Banking inquiry shambles an indication of the worst of old-style government

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:00

It was a shabby episode and the coalition’s tattered reputation as a reforming Government has suffered. Not only that: the imputed independence of a committee charged with investigating the banking collapse has been undermined. It marked a return to old-style, rigidly controlled politics where dissent is not tolerated. Winner takes all. The Government is determined closely to control – if not direct – the work of the Oireachtas Finance Committee as it establishes terms of reference and considers the role of the previous government in contributing to and dealing with the banking crisis.

No surprise. It is how Irish governments behave. The drive for control represents a Leinster House culture, built on a tyrannical whip system, that rejects independence of thought or action. In opposition, Fine Gael and Labour pleaded for more transparent and inclusive ways of doing things. In Government, they have forgotten those impulses and an antiquated, slightly democratic juggernaut trundles on.

The proposed banking inquiry was always viewed in a political light. The timing of its investigation was designed to remind voters, in advance of a general election, which party had caused the economic crash. That, certainly, is what Fianna Fail believed and publicly stated. A Government decision not to allow the most senior Oireachtas committee – the PAC – examine the issue supported that impression. The Public Accounts Committee is chaired by a Fianna Fail TD. So the Finance Committee, with Labour chairman and an in-built majority, was chosen. Its majority disappeared when Labour senators did not attend a selection meeting and a Fianna Fail candidate was chosen instead.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Labour Party senators blustered and spoke of “stroke politics” to hide their embarrassment. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was coldly direct: there would have to be a Government majority. Fianna Fail hugged itself with satisfaction. The Government had blundered. Again. Having failed to reverse the selection process, two additional senators were appointed to ensure a Government majority. Brutal but effective. And it shredded any lingering pretence at impartiality. Mr Kenny had obviously concluded that the capacity of the banking inquiry to damage Fianna Fail outweighed any short-term concerns involving objectivity. That ruthlessness under pressure has consistently surprised his opponents, especially those within Fine Gael.

The row may not retain the public’s interest. But it lays bare the need for reform. Governments are too powerful. The Oireachtas operates like a franking machine. Committees have won extra powers but, with few exceptions, are chaired by compliant coalition members and have in-built majorities. If parliamentary oversight is to be enhanced, the positions of chair should, at least, rotate. A tendency to stray can always be checked by government majorities.