DANIEL MCCONNELL: Impartial Public Accounts Committee badly damaged by partisanship of the worst kind

POLITICS the world over is full of guff. Full of bluster, self-serving statements, can-kicking, lies, and murky hypocrisy. Our Irish brand of politics is no different.

Just look at our lame-duck Taoiseach Enda Kenny, on the eve of his White House meeting this week, walking back his comments about US president Donald Trump being a racist. 

Still influenced by our occupation by the British, it is driven by an underlying belief that someone else is picking up the tab.

Irish politics can be so mind-crushingly frustrating and depressing at times, it seems impossible that anything can actually ever improve.

One of the few exceptions to all that, as long as I have been a reporter, is the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

That body was badly damaged last week by the shameful and disgraceful partisanship of Fine Gael members of the committee, who sought to tear down a damning report into Nama and Finance Minister Michael Noonan from within.

The report, into the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland loan book, known as Project Eagle, was highly critical of both Nama and Noonan, which I will discuss later.

For the first time in its 94-year history, the committee divided along party lines over negative findings against Noonan, and forced a vote on the matter. For those people who complain about the wasting of public monies by State departments and agencies, the PAC is required watching.

It is for good reason the most powerful Dáil committee, as it oversees Government spending expenditures to “ensure they are effective and honest”.

It has been the place where some of the worst and most egregious wasting of taxpayers’ money has been exposed and revealed.

From the Dirt Inquiry in 1991 to the calamity of the Irish Glass Bottle site, from the HSE/Siptu training/junket scandal to scandals in Rehab and the CRC, the PAC has covered it all.

It has also shone a light on areas of public life that had been neglected.

It was the PAC that went a long way to establishing the credibility of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and, let’s not forget, it was the committee which exposed the Grace foster abuse scandal over the past 18 months or so.

But just why is the committee so important?

By examining the spending or misspending of departments and agencies, the PAC as the spending watchdog has a key role to play in ensuring accountability and transparency in the way Government agencies allocate, spend, and manage their finances and in guaranteeing that the taxpayer receives value for money for every euro spent. 

It is known as a “Standing Committee” and has to be established after each general election.

It has 13 members from all sides of the house, so as to be impartial, and to further assert its independence it is chaired by a member of the opposition, while a member of the government or a minister of state can not be a member of the PAC.

So, just what happened last week to necessitate the Fine Gael members — Alan Farrell, Noel Rock, Josepha Madigan, and Peter Burke — to break ranks and force the vote?

Noel Rock
Noel Rock

A draft copy of the PAC’s final report had made its way into the media last month and it included a finding that Noonan’s meeting with Cerberus, the ultimate successful bidder for the Project Eagle loans, 24 hours before the process closed, was “inappropriate”.

The Sunday Business Post, ourselves and the Irish Independent all reported the aspects most critical of Noonan and Nama at the time.

Noonan was furious. He penned a stinker of a letter to PAC chairman Seán Fleming, complaining he had been denied natural justice as the issue of the Cerberus meeting was never put to him.

When the PAC came to finalising the report, an almighty ding-dong kicked off between the Fine Gael members and the others on the committee.

At the chaotic launch of the report, Mr Burke spoke on behalf of his colleagues. He said the report’s findings were “unfair” to Noonan, and the veteran minister had been denied natural justice.

He said Noonan was never afforded the right to respond to the charge made against him in the report.

Burke said that Nama as an entity is separate from politics and ultimately the meeting was immaterial as it was a commercial decision for Nama alone to make. He was denied natural justice, Burke concluded.

Fleming hit back.

He said that when Noonan was in before the committee on October 6 last year, for more than four hours, only he and his officials knew of the Cerberus meeting and they never mentioned it.

“Just whom was unfair to whom?” Fleming asked.

But at that meeting to sign off on the report, the Fine Gael contingent forced four separate votes on the references to Michael Noonan and his department.

The first vote was forced when Madigan, a lawyer, proposed deleting the reference “not procedurally appropriate for Department of Finance Officials” and substituting “not advisable for Department of Finance Officials”. That was voted down by nine votes to four. Then she tried to water down the reference to Noonan himself.

She proposed to delete the reference “procedurally appropriate for the Minister” and substitute “advisable for the Minister”.

The vote was taken and went down eight to five, with Labour’s Alan Kelly siding with the Blueshirts on this one.

A vote was taken to allow the disputed paragraphs to stand as part of the full report. The committee again divided nine to four.

Finally, there was a vote to approve the full report as drafted. Again the Fine Gael team lost the vote nine-four.

It was agreed to include a copy of a letter in the report from the Finance Minister in relation to conclusions pertaining to him and his officials.

But, it has to be asked, if they were willing to go along with a finding which stated the meeting between Noonan and Cerberus was “not advisable”, why then go to war over the phrase “not procedurally appropriate”. That in itself was a watered-down version of the finding in the draft report.

Why risk the unique strength of the PAC, its cross-party non-partisan approach, over such a small gap?

It was illogical and stupid.

All it has done is weakened one of the few valuable and strong defenders of the taxpayer, of honesty and transparency, available to the people.

And it is not the first time Fine Gael has tried to play politics with the PAC.

Back in the last term when the then- chairman John McGuinness was the subject of a series of articles about his time as minister which threatened to unseat him, Fine Gael deputies, led by Enda Kenny, sought to “take out” a political enemy.

Only for people such as Eoghan Murphy and John Deasy, who stood up to Kenny and Phil Hogan, they may have got their way.

The farcical squabbles which engulfed the launch of the report only sought to distract from a very good report into the deficiencies of Nama and the Department of Finance.

All to protect the feelings of Noonan. It was partisanship of the worst kind and the Fine Gael members of PAC should have known better.

There was no need for the stand-off and the entity to come out of this whole affair most damaged is the PAC.

And that is a bloody disgrace.


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