Fact is, these truths belong to everybody
Our establishment is obsessed with 'guarding' information that frankly is not theirs to withhold, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 02/02/2014 | 02:30
There, now, Commissioner – that wasn't too painful, was it? Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe went in front of the Public Accounts Committee and gave evidence on matters affecting the public accounts. That's the way it should work. People with information help the politicians come to an understanding of how things are working – or not.
Before that could happen, the PAC had to get over a bad case of the political collywobbles. And the Garda Commissioner had to play out his odd belief that it's "my force". And that he alone will answer questions, and decide what questions he'll answer. Apart from such trivialities, what's this row about?
It's about two things. One, the brazen corruption of the penalty point system. And two, the peculiar habit this country's establishment has of hoarding information. We'll deal with the second of these first. There's always some reason to hoard information, to refuse a straight answer, to claim that this information is privileged, it's need-to-know, and no one except a very, very few needs to know.
This leads to politicians misleading the public, then claiming they're committed to truth and accountability but they weren't asked "the right question". It leads to lengthy, expensive, legalistic inquiries, when a statement of true facts would suffice. It leads to unnecessary court cases, as institutions such as hospitals refuse patients information. It leads to people closing down debate by throwing legal letters at their opponents. It leads to people in power blankly refusing to disclose information that should be common currency.
It leads to the public being kept in a state of ignorance about things it should know. Information and debate are essential – they are as much a part of democracy as elections. Anything that undermines our establishment's anti-democratic hoarding of information is to be applauded. And lately, a political committee has been questioning this attitude. There's a question mark over the integrity of the penalty points system – a system that has played a significant role in bringing down the number of road deaths.
The politicians have balked at confronting this. However, the alleged breach of the system's integrity is allegedly costing uncounted millions – in fines not collected – so it comes under the remit of the PAC. And the committee has made a decent effort at doing its job.
We desperately need an oversight system that works – and people who should know better have agonised about whether the PAC's remit is clear enough. Might this not politicise the PAC? In circumstances where the police force is highly politicised, where even the judges are worried about the politicisation of the judicial system, this worry seems misplaced.
So, Sergeant McCabe went in and told the PAC what he knows. Of course, this being Ireland, the sergeant had to be wrapped in prophylactic devices to ensure that the disease of accountability didn't run rampant through the body politic. No media or public allowed, all behind closed doors, no Oireachtas TV transmission, politicians being repeatedly warned if they wandered too close to one issue or another.
At one stage it was rumoured that Sergeant McCabe might have to give evidence while wearing a burqa, and rapping on the table in front of him in Morse code. In Latin. This proved unnecessary, as did the proposal that a member of the Heavy Gang might stand behind Sergeant McCabe, delivering periodic blows to his ears. To help his memory, like.
The corruption of the penalty points system can hardly be credibly denied. The O'Mahoney Report showed that points have been deleted for trivial reasons – "I was visiting hospital", "I was on my way to an important meeting". And there's no evidence that such excuses are ever tested.
There's a suspicion that, while the rest of us pay for our misdemeanours, penalty points are deleted for some of this society's twinkling stars. At great cost to the public purse. There's evidence in the report of the Garda Professional Standards Unit that senior gardai have found a way of evading accountability measures in the Garda computer system.
Last week, in answer to a Dail question, the Minister for Justice gave some figures. A week earlier, the Garda Commissioner was asked, at the PAC, for those figures. He refused to give them. They were confidential. The politicians didn't want names or details, just the figures. The Commissioner knew, but he wouldn't say. No doubt the Commissioner believed he was obeying the imperatives of his job. But, really, this country is in too much trouble to enjoy the luxury of playing hide and seek with the truth.