Susan O’Keeffe: Banking inquiry is part of our growing up as a nation

This is what accountability looks like. It’s incredibly slow and not very pretty but digging for the truth is the murkiest job in the world

Brian Cowen, former taoiseach, prior to his appearance before the banking inquiry. File  photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Brian Cowen, former taoiseach, prior to his appearance before the banking inquiry. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

It was perhaps an unlikely group that set sail as members of this committee; politicians who, by and large, did not know each other, who had never worked together and with a mixed bag of political experience and opinion.

On the one hand, a member who was saying goodbye to politics – Joe Higgins, and on the other – three Leinster House newbies, including myself, with seven more in the mix.

Ironically, my presence as the only woman in the group mirrored the witnesses that came before us; a handful of women in a total of 128 people.

There was a very real sense from the start that we were up against it, not least because, surely we would never be able to navigate our inbuilt political conflicts or, to use that cliche, to leave our “jerseys at the door”.

I can assure you we did not conduct business naked, when we were in the bunker, otherwise known as committee room number one, but we did succeed in working together, pulling together; we even argued together.

No issue was ever put to a vote and, although two members did not sign off on the final report, they contributed to the work of the committee right to the last meeting.

That collaboration is evidence of the capacity of a parliamentary inquiry to take on a serious challenge and treat it seriously, especially in the face of difficulties, beyond political bias, that were almost showstoppers.

The timeline was too short, the legal complexities and limitations were legion and the mass of paperwork was itself a headache.

Add to that the absence of certain witnesses due to court proceedings or jurisdictional difficulties and the absence of key Cabinet documents and Central Bank documents and you may begin to see the obstacle course that we were forced to navigate in pursuit of answers the public wanted and deserved.

We did not take that responsibility lightly. There were days when we struggled and moments when we lost our tempers, our concentration and our will to live, but we marched on, determined to get the report finished and published.

It became a matter of pride that we would not be defeated by the constraints, especially as the impossible rewrite clock ticked into Christmas and general election fever was rife.

Files marked secret

So how easy it is to stand outside the bunker and talk about what the inquiry could not do or failed to do.

Criticism is essential and assessment of the process is vital; I have my own litany to add, but let it not be at the expense of the wider 20-month-long experience and our collective decision to investigate ourselves.

This was a new experience; the players at the heart of commercial and political power; bankers, civil servants, developers, who made decisions that affected everyone in the State, were now compelled as witnesses, put on the spot, under the lights, live and online.

Answers were given under oath or affirmation; some were oblique at best and untrue at worst , but the watching public, always quick to spot the deflection, the half-truth or the fatal hesitation, could independently make their minds up about what they were being told. What power that gives.

And we, the people posing the questions, were not experts; we were in that committee room representing our fellow citizens, asking questions on their behalf; on your behalf.

That is a new level of public representation and a new level of responsibility that should be welcomed.

Politicians are too easy to ridicule and too soft a target. Raise the bar, expect more and we, all of us, may be rewarded. After all, if you knock us every day, don’t be surprised if we continue to disappoint.

And so, with all its flaws and weaknesses, this banking inquiry must be the genesis for better, stronger parliamentary scrutiny – a door to push open towards greater accountability.

I have no time for windbag politicians who preach about accountability as if it can be bought in the supermarket along with a bag of spuds. This is what accountability looks like.

It’s incredibly slow and not very pretty but then, digging for the truth is the murkiest job in the world. I say that as someone who uniquely, with the beef tribunal and the banking inquiry, has been on both sides of the process.

Deference, patronage and secrecy

The inquiry is another small piece of that work, another moment when people, through their public representatives, did not permit those who made poor or selfish decisions to hide, even though not all questions were answered.

We cannot go back now. The door is open just a bit wider, if not quite as wide as we might have liked or imagined when we started the journey.

We have to push and keep pushing to get it open wider still. We cannot be put off by criticisms of cost or numbers of witnesses or whatever argument is flung at us from social media or the bar stool .

And when I say “we”, I mean all of us together, not just the members of the inquiry, not just the legislators.

Together we are all responsible to help change the culture and push the door.

Our sometimes tortuous journey to produce these volumes should come as no surprise really; collapsing the great pillars of the past is a Herculean task requiring patience and tenacity. So, onwards and upwards. There is much to do.

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