Planned legislation is surprisingly ambitious given the constraints
ANALYSIS:THERE WAS a view the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Abbeylara case put an end to meaningful parliamentary inquiries into matters of public importance. When the Coalition came to power last year it promised to address the issue. The only way that could be done was by constitutional change. But after a late but decisive intervention by five former attorneys general, the referendum was defeated. It constituted an early bodyblow to the Government and to the reputation of the sponsoring Minister, Labour’s Brendan Howlin.
Yesterday Mr Howlin and his Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published its legislative response to the defeat. It is clear the Government has decided there will be no Abbeylara II referendum and has decided to live with the realities of the judgment. In the Abbeylara inquiry, a committee of TDs and Senators tried to establish the facts surrounding the shooting dead by gardaí of a young man in the Co Longford village of the same name. When lawyers representing gardaí legally challenged the powers of the committee, the question was decided by the Supreme Court which ruled parliamentary inquiries did not have the power to make findings of fact adverse to the good name of any citizen who was not a member of the House.
Given those constraints, the planned legislation is surprisingly ambitious in scope. It sets out two forms of inquiry, neither of which will result in a finding on a contested fact that could touch on the reputation of an individual.
The first will inquire into an issue, record evidence of witnesses, and report on the hearings in a narrative form without drawing conclusions, unless there is no contest. The second looks forward and will make findings of fact in relation to legislative powers of the Seanad and Dáil. There are two forms of inquiry that are innovative. The first will deal with the impeachment of judges and presidents. While the Constitution confers powers in relation to impeachment, there was uncertainty about the process and form of such inquires. These came into sharp focus during the impeachment process involving former Circuit Court judge Brian Curtin. The other is a specific form of inquiry to deal with the conduct of a TD or Senator. Such problems came to the fore when former senator Ivor Callely brought a successful court challenge against the procedures used, and findings made, by a Senate committeeinvestigating his conduct.