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.

Blame
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.

On the other side of the equation, there are suspicions on the part of some PAC members that some Ministers or departments have been unhappy at its direction and have denigrated it and its leading personalities using ploys such as leaks and anonymous briefings.

Are the suspicions well grounded? Well, the evidence suggests so. The PAC put in a huge bid to be the committee that would take charge of the banking inquiry. Politically, the Coalition was never going to countenance such an inquiry going ahead with a Fianna Fáil chairman. What developed was a bit of an artificial turf war with the finance committee, which was always going to get that prize. McGuinness believed the series of leaks last year about the expenditure on his office when he was a junior minster in the last government was inspired by figures within Government. Whatever about the merits of that assertion, the leaks did cause him political damage and led to some of the Government TDs on the committee to begin tentative moves for a heave against him.

Controversy
In the past week, some Government figures have had a go at the PAC and its members, following its interventions in the Irish Water controversy and the Garda whistleblower issue. Both Government chief whip Paul Kehoe and Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte have criticised the PAC for duplicating the work of others. Others have contended that Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Independent Shane Ross are raising issues for the sole reason they have the most potential to embarrass the Government and achieve maximum publicity. Both have strongly rejected those contentions, separately arguing their objective is to hold public bodies to proper account and scrutiny. In his contributions, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has not held back in his very pointed and political criticisms of Ross’s role on the committee in particular.

The committee has been successful. Its hearings on the Central Remedial Clinic were very effective. Even with the Garda whistleblowers, having Shatter refer it to the Ombudsman Commission can be viewed as a success. But against that, some TDs, including opposition deputies, say privately it has overstepped the mark by calling in the whistleblowers. For its part, the PAC has argued that neither of the Garda witnesses will name names or make reputational or criminal assertions, but will confine themselves to discussing value for money to the taxpayer.

As one PAC member summed it up: “It’s coming from both sides but it has allowed PAC to become political and that’s unfortunate. The collective independence built up over decades is being torn apart.”

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