It was with some concern that I noticed this announcement from Brendan Howlin that the government was pushing ahead with plans to introduce new forms of Oireachtas inquiries.
I outlined my opposition to the 30th amendment to the constitution during the botched campaign this time last year, when the government’s plans for committees of enhanced power were rejected by the Irish electorate, keeping in place the Abbeylara ruling on such matters.
I was initially irritated by Howlin’s announcement, as a government attempt to weasel away from the decision of the people, dressing up the committee idea in language that would not require constitutional amending, that would enable the Dail to ignore the Abbeylara judgement to their hearts content.
Upon further reading, I can see that Howlin’s idea is a genuinely reduced form of the inquiry idea, though it is still not without its faults.
The key saving grace will be the committee’s inability to make “findings of culpability” against people who are not TD’s or Senators. That was the key crucial point.
The Dail and the Seanad, its make-up and members are not a court. They cannot be impartial or unbiased, because they achieve their positions by means of popular vote. Therefore everything they do in office can be seen through the lens of gaining votes. This is how politics works.
And it is why such people should never be in a position to make such official findings and conclusions. It’s the same reason the Judges Pay amendment was rotten at its core. Those making such judgements should not have the opinion of “the people” at the back of their minds, making decisions based on what’s popular electorally. I asked back then “Do you think any banker would have a fair shot in such a hearing?”
Of course they wouldn’t. And while the committee’s wouldn’t have had the power, presumably, to make anything resembling a criminal sentence, they would still have had the power to blacken names, destroy reputations and ruin lives, in a system that would be incapable of serving justice.
So, here’s the neutered version. New committee’s to supervise the potential impeachment processes for Presidents and judges, for supervising the behaviour of TD’s and Senators. While both types of committee retain the same flaw as elaborated on above, at least they are limited to the role of the political establishment investigating the political establishment. Of course, that brings forth the idea of a “fox guarding the chicken coop”, but the Dail’s role in possible impeachment of the President is already defined in the constitution. There have been incidents involving judges and deputies, so this part of the legislation had a necessary element to clarify such situations.
The other part of the legislation is similar to the original idea, but steers clear of the Abbeylara pothole by proclaiming such inquiries can only make uncontested “findings of fact”. That’s an improvement on the original idea, but raises the question as to just what the government was expecting their empowered committee’s be able to declare if the referendum had passed last year: findings of rumour? Half-truths? Unsubstantiated evidence? Personal opinion? At least this way the committee’s are bound to making reports that are largely incapable of being abused in order to win electoral popularity, that will not be able to draw their own conclusions on anything other than verifiable information.
And the last, the “forward looking” inquiry idea, designed to allow a committee to investigate things relating to the legislative functions of the Oireachtas, again with the “findings of fact” limitations. This itself is neutered in that it cannot be enacted for retrospective use, so cannot be used for an inquiry into the banking crisis and the role of the previous government.
Which is the big deal all of this revolves around. The very reason this went to the people was so such an inquiry could be cleared with the constitution. Another pitfall in my eyes: constitutional amendments with long lasting effects should never be based so singularly around something so short term. The war over how, who and when a banking inquiry will take place continues, with the new legislation not doing anything to clear the matter up.
Independent committee’s of inquiry of some sort are required here, but the Oireachtas does not seem willing to contemplate such an option, preferring to retain as much power over such a commission as it can, even if the limitations placed on it render such an initiative unfeasible.
I suppose I can give Howlin and the government some credit for not attempting to shoe-horn in some form of second referendum attempt. Howlin, at least, seems accepting of the peoples verdict on the original plan, and has been a long way more humble in that regard than Alan Shatter. I believe this new rash of legislative work, while retaining some basic flaws, are a positive step. They will clear up the confusion over impeachment of some officials, will allow future investigations of governments on certain matters, and will allow the Oireachtas the power to hold its members to account better than the antiquated censure system of present. And where findings have to be made, they will be reined in from having dangerous powers of reputational destruction.
This is actually a good example of how Irish politics should work. The Supreme Court tied the hands of the Oireachtas in the first place, the Oireachtas went to the people for the only possible veto, the people refused them, so the Oireachtas found another, legislative way. My original fears when I first read this story were, I can say happily, largely unfounded.
Doesn’t mean I won’t keep on eye on this though. A government of the kind that Fine Gael/Labour make up, omnipotent in their majority, is always looking for more power. We need to maintain pressure and public awareness on issues such as these, so they can’t make a grab for that power without notice – or approval.