The Irish Times view on criticism of the PAC: On the money

Politicians have reacted angrily to O’Brien’s depiction of the PAC but should consider their own behaviour

Former chief executive of the Health Service Executive Tony O’Brien was not too far off the mark when he described the Dáil Public Accounts Committee as “a kangaroo court.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Former chief executive of the Health Service Executive Tony O’Brien was not too far off the mark when he described the Dáil Public Accounts Committee as “a kangaroo court.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Former chief executive of the Health Service Executive Tony O’Brien was not too far off the mark when he described the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as “a kangaroo court.” Politicians have reacted angrily to O’Brien’s depiction of the PAC but they would do well to look at how their own behaviour has demeaned politics and public service before dismissing the criticisms out of hand.

The committee, whose job is to examine how public money is spent on the basis of annual reports supplied by the Comptroller and Auditor General, has a long and honourable tradition which goes back to the early years of the State.

The accounting officer of each government department, usually the secretary general, is held to account on an annual basis for money voted by the Dáil. The comptroller’s reports have regularly uncovered embarrassing overspending or simple waste of taxpayers’ money and accounting officers have often found it an ordeal to explain to the members of the committee how mistakes were made. This is only as it should be.

In recent years, however, something very different has been happening. A succession of senior public servants have been pilloried at the PAC and subjected to hostile, inept and scaremongering questions which have degraded public life.

Accounting officers have come to expect hostile treatment but others who have suffered even more at the hands of the PAC have been Rehab chief Angela Kerins, then Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and O’Brien himself.

The questioning has often been foolish as well as insulting, with one of the objectives being to generate publicity for the questioner. Not all of the members have engaged in the practice but enough of them have done so to tarnish the PAC.

Back in 2011 the then government proposed changing the Constitution to give Oireachtas committees far greater power to conduct inquiries. The proposal was rejected by a majority of voters, who feared committees might become star chambers. The behaviour of the PAC has proved the voters were right.

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