Government adds two members to banking inquiry committee
Alex White says move is kind of behaviour that ‘gives politics a bad name’
Fine Gael’s Michael D’Arcy and Labour Senator Susan O’Keeffe have been added to the banking inquiry committee.
The Government has forced through changes in the Seanad yesterday, reestablishing its majority in the Oireachtas Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis, amid scenes of uproar and loud protests in the chamber.
Yesterday, in a unilateral move, the Seanad Leader Maurice Cummins tabled a motion that proposed that two additional Seanad members – both Government senators – be added to the committee. They are Senators Michael D’Arcy of Fine Gael and Susan O’Keeffe of Labour.
However, some of the fiercest criticism of the move came from within the Coalition. Minister of State Alex White, a candidate for the leader’s position in the Labour Party, said it was the kind of behaviour that “gives politics a bad name”.
Mr White said: “I think the critical thing about a banking inquiry is that it gets underway. I don’t think it’s critical that there is a Government majority on the inquiry.
“What’s more important is that it gets up and running, that we get answers - and the public gets answers - to questions that have been around now for quite a few years.”
The proposal, which did not allow any debate, met with consternation in the Seanad with prolonged and vociferous protest from the Opposition benches. There were assertions that the move was anti-democratic and it was also compared to the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, as well as to the Enabling Act of Adolf Hitler.
When the issue came to a vote, the Fianna Fáil whip Diarmuid Wilson demanded a walk-through vote but the proposal was passed – and opposition amendments defeated – with a comfortable majority of 26 to 21.
Last week, the Seanad selection committee for the banking inquiry chose two non-Government members of the Upper House to sit on the all-party inquiry. Three Government senators were absent from the meeting, including its nominee Senator O’Keeffe. Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry was instead selected. Ms O’Keeffe said she had arranged as far back as last autumn for a pair, so she could be in Sligo giving her daughter support in her Leaving Certificate exams. She had not seen the email notifying senators about the meeting.
In a development that caused major embarrassment to the Government, it found itself with minority representation on the committee.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil this week that the Government needed a majority on the committee in order to set its terms of reference.
The Government’s initial response was to seek to have Mr MacSharry’s membership referred to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privilege on the basis that his own business involvements might give rise to a conflict of interest.
But when legal advice given to the Committee on Procedure and Privilege effectively ruled out any deliberation on that issue in the short term, the Government whips moved to introduce this morning’s motions that had the effect of re-establishing the Government majority.
Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath, a member of the committee, contended it could not be dressed up in any other way than the Government trying to seek absolute control over the inquiry.
“I would take the view if this inquiry breaks down along party political lines and if we have to call votes on the direction the inquiry is going and what the terms of reference are then I think we will have failed from the outset.
“This was meant to be an independent impartial inquiry where all members of the team will work together. . . It has gone from being an Oireachtas inquiry to the Taoiseach saying we need to have a Government majority to set the terms of reference.”
In angry exchanges in the Seanad this morning, opposition Senators accused the government of riding roughshod over democracy, and of using the inquiry to attack Fianna Fáil, former taoiseach Brian Cowen and the late Brian Lenihan. Government senators responded Fianna Fáil were in no position to assert moral authority in this matter.
Fianna Fáil senator Ned O’Sullivan said the Taoiseach was “coming in to dump down on this House in a way that Hitler himself with the Enabling Act would have been ashamed of. He has no interest in a real meaningful banking inquiry.”
Labour leader in the House, Senator Ivana Bacik demanded he withdraw that remark.
Senator Paul Bradford said the Government was now attempting to rewire the result of last week’s decision.
He said: “On Thursday June 12th the moral authority of the current Government disappeared and Seanad Éireann entered into an arena of disrepute.”
Independent TD Stephen Donnelly has said he is “seriously considering” whether or not to involve himself in the banking inquiry.
“In light of the farcical and objectionable interference in the workings of the Oireachtas this week and last week, specifically with regard to overturning the Oireachtas decision on the nine members of the committee, I’m seriously considering whether or not to involve myself with the committee,” he said.
“The Taoiseach Enda Kenny made it crystal clear in the chamber yesterday that it’s the Government members of the committee who will be determining the terms of reference.”
Labour TD Dominic Hannigan said the Government has acted incorrectly on the banking inquiry membership.
“I think it’s ridiculous. It’s bad politics. We messed it up in the Seanad in terms of the selection process but we are compounding it and making the situation worse.
“We should have just left it with the original nine people. They are all very capable individuals. I don’t think we need a Government majority.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about getting answers.”
Government Seanad leader Maurice Cummins has described the selection of two Opposition Senators for the banking inquiry committee as a “democratic decision”, contradicting claims by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore that it was a “parliamentary stroke”.
During leaders’ questions in the Dáil, Mr Gilmore hit out at the Opposition, accusing them of playing “political games”.
The Tánaiste said there had been an “understanding” that one Government and one Opposition Senator would be chosen and “that’s what balance is about”.
But he said a “bit of slick parliamentary footwork was performed” and they ended up with two opposition members being nominated.
Mr Cummins said in the Seanad however that “what happens in the other House is a matter for the other House but I can say that we intend to support the democratic decision of the committee of selection”.
He had been asked to clarify the situation by deputy chair of the Seanad and chair of its committee of selection Denis O’Donovan, who said he was “deeply hurt, offended and shocked by the Tánaiste’s comments”.
Mr O’Donovan described Mr Gilmore’s remarks as “appalling” and said they “affect my credibility, my status as chairman of the committee of selection and has undermined the committee of selection”.
He outlined the logistics of the meeting and said the Seanad leader had indirectly asked him to hold a meeting as soon as possible to select their Senators and avoid delaying the inquiry.
He said he phoned the Seanad leader last Wednesday to ask if it was in order to hold the meeting that evening and he “was told to proceed as soon as possible and have it that evening rather than postponing it further”.
Mr O’Donovan added: “There was no political chicanery, there was no stroke pulled. There was a comedy of errors in events that happened. People turned up and voted in a particular way, that I didn’t as chairman, anticipate.”
He said he wanted the record of the House corrected by Mr Gilmore and he asked the Seanad leader to acknowledge his account of events.
Mr Cummins then said what was said in the Dáil was a matter for the Dáil but the Government supported the democratic decision of the committee of selection.