In recent weeks, the workings of Oireachtas committees have attracted a level of interest not seen since the Banking Inquiry of 2015 and before that the Dirt Inquiry of the early 1990s.
All across Ireland, in pubs and kitchens, people were tuning in to watch the latest drama. Viewers more used to getting their political drama from the West Wing and House of Cards were always going to be disappointed.
A number of flaws in the way committees work conspired to leave many more confused at the end of the hearings that they were at the beginning.
Given that the recent committee hearings into payments at RTÉ are unlikely to be the last of their kind – last week it was reported that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is seeking a further meeting with RTÉ management and fresh documentation – here are a few practical suggestions for how future hearings on issues of major public interest could be improved.
One obvious major flaw is how documents are used. The best example was the 41-page set of supporting documents sent in by the Tubridy/Kelly team at around 8.30am for the 11am hearing of the PAC on July 11th.
As Marc Ó Cathasaigh TD pointed out, it was “a comprehensive set of documentation. It sheds a lot of light on a huge amount of things, but it was received at 8.30am”. This late influx of paperwork put the committee members at a significant disadvantage.
Assuming they had done some preparation, they now had to read through this volume to see if their line of questioning was even still valid. Most likely, they started the meeting scrambling between their notes and the documents pack.
The tsunami of paper helped Ryan Tubridy and Noel Kelly get on the front foot and set the early tone of the meeting. A notable example of this is how Kelly in his opening statement said – with deliberate emphasis – “This is perhaps the most shocking revelation this morning”.
He then referred the committee to an RTÉ email on page 10 of his pack. No doubt every committee member then flicked to page 10 to read the written “proof” of Kelly’s assertion.
Of course, RTÉ's representatives were also prone to using references to documents to bolster their case. The trouble was that at times they had not given the document to the committee, and the tactic rebounded.
As a viewer, it was annoying that you could not see the document in question. There is, of course, a simple solution. Insist that no document can be referred to unless it is supplied to the committee 24 or 48 hours before the hearing. Every document should be tabbed so that it is shown on screen when it is referenced. No exceptions, no surprises, no manipulation.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the recent hearings was the repetitive nature of the questioning, allied with the committee members’ tendency to make statements first and then seek short answers to their questions. This flaw is partly down to the way the committee allocates precisely the same amount of time to every member, and to the lack of co-ordination across members.
This could be simply rectified if the committees agreed to have a single lead questioner from each of the main political groups. This person would have more time than the other members, which would contribute to a higher standard of interrogation of witnesses.
Other members could pick up on answers that have been given, rather than repeating the same questions. It would also help if the chair insisted on members using time to ask questions rather than making speeches.
TDs come from a variety of background, but few have any experience in forensic accounting, corporate governance or business ethics. They rely on their own overworked staff and/or party staff to sift through evidence and develop lines of questioning. They often get tip-offs from “someone who knows someone” and who suggests a “killer” question, often with no background or context. TDs are known to hop “conspiracy theories” in the search of a soundbite for TV.
Some are better than others. Some hit on an incisive angle by accident. With a few exceptions, for a variety of reasons, the quality of questioning was poor to middling.
The solution to this is to look at the normal work of the PAC. Typically, members can draw from a report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General who has focused in on key aspects of the set of accounts under discussion.
If the committees who held hearings in recent weeks had the benefit of a small expert team to weed out the trivia and the distractions and zone in on the key issues to be addressed, we would all now be a lot more enlightened.
Finally, all of the political parties might also ask themselves why we had hearings before two different committees. Assigning the job to one committee and giving it the time and resources to do a thorough job would have been much more effective and efficient.
A constitutional amendment to give Oireachtas committees more powers was defeated in 2011 by a vote of 53 per cent to 47 per cent. It would be interesting to see if the same referendum would pass today after the population’s exposure to the workings of committees in the past few weeks. If some simple reforms were put in place the real value of parliamentary inquiry could be realised.
Gerry Naughton is director of public affairs at Drury Communications and a former political director of Fine Gael