Sound and fury overwhelm rational political debate

Opinion: antics of John McGuinness undermine PAC credibility

 ‘John McGuinness went away beyond his remit by calling for the heads of senior civil servants who are simply trying to implement government policy with reduced resources.’  Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

‘John McGuinness went away beyond his remit by calling for the heads of senior civil servants who are simply trying to implement government policy with reduced resources.’ Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES


It has been another unedifying week in Irish politics with Government, Opposition and the media playing their part in ensuring that sound and fury overwhelmed rational debate on one issue after another.

The week began with politicians vying with each other to express outrage and indignation over a dark chapter in Ireland’s past; the way single pregnant women and their children were treated from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Much of the instant hysteria was generated in response to a wave of deeply misleading media reports suggesting that the bodies of almost 800 children who died at a mother and baby home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961 were dumped in a septic tank.

The actual heart-rending facts surrounding the deaths in the Tuam mother and baby home were outlined by Rosita Boland in a sympathetic and comprehensive report in this newspaper last weekend. However, the old adage about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story meant that lurid and misleading reports went around the world and fanned a political storm at home.

In one of the many expressions of outrage from Sinn Féin, the party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald condemned a system that administered “the ultimate inhumane sanction on thousands of innocent women and children” .

There is some irony in the deputy leader of a party whose military wing administered “the ultimate inhumane sanction” by killing thousands of innocent people, including women and children, in our own time, trying to make political capital from one of the dark episodes in our past.

The Catholic Church, the Irish State and society as a whole share responsibility for the cruel treatment of pregnant single women over many decades. The spectacle of politicians jostling with each other over the past week to gain political advantage from the sufferings of past generations of women was hardly inspiring.

Uncomfortable reading

On the same day as the Cabinet agreed to establish the inquiry it was also presented with a report about a much more recent political controversy. The report by Judge John Cooke into claims of unlawful surveillance of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) also made uncomfortable reading but for a very different reason. It appears that the entire controversy was a bottle of smoke even though it helped to put paid to the ministerial career of Alan Shatter.

When the Sunday Times reported in February that Gsoc had commissioned a security check at its headquarters in Dublin due to suspicions of electronic surveillance, a huge political controversy immediately erupted.

Much of the comment and the political debate took it for granted that the Garda Síochána had indeed carried out the bugging. Another feature of the controversy was that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the then minister for justice Alan Shatter were excoriated for suggesting that Gsoc should have reported its suspicions to the Department of Justice.

Judge Cooke came to an unambiguous conclusion: “It is clear that the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance of the kind asserted in the Sunday Times article took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Síochána.”

The judge did say that it was impossible to categorically rule out all possibility of covert surveillance but he found nothing to substantiate the claims it had happened. He also found Gsoc should have informed the Department of Justice that it had commissioned a report into its suspicions.

The only conclusion to be drawn from the report is that the political system and the media spent three months engaging in a wild goose chase.

The week also threw up another pointless controversy, this time over the long-promised banking inquiry. Following the selection of seven TDs for the committee to be chaired by Labour TD Ciarán Lynch, the Seanad had a chance to select its two nominees last week. The plan was that the Government side would get one in the shape of Labour senator Susan O’Keeffe and the Opposition would get the other. Independent senator Sean Barrett and Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry were the contenders for that position.

O’Keeffe and two other Government senators were not present for the vote. The Opposition, seeing that it was in the majority, grabbed the two positions. It was not cricket but it was politics and the Government appeared to have lost its majority on the banking inquiry.

After thrashing around for a solution the Government decided to add two more senators to the committee and it proceeded to do this amid uproar in the Upper House on Wednesday. Again not very edifying, but part and parcel of politics.

Doubtful value

The upshot is that the banking inquiry is damaged before it even begins. The whole inquiry is of doubtful value in any case. We have already had detailed reports into what happened and the committee looks like a political point-scoring exercise pure and simple.

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness brought the whole committee system into disrepute on Thursday. He went away beyond his remit by calling for the heads of senior civil servants who are simply trying to implement Government policy with reduced resources. The incessant publicity- seeking antics of McGuinness and some of his fellow PAC members have undermined the credibility of the most important Dáil committee and proved how right the Irish people were in 2011 to refuse to give parliamentary committees quasi-judicial powers.

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