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Wednesday 17 September 2014

TDs to be rotated on Dail inquiry into banking collapse

John Downing Political Correspondent

Published 20/03/2014 | 02:30

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Kieran O'Donnell: likely to chair the Dail inquiry
Kieran O'Donnell: likely to chair the Dail inquiry

MEMBERSHIP of the Dail inquiry into the €64bn banking collapse is set to be rotated between different TDs to avoid individuals being put at extra risk of losing their seats at the next election.

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The rotation move is in response to TDs' fears that they could be forced to neglect other work ahead of a general election in spring 2016 because of commitment to a complex inquiry that could quickly lose the public's interest.

"Many TDs are afraid that they could be 'caught in a dungeon' for anything up to two years before the general election as this inquiry goes on. After an initial flurry of publicity it could fade from view and the TDs would still be forced to neglect their constituencies and other work and stay with it," a government source told the Irish Independent.

The rotation idea also takes into account the likelihood that newly-elected and less well-established TDs may be recruited to the inquiry committee.

Many more experienced TDs will be excluded from the process because they are open to allegations of bias due to previous statements about the bank system collapse in autumn 2008 which ultimately cost taxpayers €64bn.

After six months of delays, the inquiry is finally expected to be up and running by late May so that a final report can be delivered before a general election expected in spring 2016. Practical plans on a designated inquiry hearing room, recruitment of expert advisers, support staff and extra office accommodation are now well advanced at Leinster House.

The long-promised Dail inquiry will be split into three sections dealing with the controversial bank guarantee of September 30, 2008; the banking regulatory regime; and the internal banks' workings. The TDs chosen for the task are expected to work on just one of these sections and would then be replaced by another colleague.

The inquiry process is being overseen by the Dail Committee on Procedure and Privilege headed by Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett.

A great deal of preparatory technical legal work has already been done and work is now being finalised on specific guidelines for dealing with witnesses at the inquiry hearings.

Officials are also working on required extra staffing levels and a timetable to meet the final deadline of the spring 2016 general election. If the inquiry is not complete ahead of an election, the committee, and its work up to then, would fall.

The official word remains that any of the existing Oireachtas committees could tender for the task. But it is now widely expected that a small special committee will be established of no more than six TDs.

SPECULATION

Speculation about who will chair this committee now centres on Fine Gael Limerick city TD Kieran O'Donnell. He is a chartered accountant by training and has a reputation for sound judgment and avoiding excessive public statements.

A team of at least 30 people is expected to be put in place. There are expected to be at least two senior counsels, junior counsels, solicitors, and a comparable team of experts in banking and accountancy, all supported by additional clerical staff. The total cost is estimated at up to €5m.

The actual hearings are planned to be held in Kildare House, a building across the street from the Leinster House complex, which housed the successful 1999 inquiry into banks evading DIRT tax. Special offices for the support staff will be set aside within Leinster House itself.

Much work has already been done in efforts to head off bias allegations. In an unprecedented move last January, the Dail's most senior officials met all the political groups to give them technical advice on the issue.

It is widely accepted that many TDs who commented on the bank collapse after autumn 2008 may find themselves disqualified due to the risk of bias claims.

But writing in today's Irish Independent, Fianna Fail's public expenditure spokesman Sean Fleming warns that despite best efforts, the inquiry may be open to legal challenge on grounds of 'institutional bias'.

He argues that the TDs' and senators' work on the bank collapse, including emergency legislation, means they cannot be deemed truly independent judges of what happened.

He also points to certain statements by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in June 2013 alleging an "axis of collusion" between some in FF and some banks.

Mr Fleming said these comments compound doubt about the politicians and allegations of bias.

Irish Independent

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