Miriam Lord: Zooming in and out of reality at the Public Accounts Committee

The sitting is a bit like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? when they phone a friend

"I confirm I am in Leinster House" announced Brendan Howlin, from his office."It is snowing outside," he added to further establish his whereabouts, although there didn't seem to be any falling outside the window behind him. "I hope I'll be able to get back to Wexford."

When it comes to online Oireachtas committee meetings, politicians are constitutionally required to remain within the precincts of Leinster House to take part.

Being within the Oireachtas safety cordon also guarantees absolute parliamentary privilege to outspoken participants.

A large number of committees sat on Tuesday, but only the chairmen and support staff were allowed into the hearing rooms with TDs and Senators scattered around the campus at the mercy of their monitors and laptops.


Some committee chairmen requested members to confirm their physical presence in the complex, hence Howlin's location signal from the Labour rooms to the EU affairs session.

A bit like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? when the contestant phones a friend and whoever answers must confirm that an observer is in the room to make sure no cheating occurs.

The usually lively Public Affairs Committee had a lunchtime start with a selection from the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board and Department of Health up for grilling. Would the remote meeting cramp its robust style?

Sinn Féin's Brian Stanley, recovered from his recent Twitter blunder, was in the chair. First witness was the NPHDB's chief officer, David Gunning. Perhaps not the best surname for Stanley to encounter so soon after his difficulties, given that the offensive tweet which got him into so much trouble was about an IRA ambush.

Are things so bad in Baggot Street that they are putting mandarins in a type of witness protection programme?

Gunning appeared on screen and started to talk. Nothing.

“Eh, I think you’re on mute,” said Stanley to the big screen on the wall in the near empty room.

Gunning fiddled with the screen then got on with delivering the unsurprising bad news: things are not proceedings as well as they would like. Even worse news was the rapid realisation that the chief officer was not going to give the committee up to date figures on delays and overruns because his board, in conjunction with the department, is putting the final touches to a major review of the project and it is due to go to the Government in a few weeks.

Completion date

As members tried to get him to say what the final astronomical bill for the hospital might be now (after more hikes than An Óige), and pressed him on the increasing likelihood of the completion date being pushed well into 2024, he did not push back.

Instead, he adopted the old “you might say that but I couldn’t possible comment” approach, dangling the impending review in front of them but divulging nothing.

Next up was Greg Dempsey, deputy secretary general of the Department of Health. Even without Brian Cowen's infamous description of it as "Angola", everyone knows that this department is a tough assignment.

But still, are things so bad in Baggot Street that they are putting mandarins in a type of witness protection programme to hide their identities? What else could we think when Dempsey appeared on screen, silhouetted in the dark, and began to talk?

It was a relief when somebody turned on a light and we could see him properly. Until he was plunged into darkness again.

Sinn Féin’s Imelda Munster was first to quiz the managerial big wigs on their handling of the hospital development and its very difficult and demanding contractors.

Munster is a sharp inquisitor. Her munsterings of Shane Ross at the transport committee during the last government were always worth a watch.

Imelda? Come in Imelda! And away she went, talking away. Nothing.

“Just unmute your microphone. Microphone is muted,” muttered the chairman. (We’ve all been there.)

So Munster gets up and starts messing with the computer, which is placed above eye-level. We get a close up view of the buttons on the cuff of her lilac jacket. Then she checks another part, this time leaning down until her quizzical face fill the screeen, a study in concentration.

Still nothing.

Stanley and the committee clerk silently watch Munster’s elbow working up and down. The screen cuts to a patchwork quilt of some of the people taking part.

And look. There’s Dempsey from the Department of Health, up in the top left hand corner, in darkness again.

Gunning, the chief officer, appears to be whispering something into his microphone, for he is wearing a proper headset. This makes him look like a helicopter pilot because he is sitting in front of an aerial view of the half-built children’s hospital.

Neasa Hourigan of the Greens is also wearing a headset. She has a lovely print of Frida Kahlo among the books and pot plants on the nice white shelving unit in her office.

MacSharry, his face bobbing somewhere out in Sligo Bay but filling half the screen, took up where she left off

Verona Murphy materialises in front of a large photograph of Leinster House with lines of blazing red geraniums on either side of the plinth. Labour's Seán Sherlock, when his screen isn't black and, for some reason, showing the initials "SO" pulsating in a white circle, features the same establishing photograph.

That picture was taken in summertime. Are they there in the precincts?

For all the committee knows, Murphy could be out checking ferries in Rosslare and Sherlock could be hiding out in west Cork.

Meanwhile, Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrat has a red tinsel Christmas garland in the background. And, hooray. Who have we down in the bottom left-hand corner only Marc MacSharry, surrounded by water and glaring out from beneath Ben Bulben like the creature from the dark lagoon.

Proof from MacSharry that he, too, was within the hallowed precincts. Oh, thank God.

Two disembodied hands

“I have it now!” shouts Munster . “You’re in” sighs Stanley, relieved.

The TD begins her questioning of Gunning while the screen shows two disembodied hands shuffling pieces of paper. She finally appears again. You can only see the top half of Munster’s head, but she does a good job.

Her conclusion is that his board has “made a complete hames” of the exercise so far and “the management of the project has been a complete shambles”.

MacSharry, his face bobbing somewhere out in Sligo Bay but filling half the screen, took up where she left off. He couldn’t understand how the State would award a huge contract to a company which has been in litigation with it on nine other projects (and is now fighting hundreds of claims over the hospital worth millions).

If someone building his house sued him, he wouldn’t ask them to build his next one. “Why would we go with somebody who has form and is suing us left, right and centre as it is?” he asks.

Meanwhile, Sherlock is sitting in front of Leinster House pleaded for a simple answer. “Where are we?” He meant the building work. What is its status?

“The status is I can’t comment on the most recent submission because it is still being reviewed by our experts,” says Gunning.

What about “a working assumption” of the final cost, wheedled Murphy. No joy.

Stanley had a final go. Is Gunning “confident the final figure will not exceed two billion?”

“We are confident we will have an answer” he replied.

When the famous report is published. Look for it in the horror section.