Waters now muddied between the Government and the PAC

Opinion: Despite tensions in the past the two have managed to co-exist

Whistleblower John Wilson attending the PAC last week. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Whistleblower John Wilson attending the PAC last week. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 00:01

Any examination of where the power resides in Irish politics will show that the Oireachtas, with very few exceptions, has been a creature of the Government of the day. The will of the Government will nearly always prevail, be it in the Dáil, the Seanad or at committees. There are few exceptions. But one shining beacon has been the Public Accounts Committee, as close as the Oireachtas has to a powerful parliamentary body operating independently from Government. Its hearings are based on annual (and other reports) prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Séamus McCarthy. He is an independent State officer who conducts audits of all Government departments as well as other bodies and agencies. Most PAC hearings are based on a C&AG report, although the committee can initiate investigations.

At the hearings, the accounting officer of the department or agency is questioned about its performance in ensuring taxpayers’ money has not been wasted. That explains the appearance of the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, last week. The committee was questioning him on whether the practice of cancelling penalty points had led to a loss to the exchequer because of the non-payment of fines.

What has secured the PAC’s reputation has been a combination of tradition, its composition and its status. It is one of the longest-standing committees and is considered the most prestigious. Its chair is always picked from the main opposition party (its current chair is John McGuinness of Fianna Fáil) and while there is a majority of Government members (nine out of 13) it has a reputation for being nonpartisan. In addition, it is unusual in that its membership is drawn exclusively from the ranks of Dáil deputies; no Senators need apply. In the past, under strong chairs such as Michael Noonan and Bernard Allen (and an equally strong membership, which has included the likes of Pat Rabbitte and Joe Higgins) it has exposed some wantonly spendthrift cultures in agencies, not least Fás – the PAC’s examination of that agency was a contributory factor in its demise.

By its very definition, the PAC will be a thorn in the side of government. But despite some tensions in the past, they have managed to coexist.

However, that seems to have changed during this Dáil session where that supposed clear blue water between the PAC and the Government has become murky, polluted and politically toxic. When it comes to ascribe responsibility for this, the blame resides on both sides.

The committee has probably overstepped its remit on a few occasions. It does have one or two members who, as a PAC colleague put it yesterday, “love the oxygen of publicity too much”. In recent weeks, Labour TDs Kevin Humphreys and Michael McCarthy have accused the PAC of being ambulance chasers – over its decision to invite Irish Water executives in only a day after they appeared before the environment committee.

The Oireachtas legal adviser Melissa English has also told TDs on the committee that they were in danger of exceeding their remit, that they had crossed so far over the line it was a “dot in the distance”. For some committee members, notably John Deasy, calling in the whistleblowers on penalty points was a step too far and had little to do with the committee following its mandate. Deasy has never been a spear carrier for his party and his view in that regard has carried weight.

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