Improving the inquiry process

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

DECLARATIONS OF political intent should be regarded with a degree of caution, especially when powerful vested interests are involved and legislation has not reached draft form. In recent years, such announcements were frequently used as a smokescreen for inaction. That may not be the case in relation to Brendan Howlin’s proposed Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill, 2012.

The complexity of the issues is so great, however, that passage of the legislation may be long and difficult. In spite of that, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform should be encouraged in his endeavour.

It is 12 months since the public voted against a referendum that would have given Oireachtas committees considerable investigative powers in relation to matters of urgent public importance. Specifically, they would have been enabled to make findings of fact and apportion fault. Opposition from the Law Society and former attorneys general to the change, along with Government failure to adequately explain and justify it, saw the proposition rejected at a time when public confidence in politics and politicians was at a low point. Mr Howlin’s stated intention is to restore power to parliament and to make government and official agencies more accountable for their actions.

Effective change will require accountability, something that has been severely lacking in this society. The further up the promotional ladder individuals go, whether in politics, business or banking, the less accountable they become. Unfortunately, the five different forms of inquiry suggested by Mr Howlin are unlikely to mend that situation, although they may help to identify and clarify important issues. Some inquiries will deal with the process of impeaching judges or presidents, as well as dealing with the misconduct of TDs and Senators, procedures that were never formally set down in legislation. Others will allow committees to “inquire, record and report” on contentious issues, without making findings of fact. They will also hold hearings into the conduct of government and its legislative functions.

A Judicial Council Bill, dealing with internal disciplinary proceedings against offending judges was published by the last government, but never implemented. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter is drafting a revised Bill. A judge may only be removed from office by an Oireachtas resolution and that process will be detailed in legislation. A more complicated situation arises on the impeachment of a president. Under the Constitution, if a motion to impeach is lodged in one House, the matter must be investigated by the other one. So, what happens if the Seanad is abolished next year? The Abbeylara inquiry into the death of John Carthy in 2000 was the first time an Oireachtas committee questioned the findings of an internal Garda investigation on matters of policy, administration and responsibility. Court challenges stopped those hearings. The Supreme Court later pointed out that necessary Oireachtas powers could be acquired through legislation or constitutional change. Mr Howlin is now taking the legislative route.

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