Noel Whelan: Time to stop politicians’ ‘tell them nothing’ policy

‘This country needs a dramatic culture shift towards real transparency’

In January 1992, Mr Justice Liam Hamilton, while chairing the long and expensive beef tribunal felt compelled to make the following observation: "If the questions which were asked in the Dáil were answered in the way they are answered here, there would be no necessity for this inquiry and a lot of money and time would have been saved."

Later, giving evidence at the same tribunal, one-time minister Ray Burke when accused of having being evasive in his answering of Dáil questions, replied: "If the other side don't ask the right questions they don't get the right answers. And it is not for me to lead them as to where they figure they want to go."

One of those whose questions were not answered was Dessie O Malley, who later told political scientist Muiris MacCarthaigh: "One of the most significant things to come out of the beef tribunal was that a senior official in the Department of Industry and Commerce wrote words on a file of congratulations to a more junior official for 'having successfully confused the deputy'. "

Things didn’t improve after the tribunal however. As MacCarthaigh put it in 2005: “The [beef] tribunal proceedings drew attention to the inefficiency of parliamentary questions and debates but no actions was taken to improve the situation.”


Additional powers

In his textbook on Irish politics with

John Coakley

, TCD professor

Michael Gallagher

relates how

John Bruton

as leader of the opposition strongly supported suggestions that the ceann comhairle be given additional power to insist ministers give full and proper answers to questions. However, as Gallagher puts it, “entering government may diminish such reforming zeal”.

In February 1995, as taoiseach, Bruton "used exactly the same words as Burke" when explaining that he had not disclosed a piece of information because TDs questioning him had "not asked the right question". In 1999 the late Jim Mitchell, who chaired the Dirt inquiry, wrote: "Question time, once the great tool of parliamentary accountability, has descended into an ineffective unproductive, virtually unattended daily session."

Fast-forward 15 years and this week Minister for Finance Michael Noonan is being criticised for inadequate answers to Dáil questions.

Five weeks ago on radio Noonan was asked by Seán O'Rourke why Catherine Murphy and the rest of us had to wait until her freedom-of-information (FoI) requests before she got comprehensive information about the sale of Siteserv to Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC).

“It shouldn’t really be a game of cat and mouse,” O’Rourke said, citing the quote from Mr Justice Hamilton, and he went on to wonder whether Noonan shared a “‘tell them nothing’ mindset” that went back to his days as minister for justice.

Noonan got uncharacteristically tetchy and replied: "Ah now, you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel there when you're talking like that. I mean, RTÉ isn't great at disclosure: you're sitting on reports for 12 months that you haven't published. I mean reports about the future of RTÉ. So get off the stage.Get off the stage now."

O’Rourke said: “Well, attack is the best form of defence there, Minister. I’m just wondering why should a public representative elected by the Irish people not get the same information in reply to a Dáil question as is there in the files anyway, why put them through the business of FoI?”

Noonan replied: “Because the files are often background information. There was nothing in the files that added to the sum of the knowledge . . . and when the proper procedure was invoked, freedom of information, all of the information was given out.”

O’Rourke responded: “You’re a former teacher. ‘Answer the question you’re asked.’ Is that, essentially, what you’re saying?”

Public concerns about the IBRC- Siteserv issue has been fuelled by the Government’s delay in providing information, so this week it was forced to concede a commission of inquiry.

Drip-feed of information

In an interview with

Bryan Dobson

on RTÉ on Monday, Noonan came out with some choice phrases, including the following: “Of course there is a drip-feed of information.” And: “Parliamentary questions are replied to in precise terms and subsequently in reply to other questions I added to the information. That’s the way the procedures in the Dáil work: you don’t produce full files when one specific question is asked.”

On Tuesday, when the Taoiseach began to tell the Dáil that he has “been a supporter for a very long time of the idea that Dáil questions should be answered as fully and as completely as possible” the Opposition laughed in his face. I mean that literally. He was interrupted by the sound of everyone on the Opposition benches laughing out loud. The Ceann Comhairle had to intervene to restore order.

It is no laughing matter, however, that once they get into power our politicians adopt a “tell them nothing” mentality. This country needs a dramatic culture shift towards real transparency – and soon.