Banking collapse likely to remain a mystery
The reaction to the PAC report and what is likely to happen during any inquiry shows how broken our political system is when it comes to dealing with affairs of State
LAST WEEK the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a 300-page report on the banking collapse*. It looks at all aspects of the fiasco and contains useful summaries of the findings of the numerous other reports written to date. It examines how banking inquiries have been conducted in other jurisdictions. And it poses hundreds of questions that have yet to be answered satisfactorily.
It is an excellent piece of work and a model of how a parliamentary committee should prepare the ground for public hearings on a matter it is to investigate.
But the reaction to the report and what is likely to happen during any inquiry demonstrates not only the low probability of ever getting to the bottom of the banking collapse, but just how broken the Irish political system is when it comes to dealing with affairs of State, both economic and otherwise.
The report’s publication ignited a smouldering turf war between the PAC and the Finance Committee, which also wants to conduct the inquiry. Clashes of this kind happen in all democracies. What does not happen in most other democracies is that members of the government get involved in deciding which parliamentary committees conduct inquiries.
In other democracies, particularly those in the non-Westminster tradition, members of the executive (government ministers) have no role in how the legislature conducts its business. There is a clear separation of the powers between these two branches of government. In Ireland the Constitution guarantees executive dominance of parliament.
Elsewhere, if a member of the executive attempted to interfere in committee business, parliamentarians of all parties would not stand for it. Despite the Irish political class’s direct experience of the European parliament, where committees wield real clout and would never accept outside interference, Oireachtas members show no sign of asserting their independence and standing up for themselves.
One wonders if their subservience is so ingrained that they are unaware of it. The always independent-minded chairman of the PAC, Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness, last week described the Minister of Public Expenditure and reform, Brendan Howlin, as being his “line Minister” – as if he reports to the Minister rather than the other way around.
Howlin has been pushing for the Finance Committee, which is chaired by his party colleague Alex White, to conduct the banking inquiry. This is the same Minister who only this week at a book launch namechecked as a priority for reform a clearer separation of powers. If he is serious about that he should stop interfering and allow the PAC to get on with an inquiry that it is best placed to conduct.
If the Oireachtas is a Mickey Mouse parliament by constitutional design and the non-assertiveness of its members, it has been further hobbled by an attack from the third branch of government.
A decade ago the judiciary curbed Oireachtas powers to conduct inquiries in the Abbeylara judgment. Again, and by way of comparison, if the US supreme court ever attempted to curb the powers of congress as its Irish counterpart did in the Abbeylara case, there would be a full-blown constitutional crisis. American law-makers would view such an encroachment as a declaration of war. Even the US supreme court, which is unusually strong and activist, would not dare attempt such an assault.
But in Ireland such is the deference to lawyers that there was very limited criticism of the Abbeylara judgment even among Oireachtas members who meekly accepted the clipping of their wings. This is of a piece. In contrast to the US, where a lively and healthy debate takes place on the findings of the supreme court, here it is considered almost sacrilegious to criticise judges’ findings. The judiciary – the only unelected branch of government, incidentally – should be open to the same sort of criticism as other institutions of State.
If Ireland’s parliamentarians are timid, the lawyerly class is anything but. When an effort was made last year to change the Constitution to ensure the Oireachtas had the sort of investigative powers enjoyed by other parliaments, eight former attorneys general popped up to urge voters to reject the change.
It is a great pity that the eight did not use their very considerable intellectual and financial resources to propose constructively more effective models of accountability than to join the forces opposing reform.
The rejection of that referendum all but ensures that knowledge of the banking collapse will never advance much beyond what is known already.
*Available online at iti.ms/OenNCC