I don't know about you but I feel that recently I've found out more about how this country works from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) than from anywhere else. From Nama to the CRC to Garda whistleblowers, even to Irish Water. The PAC has offered a dose of instant gratification in a country where it takes years and billions of euro in lawyers' fees to find out anything.
Usually, by the time we do find anything out in this country, we don't care about it anymore and we wonder why we were so exercised about it anyway because we've moved on to other pressing matters. We often find as well that the conclusions of tribunals and enquires can tend to be tenuous and non-committal. Nothing is usually done about it anyway and the only ones enriched by the whole experience are lawyers.
The Public Accounts Committee, however, works in real time. Issues pop up courtesy of the Comptroller and Auditor General and people are hauled in. It is a bonus too that the people hauled in are usually current people who are still in their positions of influence and responsibility, as against some old geezer who mattered years ago and has forgotten everything anyway, which is often the case with other types of enquiries.
While the PAC obviously has to be careful not to make any findings of fact against people who are not members of the houses of the Oireachtas, not to act in a quasi- judicial matter, that doesn't really matter. If anything, the committee's lack of legal or judicial clout seems to make it freer to simply ask the important guys questions. And then the answers to those questions get picked up by the media, and we all get to hear them and we find out stuff we would never find out otherwise. It's so simple and brilliant it's amazing really that a political system as messy as ours came up with it. Presumably it was a mistake. Because there's no way the powers that be wanted this.
As if to prove that the simplicity and effectiveness of the PAC is an unintended consequence, there are those who would try and tear down this very simple model. It is testament to the success of the PAC that many right-thinking people are against it. The accusations come in all shapes and forms. You will hear it said by embittered TDs and political hacks, for example, that the PAC is a grandstanding exercise for the likes of Shane Ross and Mary Lou McDonald (for which read Shane and Mary Lou are two brilliant performers both in the Dail and in the Committee). Note that you will never hear an actual member of the public complain about Shane and Mary Lou "enjoying the limelight". They are too busy enjoying Shane and Mary Lou enjoying the limelight. Real people can't get enough of the Shane and Mary Lou show and they recognise that while it might be good for the egos of the duo involved, there is a lot of substance there too.
You will also hear the PAC accused of ambulance chasing. Indeed, some of the members of the committee talk off-the-record, and at least one of them, John Deasy, on-the-record about the need for the PAC to show restraint in what it chases after and in the work it takes on. Again, this is not something you will hear real people say. Many real people now probably believe that it would be okay to dismantle the Dail as long as we keep the PAC. Most ordinary people probably feel the PAC should chase more ambulances. Most ordinary people would probably like to see the PAC get stuck into the health service and everything else that doesn't work in this country. Many people probably feel that the PAC should go into every area of public life where our money is spent and ask some pertinent questions – without obviously acting in a quasi-judicial fashion and without making any findings of fact against anyone who is not a member of the house. We'll draw our own conclusions, thanks, is most people's attitudes. You guys ask the questions and we will watch and make up our own minds.
The Garda whistleblower affair was, of course, the latest controversy to lead for calls for the reining in of the PAC. The Garda Commissioner appeared before the committee to say that he should not be undermined by inferiors from "my force" appearing there also to engage in what he saw as the "disgusting" act of whistleblowing about the culture of "my force". The Minister for Justice appeared to back up the Commissioner when he kicked the can over to the Garda Ombudsman, six of whose staff had apparently had penalty points quashed.
But the PAC, having looked into their hearts and bickered a bit among themselves, decided it would after all hear the evidence of the whistleblower who wished to speak to them. The Garda Commissioner wisely decided not to take legal action, the hearing went ahead in private, the PAC seemed to manage to stay within its remit, the witness was widely praised, even by John Deasy who had questioned the wisdom of having him in, and the world did not end. And we found out that they could have possibly bought 300 police cars with the money from the quashed points, which is the kind of easily digestible, stark truth you get from a PAC hearing that you might never get from a tribunal lasting 10 years and costing billions.
There has been a lot of mention of the fact that Melissa English, the parliamentary legal adviser to the PAC, warned them last week that they were crossing the line with the whistleblower stuff. Much quoted has been her apparent assertion that they had crossed so far over the line that the line was now a mere dot in their rearview mirror. This was trumpeted by many as evidence that the PAC was out of control – out of control being regarded as a bad thing in politics, whereas, again, ordinary people might regard the PAC being out of control and beyond their remit as a good thing.
What most people don't quote is what Melissa English said next. She suggested that the PAC should seek additional powers to give it more responsibility. So, in fact, while Melissa is being presented as a person who said the PAC has gone too far, what she was actually saying, in her own legal-adviser kind of way, is that the PAC should be allowed go further.
John McGuinness, not surprisingly, agreed. McGuinness is, let's not forget, a whistleblower himself. He blew the whistle on the last Fianna Fail government when he was part of it and before it was popular or profitable. He also, you will recall, blew the whistle on the civil service, when he had to work with a load of people from the civil service every day. He did all this, it would be fair to say, at great personal cost to himself.
So McGuinness, in so much as any politician ever is, is on the side of the angels here. And he said, on foot of Melissa English's comments, that he would like to seek to extend the PAC's remit to cover all organisations in receipt of taxpayers' money. Which probably sounds terrifying to politicians and the rest of the establishment, but which actually sounds very reasonable to the rest of us.
In fact, right now, you would suspect that if the Government were to rerun the so called Abbeylara referendum to give more powers to Dail committees, but if they were to call it the PAC referendum, it would be passed with flying colours.