MICHAEL CLIFFORD: If in doubt, reach for another inquiry

After a trend, this column is today being presented as an inquiry into inquiries, writes Michael Clifford

Last week, an inquiry into the banking inquiry commenced. The inquiry into the inquiry concerns allegations by a whistleblower in the inquiry being inquired into that there’s something fishy going on. Once that came to light, there was only one thing for it. An inquiry.

It’s not known how long the inquiry into the banking inquiry will take, but the new departure is bound to be the focus of another inquiry. That is, we are likely to see an inquiry into the inquiry into the banking inquiry. This will come about when somebody believes there’s something fishy going on in the inquiry into the banking inquiry and the fishy business will find its way into the media.

Once that occurs, somebody will demand a new inquiry into the other two inquiries. Mark my words, it’s only a matter of time.

After a trend, this column is today being presented as an inquiry into inquiries. Such a presentation is timely, as the week just gone has seen the Annual Inquiry that is the MacGill Summer school. The school accommodates an assembly of politicians, media heads, academics, retired public servants and the odd compos mentis civilian, who hold a mirror up to themselves and inquire as to whether they have all the answers. Each year, the mirror lies and tells them that they do.

So it goes in the land of inquiries. The question that the good burghers of MacGill might have addressed is why, oh why do we seem to be governing by inquiry?

The Inquiry is now standing up there as a national totem poll, next to The Split. If The Spit, as Brendan Behan once noted, is the first item on the agenda of every Irish organisation, then The Inquiry is now the second. This applies not just to organisations but also to actions of governance.

Look at the recent history. The bank formerly known as Anglo Irish is the subject of an inquiry. NAMA has succumbed to an inquiry. The departure of the garda commissioner is being inquired into. Thirty years of taping in garda stations is now an inquiry. Last year, there were four separate inquiries established into elements of policing. There have already been three inquiries into the banking collapse. Everywhere you look, an inquiry is breaking out.

Here’s a prediction about the next general election. The talks on forming a new government will involve a commitment to set up an inquiry into Irish Water.

Another prediction. If Mayo fails yet again to win an All-Ireland in September, the Taoiseach will establish an inquiry into how the county could go sixty-four years without senior honours. The issue will only merit a scoping inquiry, but if Fine Gael is doing badly in the polls early next year, it might be elevated to a full commission of inquiry.

The Inquiry has gained an inflated political currency. Whenever a controversy arises, the Opposition goes all out for the full monty – a commission of investigation.

If a man bites a dog in the vicinity of Leinster House, then nothing short of a judicial inquiry will suffice for the opposition. Micheál Martin or Gerry Adams will rise in the Dail and declare that only a full commission of inquiry can get to the bottom of this.

Usually, but not always, the government will resist. The establishment of a commission of investigation is seen as a political victory by the opposition. One more cut in the death of government by a thousand inquiries.

This is exactly what happened in the case of the controversy over IBRC, Siteserv and Denis O’Brien. (Some politicians want an inquiry into Denis O’Brien. Not anything that he has done, but just an inquiry into him as a person). When Siteserv became a controversy, the government initially offered an inquiry by an accountancy firm. An inquiry headed up by an accountant, not even a barrister, isn’t really an inquiry at all in political terms.

The government, for its part, regards the setting up of inquiries as losing political capital. That’s why it resisted with Siteserv until the smell became too powerful, and a commission was set up, leaping from accountant all the way to the gold plated inquirer – a retired senior judge.

There are occasions, however, when the government can turn the political capital of an inquiry on its head. Last year, when Enda Kenny and his minister for justice were drowning in garda controversies, a new controversy walked through the door and presented them with the possibility of an inquiry. That’s what happened when issues around taping in garda stations came to light. A full commission of investigation was set up in jig time. This was designed to take the heat out of all the other controversies. Not just that, but an ensuing controversy over the “retirement” of garda commissioner Martin Callinan was shovelled into it.

So that inquiry delivered a double whammy for Enda. It capped the garda controversies, and it ensured that he would not be politically accountable for Callinan’s departure. Naturally, he would love to talk about it, but he simply couldn’t because it was the subject of an inquiry. (Another prediction: the inquiry into taping in garda stations won’t amount to a hill of beans).

That little manouvre was one that served Bertie Ahern and his government very well in the mother and father of all inquiries, the Planning Tribunal. Any controversy about money or planning could not be dealt with in the Dáil because it had been shovelled into the tribunal.

But it’s even better for Enda. The tribunal heard evidence in public, which did it for poor old Bertie. That has been replaced by the Commission of Investigation, where it all goes on behind closed doors.

A few months back, Enda said he couldn’t talk about whether he’d been recalled to give further evidence to Fennelly because the law forbade him from even talking about it. Enda got his law wrong, but you can see why the commission model holds attraction for him in some instances. Not alone can he not talk about the subject matter because a commission is dealing with it, he can’t talk about the commission or whether it even exists.

Why, you might ask, do we need all these inquiries? Well, in a functioning democracy the parliament would deal with many of the issues that arise, but here the parliament serves as little more than an irritant to the executive, and the citizenry refused to award it proper power, maybe because the citizenry knew it was a joke in governance terms.

Also, with precious little in the way of ideas in Irish politics, much of it boils down to enflaming or quelling controversies which arise. If in doubt, reach for the inquiry. Hopefully, at some stage, we might get an inquiry into inquiries, and whether or not it’s all a cod. Such an inquiry would require inquiring minds, and they are most definitely the enemy of inquiries as we know them.

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