Wednesday, 22 May 2013
Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I see this Bill pretty well exclusively as a response to the referendum in 2011 on Oireachtas inquiries. It is worth reflecting that it was expected throughout the campaign, such as it was, that the referendum would pass very easily because there was a huge impetus and enthusiasm at the time to get to the bottom of the banking crisis and find out what happened.
That was the reason behind the referendum, although the flaws in the Constitution discovered by the Abbeylara judgment had made it very difficult for the Oireachtas to hold an inquiry. The result of this was the Government, responding to that overall desire and genuine enthusiasm among politicians to find out the truth, produced a fairly honourable, decent and genuine attempt to amend the Constitution to facilitate an inquiry by the Oireachtas to find out the truth.
The result of that has been interpreted in this Bill in a way I am not sure that I share. The reason the constitutional referendum was defeated has not yet been recognised. The reason it was defeated was a reflection on us all. Like an express train, the argument was made towards the end of the campaign that Members of the Oireachtas were not the right people to be holding a banking inquiry and, more particularly, inquiries into other events which are related. The detail of that is that Members should not be making findings of fact or, in other words, specifically making judgments on people which are pejorative and unfair. I believe, however, it runs deeper than that. The population was giving a verdict and a message to the Government and to all Members that we are not the right people to be holding our peers and others to account. That is not a welcome message to us but it has a certain merit. It is difficult for us to accept it but giving politicians power to make findings of any sort is dubious. Giving politicians the power to hold inquiries which do not make findings is very close to that because the questions they will ask and the way the agenda is skewed will obviously bias it in one direction or the other.
There is a crying need for a banking inquiry to find out what happened on that night on 29 September 2008 and who made what decisions. I feel uncomfortable, however, as others do, at the idea that politicians should be calling in other politicians to answer questions on their particular activities on that night and elsewhere. By very definition, if the Government sets up this inquiry and Oireachtas Members are appointed to it, the questions will be politically charged and it will be used for political advantage. I have no doubt about this; that is the way politics works. The idea of bringing in the former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, to be questioned by Fine Gael and Labour Members has no more attraction for me than bringing in the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, to be questioned by Fianna Fáil Members about his stewardship. It will lend itself to political charges, political grandstanding and no independent approach. That is the nature of politics.
Should we really be judges and juries not only of our peers, but of anybody in making any findings or holding inquiries? I know, as Deputy Finian McGrath said, our powers of inquiry here are very weak considering those held by parliaments abroad. That is true but that is not necessarily the right argument for the small, compact and, sometimes incestuous, nation that we are. I feel uncomfortable about those of us elected to legislate holding inquiries over the behaviour of our peers and making judgments in political circumstances. I do not trust myself or any other politician to be independent in that situation.
Of course, we must ask if we are not to make these sorts of judgments then who should hold inquiries of this sort. If there is to be, and there must be, a banking inquiry which will make findings of facts, then who should we put on it rather than politicians? That is the difficult question. Normally, people say throw in a few High Court judges as they are of impeccable pedigree which is not true at all as they are all appointed by politicians. We need to be constructive about it. Why could we not hold inquiries where verdicts are delivered by people selected in the same way a jury is selected? What is wrong with having 12 random people, chosen from the population to carry out these inquiries, people who have volunteered and are available? They would only need to have the same basic qualifications as jurors but could be disqualified for the same reasons jurors are disqualified. The Government has already devised a way of selecting people in a random way for the Constitutional Convention which seems to be working adequately. I have not seen any great criticism of the people chosen to make up the majority of the convention. Why can we not have inquiries into these matters of great national importance being held under the auspices of those chosen this way? It would provide a cross-section of people with no political baggage and who would make verdicts on events to which they have an objective and balanced view.
We need to have a banking inquiry but we need to have a credible one. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh said so eloquently, there is not one sinner in the House - I include the Acting Chairman, Deputy Mathews in this - who would have any credibility on a banking inquiry because they have such honourable opinions that they have given already but which are definitive opinions. I wrote a book about the bankers which makes me completely unsuitable. Other Members have expressed opinions on people who would be appearing before an inquiry, Members who we are asking to give their objective opinion.
There was one stage I thought I would have loved to chair a banking inquiry because I could have let the bankers have it between the eyes. I have changed my mind since. That would have been wrong. We must have people from the start who have not given public opinions which were biased. I hope I know what the verdicts would be. I hope the inquiry would condemn the bankers from a height but we must have an inquiry with credibility. We cannot let the inquiry comprise people who have been part of a chorus of those who have already expressed opinions.
This does not just apply to banking inquiries but to all of them because in this House we have the most opinionated 166 people in Ireland. Everyone here has an opinion on virtually everything. That is what they are paid to have. However, it means their objectivity no longer exists.
Let us not be tied up with the idea that we, as Oireachtas Members, should carry this torch. Why not look further afield and consider people who have a less subjective opinion on what is happening? We have committees to hold hearings and sometimes they are effective. They invite people to appear, ask questions or for their opinions and expose them. That sometimes works. The Committee of Public Accounts has compellability powers. As Deputy Finian McGrath said, that committee had one good hit when it scored on the DIRT inquiry some time ago, but the House has a lamentable record since on tame inquiries without compellability powers. This does not relate only to the Abbeylara inquiry which was a dismal, abject failure because it tried to exceed its powers and was stopped by the Supreme Court, but there were others. There was the mini-CTC case which was eventually abandoned, partly because a general election was called. The Callely inquiry ended up in a fiasco in the Supreme Court because it involved Oireachtas Members sitting in judgment on another Member. Why was that done? Why do we not have a scenario where there is not self-regulation? We are keen in condemning, rightly, self-regulation in the legal, accountancy and stockbroking professions and so on. In many cases, regulation has been reformed, but for some reason we want to sit in judgment on fellow Members. It is difficult to ask Members to do this because politicians have loyalties built up to each other over a long period and tend to vote and make judgments on the basis of party loyalty. It is probably impossible to ask them not to.
I have been in the Oireachtas long enough to be a Member during the inquiry into the fall of the Fianna Fáil Government in 1992 initiated by the incoming Government. It was wrong of that Government to do this. I have no brief for it and I was in Fine Gael when it happened. What is a Government doing setting up an Oireachtas inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the fall of another? That was a kangaroo court and any Government can do this if we get into the habit of setting up such inquiries.
There is a case for an inquiry into what is happening at the top of An Garda Síochána and the mysteries we have witnessed in recent months. A veil has been lifted regarding the force in recent days. There should be an inquiry into the Garda, but the last people who should hold such an inquiry are Oireachtas Members because the Garda Commissioner is appointed by the Minister of the day and is, therefore, a political appointee. Not only that, the current incumbent has been given a two year extension by the Minister. There is a crying need and public demand and hunger for an inquiry into the Garda. There is public discontent about how various incidents happened and how information is passed through the force from top to bottom. Imagine - this is no reflection on any Member - if those who appointed the Commissioner and the others at the top of the force made the appointments to an inquiry. That would be wrong and this legislation, in its devotion to giving Oireachtas Members who have such powers of patronage and such strong opinions and commitments the power to hold inquiries and, therefore, point public opinion in a certain direction, is something we should strongly challenge.