Bodies of inquiry have to date proven to be a costly and ineffective remedy to our nation’s ills, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
Half a billion euro and counting. Were they worth it? Have we learned anything?
Our lead story yesterday detailed how the cost imposed on the taxpayer to pay for state inquiries, be they tribunal or commission or even a written report, will top €500m by the end of the year.
Documents obtained by the Irish Examiner detailed the costs relating to seven tribunals of inquiry, 11 Commissions of Investigation, one Commission of Inquiry and three reports into certain matters.
The list, as published was the most detailed ever published but by no means was it the complete picture. For example, it ignored the McCracken Tribunal and it did not include the more than €1.13bn in payments to victims of the Hepatitis C and HIV Compensation Tribunal.
Awards totalling €962m have been paid out to victims and their families since it was established in 1995. An additional €169.86m for related legal costs has also been paid out over the past two decades, bringing the total bill to the State to €1.132bn.
So in truth, the actual cost to you and I is far higher than the €479m figure given by the Department of Public Expenditure to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
But alarm bells are ringing even in how the information was given to the PAC by the department.
Despite a specific request coming from the PAC for the amount spent on tribunals and commissions, the spending department for the Government was only in a position to give an estimate.
The department told the PAC:
While this department is not directly responsible for any public inquiry, quarterly data is collected on an informal basis in relation to costs incurred.
So, therefore it is not an exhaustive list and those in charge of being the watchdog of how money is spent is at best keeping a casual eye on rising costs. This is deplorable.
However, while departments being economical with the true picture is nothing new, the wider point as to the legacy of such inquiries must be examined.
The year 1997 was key in the world of tribunals in Ireland with three major ones being established, two of which related to alleged payments to politicians and certain planning matters.
Two of those tribunals lasted more than a decade and one of those, the Mahon Tribunal, has yet to conclude its work, despite publishing its final report seven years ago. Originally the Flood Tribunal into certain planning matters and payments had, by the end of last year, cost €136m, including third-party costs. The cause for the downfall of ex-taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2008, Mahon cost a total of €4.3m in 2018 and will cost a further €5.5m this year.
Given the length of time it took, the complex matters involved, lawyers involved in its work were made millionaires. But while it raised significant issues about the relationship between politicians and developers, the fact that Mahon has been forced to quash or rescind some of its most damning findings, has greatly undermined its standing.
Its failure was colossal and has been the primary reason for the re-think by the Oireachtas as to using it as a fit means for inquiring into serious matters.
The 2017 Disclosures Tribunal was only reluctantly established after Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and his wife Lorraine insisted that they would not suffer
another behind-closed-door inquiry.
The other major Tribunal established in 1997, the Moriarty Tribunal into certain payments to politicians, has cost €63.3m and has been deemed to have concluded its work.
It reported in 2011 and found it was ‘beyond doubt’ that then Communications Minister Michael Lowry imparted substantive information to businessman Denis O’Brien which was ‘of significant value and assistance to him in securing the second mobile telephone licence’.
The Tribunal described Mr Lowry’s actions in influencing the awarding of the mobile phone licence as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘insidious’.
Mr O’Brien made or facilitated payments to Mr Lowry of £147,000, £300,000 and a benefit equivalent to a payment in the form of Mr O’Brien’s support for a loan of £420,000.
The report referred to Mr Lowry’s ‘cynical and venal abuse of office’ and his brazen refusal to acknowledge the impropriety of his financial arrangements with Mr O’Brien and Ben Dunne.
The Tribunal report criticised Fine Gael for not revealing the clandestine nature of the €50,000 donation made by Mr O’Brien after his company won the mobile phone licence.
On its publication, despite its devastating findings, the passivity of the response from then taoiseach Enda Kenny and his government was astonishing. Their coalition partners, Labour, were disgusted with them.
Mr Kenny appearing on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange with Mr O’Brien became the source of real political tension between the two parties.
That was seven years ago. Despite this, the Department of the Taoiseach has budgeted another €4.3m for 2019 in order to pay third-party legal fees.
Certainly, the scandals covered by the tribunals and current commissions of inquiry merited investigation, but the public has been served woefully by both the process and by their outcomes.
Resistance to implementing the recommendations of both Mahon and Moriarty has been depressingly palpable.
To illustrate, the Cabinet in 2019 was still only approving certain recommendations contained in Mahon back in 2011.
As barrister and columnist Elaine Byrne once pointed out, institutions are by definition predisposed towards self-preservation, resistance to change and are characterised by self-interest.
Politicians have a vested interest not to reform. The very nature of political power is averse to action which seeks to remove those in authority from positions of influence.
While we may not be gripped in the same elevated sense of tribunal fever as we were a decade ago, they linger on as persistent sores.
We seem unable to close the door on ugly episodes of our past which require investigation.
Certainly, from a costs perspective, the decision to rely on Commissions of Investigation would seem to be a no-brainer, but as they are largely conducted behind closed doors, there is an accountability deficit.
Also, they have without question become tools for government to park thorny issues and take them off the political agenda for months or years.
Highly expensive, time-consuming, and often disappointing in their verdicts, bodies of inquiry have proven to be a costly remedy to our nation’s ills.
And it would seem that we are happier to pay those costs, no matter how high they go, instead of actually seeking to tackle the root causes of why such tribunals are established in the first place.
We seem unable to close the door on ugly episodes of our past which require investigation