Saturday 25 October 2014

Despite Kerins' protests, the PAC served public interest in exposing bad practices

Published 23/07/2014 | 02:30

Angela Kerins. Picture: Steve Humphreys

AFTER months on the offensive, the Public Accounts Committee is now firmly on the back foot. And so, by extension, is the entire Oireachtas committee system, including the fledgling Banking Inquiry.

The High Court proceedings taken by former Rehab boss Angela Kerins; the clipping of the PAC's wings by the Committee for Procedures and Privileges in relation to compellability; and the disclosure of John McGuinness's meeting with Kerins ahead of her appearance before the Committee, have raised questions about the modus operandi of the public finances watchdog.

In the process, it has reignited the debate about the suitability of Oireachtas committees to carry out inquiries and investigations.

Does political grandstanding and the desire to make the Six O'Clock headlines always win out over balanced and fair-minded probing?

The PAC's critics – out in force in recent days – certainly seem to think that it does.

They might have a point, but the difficulty is the Angela Kerins example is not the best one to make the case.

Kerins, quite simply, was the author of her own problems with a disastrous performance before the PAC last February.

Firstly, she showed up without any members of the board or the remuneration committee – an extraordinary omission given the inevitable line of questioning on pay and pensions.

And then, with an affected air of wounded innocence throughout, she seemed unwilling or unable to answer many of the legitimate questions put to her.

It was certainly tense throughout, but at no stage did it resemble the "witch hunt" claimed by Kerins' senior counsel.

Her contribution was best summed up by Fine Gael TD John Deasy: "I have to say that after listening to the interaction between Ms Kerins and various members of the committee, I have come to the conclusion that she has made a big song and dance about this and it is unnecessary.

"She has been evasive and I do not think any of this has been necessary at all. As €82 million of public money goes into Rehab, she should have been far more forthcoming, even before today. This evasion and this subjective opinion with regard to what she should and what she cannot say is ridiculous.

"I really think Ms Kerins needs to get a grip on herself, because this event today is completely unnecessary," added the FG TD.

Deasy is no PAC firebrand. He has been highly critical of the committee at times for looking to exceed its remit.

In recent days, he has described some members of the committee as "bulls***ers". Given all this, his scathing view of Kerins' testimony speaks volumes.

Anybody who sat through the Rebab hearings – including a far humbler performance by board members a couple of months later – would be left in no doubt there were serious failings at the organisation.

Pay levels at the top seemed excessive to put it mildly, particularly at a time of cutbacks in the disability sector.

Major questions also remain about the failed coffin making project, Complete Eco Solutions, in which Frank Flannery and Ms Kerins' husband and brother were involved.

A light needed to be shone on practices at Rehab, a point implicitly acknowledged by its finance director at the PAC when, voice breaking with emotion, he spoke about his "fervent wish" that Rehab would change. If it is found that the PAC is not legally equipped to investigate an organisation, which got well over €80m of taxpayers' money last year, then the law needs to be changed.

That is not to say that the PAC doesn't need to learn lessons.

The questioning of Kerins, and indeed CRC representatives, was in the public interest. But a more measured and structured strategy is probably needed.

Balance and, perhaps more importantly, the need to be seen beyond doubt to be fair and balanced, is critical for all committees, not just the PAC.

The Committee on Transport and Communications utterly failed in this regard in its hearings on the Garth Brooks concerts last week. The contrast between the legitimately tough grilling of Owen Keegan one day and the kid glove handling of the GAA and concert promoter the following was extraordinary.

Not one tough question was asked of the GAA or Peter Aiken.

Such examples give further fuel to those who argue that political considerations will always win out when it comes to Oireachtas committee hearings and inquiries.

That would be a pity because, despite the claims of Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery in recent days, the PAC served the public interest by exposing bad practices at the likes of Rehab and CRC.

We shouldn't lose sight of that fact.

 

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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