The Irish Times view on the Siteserv report: public inquiries need to work better

The judge’s plea for an overhaul of how public investigations are conducted demands serious consideration

Mr Justice Cregan’s final report on the Siteserv affair comes eight years after his inquiry into the company’s €45 million sale to Denis O’Brien began. This was an inordinate amount of time to examine a single deal which took place in 2012. The judge’s plea for an overhaul of how public investigations are conducted demands serious consideration. There should be no repeat, although tardy tribunals show long inquiry delays are nothing new.

This inquiry followed a Dáil furore over the €119 million loss incurred in the O’Brien deal by the State-owned Irish Bank Resolution Corporation. The row centred on anonymous claims that were aired by Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy, which angered many of those involved in the deal. The Cregan report eventually found the sale was tainted by impropriety, not commercially sound and based on “misleading and incomplete information” that Siteserv gave IBRC.

In implicit criticism of Murphy, however, the judge says he faced “real difficulties” investigating anonymous claims that proved untrue, not true in substance or partially accurate. Such information “risked undermining the constitutional protection of certain witnesses” to cross-examine accusers. Therefore, the Oireachtas should be “very cautious” about establishing future inquiries relying on anonymous information.

That is sensible, yet nothing should be done to compromise a politician’s ability to protect anonymous sources. At issue primarily is the interrogation of information. But it should not require a public inquiry sitting for years to establish whether there is evidence – or even prima facie evidence – of grave wrongdoing. Politicians, too, must do all in their power to substantiate anonymous claims before going public.


The judge argues it is “impossible” to conduct expeditious investigations that comply with court rulings and the 2004 law under which he worked. He seeks better scrutiny of proposed terms of reference, demands greater clarity and focus and insists inquiries should be confined to matters of fact. There is no gainsaying this plea for precision. Still, the interpretation of terms of reference can also determine the speed of an inquiry, with implications for costs and public confidence.

A new procedural approach to streamline public inquiries would require legislative change, as would the establishment of a permanent commission of investigation. There are some merits in the judge’s argument for this approach. But it does not follow that a permanent establishment would be the guarantor of speed, or an effective foil against calculated obstruction by witnesses.

One of the most insidious problems faced when complex matters require investigation is that so many supposedly temporary inquiries assume an air of permanence. Neither justice nor accountability is served when that happens.