On February 27th 2014, Angela Kerins, then chief executive of Rehab, appeared voluntarily before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Rehab was a private sector entity and Kerins was not a public servant, but the organisation received significant state funding for its work with people with disabilities.
The hearing lasted for seven hours, with one short break. Over the course of the day, Kerins was criticised and insulted at length. Questions implied she had no concept of accountability or responsibility. She was accused of adopting “shocking” double standards, told she was unreasonable and asked about topics she had no advance notice about. She was told she was grossly overpaid and was on “a different planet”.
Kerins was interrogated on her modes of transport, accused of evading questions and criticised for making “a song and dance” about her appearance at the committee. She was told to “get a grip on herself” and told that she was doing more damage than good to the charitable sector.
A few days after the meeting, Kerins was hospitalised, and two weeks later she attempted to take her own life. When the committee re-convened in Kerins’s absence the following month, committee chairman John McGuinness criticised her non-attendance as “deplorable”. And on it went.
In a significant judgment on Wednesday, the Supreme Court found that it would not be a breach of the separation of powers to declare the actions of the PAC unlawful in light of the fact that the committee was acting outside its remit and that the Oireachtas Committee on Procedures and Privileges had already come to the same view. The judgment is qualified in important respects, but it underlines that the privileges and immunities of the Oireachtas, while extensive, do not provide an absolute barrier to legal action against a Leinster House committee.
The democratic system needs robust parliamentary committees. At its best, the PAC has been a formidable supervisor of the public finances. Through forensic accounting, skilled questioning and judicious use of its powers, it has a proud history of exposing lapses and keeping accounting officers on their toes. In recent years, however, the committee has become a more contrived, hostile – and, crucially, less effective – place. When a high-profile witness appears (and the media tunes in), that person is often treated either like a criminal or a dolt. A pantomime interrogation ensues – heavy on insults, light on insight. It degrades public life, and its corrodes faith in the committee system. In those circumstances, light judicial oversight will serve the public good.
Eight years ago, voters were asked to change the Constitution to give Oireachtas committees far greater powers to conduct inquiries. The proposal was rejected – a decision that looks wiser with every passing year.