Forget grandstanding, what about humanity?
Angela Kerins's experience at the PAC reminds us that where legal privilege is concerned, we must be vigilant, says Carol Hunt
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
'Grandstanding is one of our weapons," said Labour MP Margaret Hodge, when she chaired the Westminster public accounts committee.
She was responding to criticisms alleging that being publicly examined by MPs was "not exactly a fair process" [from a former top civil servant] and that MPs were inclined to "showboating" when questioning those who were unlucky enough to appear before them. Saying that politicians use public occasions for "grandstanding" is a bit like saying that great white sharks have sharp teeth.
It's hardly cynical to suggest that when politicians address certain issues, they do so with one eye on the topic in hand and the other firmly fixed on public reaction.
My initial reaction to the news that former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins would be questioned by our Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was: "Good. I hope they get some answers out of her."
Like many others, I had not been impressed by the revelations about large salaries at the Rehab Group and the fact that 12 of its senior executives earned more than €100,000.
Kerins herself revealed reluctantly that her own salary was €240,000, which is a hell of a lot more than Our Dear Leader receives from the public purse (€185,000) but falls well short of the 2013 pay packet of €843,000 that the Government agreed should be offered to Bank of Ireland boss Richie Boucher, despite the fact that his bank lost billions that the taxpayer is still forking out for. (The Government used the taxpayer's 14pc stake in the bank to lend its support to Mr Boucher's pay award.)
And I admit, I thought it only right and proper that the (in my opinion) overpaid CEO of Rehab should put herself before the representatives of the people and answer questions about public monies and what she did with them.
She may argue that she is a private person and Rehab a private company, but with €86m of public cash going to fund the charity each year, the lines between public and private are arguably blurred.
But would she get fair play? Well, the PAC is immune from libel laws, they are granted the honour of privilege, surely all of their members will remember that and treat Ms Kerins with the respect due to her as a citizen who has not been found guilty of any crime?
Yes, Kerins was before the PAC for far longer than any criminal in the dock would probably have to be, yes, she was grilled on all sorts of things which may - or may not - have been "in the public interest". But public opinion was fed-up with news of charity bosses receiving massive salaries at a time when the rest of us were still clawing our way out of recession.
And so, when PAC chairman John McGuinness said: "We may have gone a little bit beyond it [our remit] in pursuing salaries and so on, but that was because we wanted to get an overall view of the organisation", none of us were particularly bothered, were we?
Angela Kerins was one of those whose extremely generous salary had actually gone up that year. So what if the PAC subjected her to - as Kerins now claims - seven hours of repetitive and upsetting questioning, which included questions about her car, salary, bonus payments and family members. Frank Flannery had refused to give us our pound of flesh, telling the Sunday Independent: "Why should I be publicly abused or brought in to be castigated?"
And so all our ire was directed at Ms Kerins. And it felt good didn't it? How many of us watched Kerins being grilled by members of PAC and thought: "Go on, stick it to her, who does she think she is, refusing to answer questions that we want the answers to?" In a sense, Kerins became the sacrificial CEO, taking public ire for all members of a supremely well-paid managerial class who didn't seem to have suffered at all during the recession.
What we forgot, however, was that there was a real person, with feelings and family and a crushed dignity, standing then, in metaphorical ashes and sackcloth, for our entertainment. This week, reading the humiliating and disturbing accounts of Ms Kerins' mental state, I was shocked - and not a little guilty. Shocked that this woman - who, let us remember, committed no crime whatsoever - felt driven to not just suicidal ideation, but a real, determined effort to take her own life. And guilty because I had - and this is not easy to admit - vicariously enjoyed watching her humiliation at the hands of our elected representatives and collective media. I too forgot that there was a human person with emotions and feelings standing there being judged and ridiculed. Mea culpa.
Unbelievably, I've heard comments this week to the effect of 'Well, she would say that, wouldn't she?', as if an admission of attempting to take one's own life is something that people make up willy-nilly for sympathy or reward.
Kerins said that following the PAC interviews and all the negative publicity in the media about her, she became "irrationally convinced that the solution was to sacrifice myself". She had been hospitalised, one presumes for mental as well as physical issues which resulted in a "collapse in her health" and was referred to a psychiatrist.
Three days after she had been discharged from the Beacon Hospital, she attempted to take her own life, leaving messages for her family. She said that she felt that if she was "off the planet", the furore would end, that "in short, my death would solve the problem". All of these beliefs are common among people experiencing suicidal ideation. They may not be rational but they feel totally rational at the time - not a permanent solution to a temporary problem but a valid way to make it all stop.
But the comment that made me realise that Ms Kerins had indeed been through the very depths of human despair was when she said of her suicide attempt: "At the time, I was very angry I did not succeed". That sentence is truly sad. I'm sure the members of the PAC are well aware of their power to inflict deep reputational damage on those they deem to be greedy or incompetent. It is a power which must be exercised with great restraint and wisdom - and where people's very lives are put at risk, there should be no toleration of gratuitous "grandstanding" for public acclaim, lest tragedy ensue.
Where privilege is concerned, we need to be vigilant.
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