MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Let Dáil be no foil for masking ‘issues’

How did the case about horrific abuse of a vulnerable child end up before the Public Accounts Committee, asks Michael Clifford

How easy is it for a powerful financial institution to take out a TD who won’t stop highlighting corruption?

These unrelated questions deserve pondering as night closes in on the 31st Dáil. Both point to a kind of politics more comfortable with suppressing awkward issues rather than addressing them.

The former concerns the whistleblower on the abuse in the southeast of a person with an intellectual disability. The social worker in question went round the houses trying to have addressed what she regarded as an appalling failure of the State’s duty to one of its most vulnerable citizens.

On Janaury 24, she told RTÉ Radio’s This Week about getting the runaround.

“It’s been about six and a half years that I’ve been seeking to have the matters addressed,” she told reporter John Burke. “We’ve had an independent inquiry that wasn’t published, reviews, reviews of reviews, it was raised with the director general of the HSE… and I still haven’t been able to get any answers — certainly on accountability.”

In desperation, and having exhausted all the normal channels, she sought out John McGuinness, chairman of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Only then then did the matter receive impetus, speeding towards a commission of inquiry. Only then was the public awakened to a scandal which had heaped State maltreatment on top of sexual abuse of a highly vulnerable citizen.

The connection between the scandal and accounting for public money is tenuous. Under a different chairman, it is likely that the woman would have been fobbed off with a recommendation she take her complaint to another forum. Not for the first time, McGuinness did not act according to standard convention. He listened and quickly understood that this was something that had to be aired. In doing so, he pulled a thread that finally led to an independent commission of inquiry poised to investigate a matter of the gravest public importance.

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This is not the first time McGuinness’s committee turned out to be the last refuge of a despairing whistleblower. In late 2013, he was approached by Sergeant Maurice McCabe about abuse of the penalty points system by senior gardaí. On the face of it, this was an issue better examined by bodies primarily concerned with law enforcement agencies or road safety. But McCabe had been around the houses trying to get somebody to pay attention. And every time a door was closed on his face, it was accompanied with a note suggesting that this hornet’s nest was best explored elsewhere.

McGuinness simply saw that which others had averted their eyes from. He proceeded to investigate based on revenue lost to the State — a relatively flimsy basis — and out tumbled a full-blown scandal that ended with the resignation of a garda commissioner, and ultimately, a minister for justice.

Without the intervention of PAC, it is quite likely that the penalty points system may never have been properly reformed and, crucially, that McCabe’s more serious allegations of malpractice would never have been addressed. The Higgins commission of inquiry set up to investigate those matters is due to report in the next two months.

McGuinness isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. In some quarters of his own party, he is seen as a disrupter who gets high on the elixir of self-promotion. Recently, he has been criticised by other politicians for dragging his committee way beyond the boundaries of its remit.

Yet there is little doubt but that two major issues would have remained in the dark corners of State agencies if he hadn’t intervened and dragged them out into the public. What is shocking is that it took somebody in his role — ostensibly briefed to deal with money — to shine a light where other agencies opted to fumble around in the dark.

Mick Wallace mightn’t be everybody’s cup of tea either. The Wexford TD is a latecomer to politics. He was even late declaring his entry at the last election. His previous business problems — principally a failure to declare €2m in Vat — have been a feature of his first term in the Dáil. Wallace has, at times, been fast and loose in using parliamentary privilege.

However, he has also used the privilege correctly in highlighting matters of grave public concern. He had a role in the garda whistleblower scandal, reading the transcript of a crucial phone conversation into the record, and thus opening up a new avenue in the story which led to Micheál Martin meeting Sgt McCabe and bringing the garda’s concerns directly to Enda Kenny.

Even more important was Wallace’s intervention on Nama deals. Some of his allegations have not stacked up, but one contribution he made in the House turned out to be jaw-droppingly true.

On July 2, 2015, he told the Dáil £7m “ended up in an Isle of Man account” as part of Nama’s deal to sell off its Northern assets to US outfit Cerebrus. A Belfast law firm confirmed the bones of the story, setting off a major controversy about how some have been feeding off the misery which required Nama to be created.

The story was also embarrassing for the big business elements who like to portray themselves as keepers of the highest integrity. Since then, it has emerged that Cerebrus has a hold over their parliamentary tormentor. Apart from diving for assets in the North, the company also bought a portfolio of loans from Ulster Bank for about a quarter of its €6bn value. And among the portfolio was a €2m loan to Wallace. Ten days ago, Cerebrus was awarded a charge against Wallace’s assets.

The next step, if the honchos in Cerebrus are so minded, is to bankrupt Wallace, which, after his near certain re-election, would require him to resign his seat.

Is this what we’ve come to in crawling out of the economic hole into which the State and its citizens were thrust? A corporate vulture has acquired the capacity to silence a voice to whom the people have granted privilege to speak on their behalf?

No concern has been expressed from on high at this development. We are all expected to merely nod and shrug and say ‘the law’s the law’.

Right now, politicians of all hue are traipsing around the country waving promises, most of which involve consideration for voters’ immediate financial circumstances. The actions of McGuinness and Wallace have demonstrated that perhaps a little greater consideration should be given over to what else prospective members of parliament can bring to the job.

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