O'Reilly criticises political 'deficits'


Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly claimed today the work of her office was being undermined by what she described as “deficits in our parliamentary and government arrangements”.

In an address to the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin today, Ms O'Reilly criticised the Government’s decision last month to vote against a proposal to have her report on a grant aid scheme for commercial fishermen referred to an Oireachtas committee.

She said the handling of the controversial Lost to Sea report illustrated how the Oireachtas was being side-lined. Ms O’Reilly published the report last December after its findings were rejected by the Department of Agriculture, only the second time this has happened since the office of ombudsman was founded in the 1980s.

“Unfortunately, the model of government set out in the Irish Constitution has become more of a fiction than a reality,” Ms O'Reilly said. “In practice the Dáil, and to a slightly lesser extent the Seanad, is controlled very firmly by the Government parties through the operation of the whip system.

“For all practical purposes, and I very much regret having to say this so bluntly, parliament in Ireland has been sidelined and is no longer in a position to hold the executive to account," she said. “With the exception of the election of a Taoiseach, almost all decisions of importance are taken by the executive and are rubber-stamped by parliament.”

The Lost at Sea scheme was established in 2001 by then minister for the marine Frank Fahey. Under the scheme, owners of fishing boats lost at sea could apply for grant aid for replacement capacity.

The Byrne family from Donegal later complained to the ombudsman after its application was rejected, on the grounds it was made after the deadline.

Ms O’Reilly’s report criticised several aspects of the scheme, including the advertising process, which she found was not comprehensive enough. She recommended compensation of €245,000 for the Byrnes.

Ms O’Reilly said last month the Dáil and Seanad had the task of deciding who is right and wrong in her dispute with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

But following a heat Dáil debate on the matter last month, the Government voted against referring the report to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In her speech today, Ms O’Reilly claimed the Government had stopped the Oireachtas adjudicating on her dispute with the Department of Agriculture by voting “along party political lines”.

She said this illustrated “how deficits in our parliamentary and government arrangements can adversely affect” the work of her office.

Ms O’Reilly said she would have expected a parliamentary committee, following appropriate scrutiny, to reach the conclusion that her recommendation in the report that financial compensation be paid to the complainant.

She said her office “had done, in its area of responsibility, precisely what the Financial Regulator was accused of not doing, in terms of failing to serve the public interest and rooting out maladministration in the banking system”.

Ms O’Reilly said she hoped the Oireachtas may yet find a mechanism to allow the report to be dealt with “calmly and reasonably”.

In a wide-ranging speech, the Ombudsman said poor governance in a number of our key private and public institutions lies at the heart of our economic downturn.

Fine Gael agriculture spokesman Michael Creed today claimed Fianna Fáil had something to fear from an investigation into the Lost at Sea scheme.

“The Ombudsman’s criticism is damning,” he said. “Fine Gael has been calling for this committee investigation since December 15 2009, and it is our position that such an investigation is the best way forward when there is an impasse between the Ombudsman’s office and the Government.

“Instead we have had bland Dáil statements and the Government has circled the wagons at every turn, most recently when Fianna Fail voted down a motion calling for a committee investigation.”

Speaking at the IPA-hosted conference, entitled Good Governance: Values and Culture or Rules and Regulations, Pat Rabbitte, Labour spokesman on justice, said: "I am afraid there is a little bit of Fianna Fáil in all of us and, after almost a quarter of a century of nearly uninterrupted one party rule, that includes the top echelons of the civil and public service."

"Further, there is in most of us more than a little bit of Irish Catholicism. The combination of the two is potentially lethal, contributing to a nod and wink culture which rules and regulations alone cannot control."

He said observers of the progress and collapse of the Celtic Tiger "must conclude that this is our dominant culture," adding: "Even if it wanted to, our public service cannot function as if disconnected from that culture."

"The Irish public service cannot quarantine itself - or be quarantined - from the dominant culture. Democracy as George Lee discovered is a messy, imperfect business but it is still better than any of the alternatives." Democracy functions best, the Labour TD said, "where power is rotated at reasonable intervals".

Mr Rabbitte said he did not believe more elaborate rules and stricter regulation was the solution, however. "The major deficit I am convinced is in application and enforcement. If we can tackle regulatory capture I am all for it. I doubt there is a good governance grail and its pursuit is chasing a chimera."

"Unless we can demonstrate a resolve to apply without fear or favour the regulatory rules that are there and unless we are committed to nurturing the age old public service values, we are wasting our time trying to improve on the rules that are there," the Labour TD said.