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‘You’d be out of your mind to go there’: How witnesses really feel about Oireachtas committees

Their meetings have frequently been farcical. It’s ridiculous that two committees should jostle for attention

Anyone who is called to appear before an Oireachtas committee should turn up – but only if they can be reasonably assured that the committees will do their jobs properly and not seek to string them up for a public execution.

At the moment, this is certainly not the case, and it’s hard to disagree with the senior public servant whom I asked about this in recent days. His response was: “You’d be out of your mind to go in there.”

The committee(s) hearings into the RTÉ debacle over the last year in one sense performed a useful public service – they interrogated a powerful public body over its behaviour and use of public money and showed licence-fee payers that there could be accountability for the people in positions of authority there. That’s an important sign.

But the conduct of those committee meetings was frequently farcical. For a start, it’s ridiculous that two committees should be jostling with one another for attention, holding parallel hearings, sometimes on the same day, and frequently asking the same witnesses the same questions. The row between the two committees – the Joint Oireachtas Media Committee and the Dáil Public Accounts Committee – should have happened last year in advance of all the hearings, not this week. It’s hard to conclude that the Media Committee is wrong to say this is its patch for now; the PAC can get involved later if needs be.


Last year’s hearings followed a familiar pattern to anyone who has watched committees tackle high-profile and controversial subjects in the past. TDs competed with one another to generate the most newsworthy clip of them questioning a witness in tones of high dudgeon. Sometimes the committee members seemed more interested in their questions than the witnesses’ answers.

There was little or no planning or co-operation between committee members about how the hearings should proceed. Instead (there were some exceptions to this, but not too many) TDs went in with a list of questions and asked them even if someone else had previously asked them. Nobody took up from where the last questioner left off.

“TDs come in and ask their question and then leave,” says one senior official who has appeared at several committees over the years. “So you end up answering the same question 10 times. The chair never intervenes.”

The gold standard for committee investigations was a 1999 inquiry into how the banks facilitated the avoidance of “Dirt” (deposit interest retention tax – a tax on the interest earned on bank deposits) by allowing depositors to give false addresses. Conducted over several weeks, the inquiry was (relatively) short, sharp, focused and effective.

As a fresh-faced young reporter, I spent many hours in the committee room in Kildare House covering its proceedings; since then I’ve spent many hours watching committees. I think the difference between then and now is that the TDs on the Dirt committee wanted to get at the truth; today too many TDs want to get on the news. Certainly, the RTÉ hearings last year often felt like a competition between committee members for the best broadcast clip, either for the news or for their party’s social media posts.

Says one member of that committee that conducted the Dirt hearings, “It does seem like a bit of a free-for-all nowadays.”

“Look, some people want to ask you fair questions,” says one senior civil servant. “But some aren’t really interested in that. It’s a very aggressive environment. The default expectation is that everyone coming into the committee is a knave, a thief or a moron. You’re guilty before you go in the door.”

Speaking to a number of senior officials in recent days – all smart and accomplished people well able to take care of themselves – I was taken aback at how intimidating many of them find the Oireachtas committee experience. To a person, they said that nobody would go into an Oireachtas committee with its blood up unless they absolutely had to. There are some excellent members of committees who try to do their jobs properly, and they are a vital conduit of accountability, especially for an organisation that spends public money – such as the FAI, in at the sports committee on Thursday. But the race to the bottom drags everyone down.

“It’s changed,” said another. “It’s ‘you’re all part of the establishment, and the establishment is corrupt’. They’ll destroy anyone’s reputation for a clip on the one o’clock news.”

Another senior figure in officialdom spoke about being “humiliated and bullied for three hours”.

Committee overreach backfired disastrously a decade ago when Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins said she was driven to a suicide attempt by her treatment at a committee in 2014. The Supreme Court upheld her legal challenge, though it has yet to rule on damages she may be entitled to. The Kerins case was a debacle for the Oireachtas, though it’s not clear what lessons – if any – have been learned.

If you were Rory Coveney or Richard Collins – RTÉ executives who departed the station last year – or anyone else, would you seriously subject yourself to all that?

And yet it is important that Coveney and Collins – and others, most obviously the former director general Dee Forbes, and now maybe just-departed chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh – should give their side of the story and be questioned about it, fairly, calmly, intelligently and, one would hope, revealingly. Their evidence should enable the public and the politicians to better understand what went wrong at RTÉ and what lessons might be learned, both for the national broadcaster and for other public bodies. But unless the committees as a whole do their jobs better, and concentrate on getting at the truth not getting on the news, that’s probably not what would happen.

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