people who attended a disco there, 48 died in the fire and a further 214 were injured.

A tribunal of inquiry under Mr Justice Ronan Keane concluded in Nov 1981 that the fire was probably caused by arson and exonerated the owners, the Butterly family, from responsibility. The Butterlys were later compensated by Dublin city council to the tune of £580,000.

This finding of arson has been disputed ever since. Following years of protests by the families of those who died, the Government commissioned an independent examination by Paul Coffey of the case submitted by the Stardust Victims Committee for a reopened inquiry.

Due to passage of time, it was decided not to reopen the inquiry but the original finding of arson was put aside and the public record altered to state that the cause of the fire was unknown.

The Butterlys were not required to hand back the compensation they received.

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