Oireachtas committees: A fair hearing is essential

New Dáil forum should look into code of behaviour for committees as part of remit

There seems little prospect that the former chairman of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Pat Hickey, will give evidence to the Oireachtas committee on sport in the foreseeable future.

The committee has deferred a decision on whether or not to compel Hickey to appear before it but he will be within his legal rights to refuse to give evidence that could prejudice the pending criminal case against him in Brazil. Given the way some high-profile Oireachtas committees have treated witnesses in recent years it is hardly a surprise that a public figure should decline an invitation to appear. Public servants such as Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan are obliged to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) but private citizens can only be forced to appear in special circumstances. Even then they have the right to remain silent.

The decision of the High Court earlier this year to award former chief executive of Rehab Angela Kerins two-thirds of her legal costs, despite the fact that she lost her case against the PAC, should have prompted some heart searching among TDs about the way they treat high-profile witnesses. The court ruled that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech in parliament meant Kerins was not entitled to damages but it found that much of what was said about her at the PAC in 2014 was damaging to her reputation.

The judges pointed out that Kerins had given evidence in a voluntary capacity and need not have appeared before the PAC at all. While the committee is well within its rights to try and get to the bottom of the Olympic ticketing scandal it should not depend on Hickey to help it in that task. A new set of rules governing the behaviour of committee members, with sanctions to penalise those who stray from legitimate tough questioning into personal abuse of witnesses, is clearly required. Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl has established an expert forum to examine the operation of Dáil privilege. It should look into a code of behaviour for the operation of Oireachtas committees as part of its remit.