Oireachtas committees are growing into their role but need to sharpen questions

Opinion: Parliamentarians could learn from probing approach of RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke

John Tierney: forthcoming in the main as his interviewer established the main facts. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

John Tierney: forthcoming in the main as his interviewer established the main facts. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Sun, Jan 19, 2014, 00:01

‘What kind of money are you spending on consultants?” Sean O’Rourke asked John Tierney, the chief executive of Irish Water, at 10.18am on Thursday week last. Tierney initially obfuscated in his reply. He talked about what a big challenge setting up a new utility was. He even wondered aloud about how challenging setting up RTÉ in one year would be if that had to be done in modern times.

O’Rourke let him ramble around the issue for almost a minute before cutting him off with the blunt two-word question “How much?” “€100 million has been spent on establishment,” said Tierney, “half of that on consultants.”

“Fifty million,” O’ Rourke clarified for his listeners, adding with understatement: “It ain’t cheap.”

In a wide-ranging interview over 22 minutes that morning, the radio presenter elicited more information about Irish Water then several Dáil deputies had been given in repeated parliamentary questions over several months.

Public accountability
One-on-one, live on air, O’Rourke systematically took Tierney through the controversial issues that have bubbled under Irish Water. It was good radio, but it was also a top-class exercise of public accountability. There was no haranguing or grandstanding from the inquisitor – he just forensically established the key facts, and Tierney was, in the main, forthcoming.

Our parliamentarians could learn much from the O’Rourke approach.

Much of the information Tierney gave in replies on RTÉ radio 10 days ago has been known by the Department of Environment for months, but the department made a conscious decision, approved of by the Minister, not to provide that information in replies to parliamentary questions. This episode stands as indictment of the enduring weakness of our parliamentary system and the “tell them as little as possible’’ mentality that permeates the top levels of our Civil Service.

It has otherwise been a good few weeks for parliamentary scrutiny: the Oireachtas committee system has come of age. Usually in mid- to late-January, the political coverage focuses on the belated return of the Dáil itself. This year, however, all the significant political news is being made in Leinster House committee rooms where semi-State companies and State- funded agencies are being held to account.

In recent months the Oireachtas committee has not only had scheduled – and newsworthy – exchanges with the governor of the Central Bank and the new head of Eirgrid; it has also pursued Irish Water, the HSE, and HSE-funded agencies with appropriate vigour.

It is also noteworthy how Oireachtas committees have become the forum where State agencies have come to explain themselves at the height of public controversies to counter what they see as unfair coverage in the media. This is, for example, what Nama did just before Christmas on alleged leaks of private information, and what the Revenue Commissioners did in November on deducting card payments for property tax. They came, they were asked, and they answered, and the controversies settled somewhat.

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