Two years ago, there was an attempt at a legal catch-up on a scandal that dated from the early 1990s.

Two years ago, there was an attempt at a legal catch-up on a scandal that dated from the early 1990s.

The hepatitis C scandal involved the poisoning of women who required blood transfusions.

They were all given infected blood, which led to debilitating conditions, life-long pain, and, in some cases, death.

It was one of the worse scandals in the history of the State. One fallout was a realisation that there was no law against what is known as corporate manslaughter. This involves the infliction of death through wanton negligence.

In 2005, the Law Reform Commission recommended such a law. On a number of occasions since then, various attempts were made — including through private member bills — to initiate legislation. All failed.

As is often the case, some of these attempts were made by opposition politicians, who forgot all about it once they moved to the government benches.

Evidently, the idea of making a law that would enhance accountability for actions by a state or corporate agency was something the body politic was not prepared to stomach.

The 2016 bill contained a provision for imprisonment of up to 12 years for
anybody guilty of the offence. That kind of penalty, in a State renowned for its distaste of prosecuting white-collar crime, would certainly have concentrated some minds.

It would have enhanced accountability and, crucially, would almost certainly have acted as a deterrent to any person or entity taking a cavalier attitude towards human safety.

The bill was eventually dispatched to that dusty shelf on which rejected and uncomfortable bills wither and die.

Too many vested interests would have been discommoded. Too much hassle would have been generated. Better to look away long enough, until it lands on somebody else’s desk.

We don’t do accountability in this country. Every so often, there are noises about it and there is breast-beating.

Every so often, there is a scandal and high dudgeon and resolve to do things better. But very little changes.

The CervicalCheck scandal is another opportunity to enhance accountability that was spurned.

The passage of the Civil Liability Act, last year, was interrupted near its conclusion, in November, to insert an important amendment: A provision in the bill, stipulating that doctors be obliged to inform patients when something goes wrong.

The original wording was that the health service provider “shall make….an open disclosure” about anything in this vein.

This was adjusted to read “may make…an open disclosure”. The original wording would have cemented in law the obligation to the patient. It might well have discommoded a medical professional or an organisation, but it would have shaped the law in favour of the citizen.

The amendment provides enough wriggle room to ensure that the obligation becomes an option.

A failure to instil accountability is not confined to the medical world. In 1999, the Sheedy affair led to the resignation of two judges and a heightened resolve to install a judicial council to police judges’ conduct.

Nearly 20 years later, we’re still waiting. A number of attempts have ended up on the dusty shelf.

Much of the delay is down to judges being precious about how they are to be policed. But neither has there been much political will to push the matter through. If judges are made accountable, God help us, who might be next?

There was no real accountability for the economic collapse of 2008, in the wake of the building bubble. Sure, Fianna Fáil got slaughtered at the polls, but they’re back in the game now. Their former standard bearers are lying upon bloated pensions.

A few bankers have faced criminal charges, but these are not directly to do with the recklessness that ruined lives. Bankers knew, from previous experience, that they would not be held accountable for anything. There was no deterrent to engaging in reckless behaviour.

There is no accountability for the boom-time construction of homes that are firetraps. Back in those heady days, there were more dog inspectors than building inspectors in the State.

Homeowners in dangerous buildings, and who have to stump up for mistakes not of their making, pay the real price for a culture of impunity.

What about the lost, abused, and neglected children? Through the series of scandals about children in care, not one person has had to answer for their actions. Nobody has suffered any real sanction.

The latest scandal are the deaths and injuring of babies in Portiuncula hospital, in Ballinasloe. The report published on Thursday pointed to some appalling shortcomings in care and communication. Is anybody responsible for what has been inflicted on the innocent?

This is not about retribution or about looking for a head. It’s about providing a deterrent, a reminder to everybody else that there are consequences for actions. Instead, we are repeatedly told that blame lies with that most elusive of concepts, a systems failure.

When the Government is forced to act, the result is often slipshod. The Garda ombudsman, Gsoc, was set up in the wake of the Donegal Garda scandals. Now in operation for more than a decade, it remains severely constrained by law and by a paucity of resources.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) got off the ground after a series of corporate scandals in the 1990s. To this day, it remains the malnourished infant of policing, strapped for resources and talent.

Much of this is down to a lack of political will. It’s as if somebody in Leinster House has said, “all right, so, you can have your accountability, but we won’t make it easy for you”.

Instead of accountability, we have that favourite tool of serving governments: the inquiry.

This conveniently pushes the whole matter down the road, preferably beyond the next election.

Last Thursday, the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, told the Public Accounts Committee that the cost of the various inquiries and tribunals was just south of €500m.

He told the members he’d prefer to see the money spent on “prevention” rather than inquiries.

“If I had €500m I could think of better ways to spend it,” he said.

Ain’t that the truth. But there is still no sign that there exists a real political will to ensure that the State is fully accountable to its citizens, through action and laws.

More on this topic

Taoiseach intervenes to ensure all women impacted by CervicalCheck scandal get €2,000 ex-gratia paymentTaoiseach intervenes to ensure all women impacted by CervicalCheck scandal get €2,000 ex-gratia payment

Varadkar to ensure all women impacted by CervicalCheck scandal receive €2,000 ex-gratia paymentVaradkar to ensure all women impacted by CervicalCheck scandal receive €2,000 ex-gratia payment

CervicalCheck: 'I feared legal action after letter' - Lorraine WalshCervicalCheck: 'I feared legal action after letter' - Lorraine Walsh

Department of Health blocks €2k to Cervical Check victimsDepartment of Health blocks €2k to Cervical Check victims


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