News Shane Coleman

Wednesday 24 September 2014

What we need is an inquiry, not petty political point-scoring

Published 27/06/2013 | 17:00

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THE Government is making it up as it goes along on the holding of a banking inquiry. That is the kindest interpretation of its handling of the situation in recent days. The other possible conclusion is it simply does not know what it is doing. What other explanation is there for the mixed signals coming from the Coalition?

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The Taoiseach had been emphatic that an inquiry can, and should, be carried out by an Oireachtas committee. But not all of his ministers share this enthusiasm. The reports that Tuesday's meeting of the Cabinet debated holding another referendum to give the Oireachtas more powers of inquiry prove that.

If the Taoiseach is so confident that an Oireachtas committee can do the job, why any need for greater powers?

The more realistic ministers acknowledge that there will be huge problems with such an inquiry. It is questionable that it will have the power to summon witnesses. And the Supreme Court has already ruled that a committee is unable to make adverse findings against non-Oireachtas members.

But the prospect of expanding the Oireachtas's powers of investigation via a fresh referendum seems fanciful. Leave aside the inconvenient fact that it is only two years since the electorate rejected a similar proposal. The timing just does not work. It is too late to hold a referendum on it before the autumn when the Coalition wants the banking inquiry to start.

And the suggestion – coming from some cabinet sources – that a referendum could be held when and if that inquiry runs into legal challenges is hardly realistic.

That would suggest that the earliest it could be put to the people is early next year. By the time legislation is enacted – assuming the referendum is passed – it could be autumn 2014 before a newly empowered committee could get going.

The Coalition is also doing a miserable PR job in selling the merits of an Oireachtas inquiry. There is concern that such an investigation will descend into political point-scoring, grandstanding and scapegoating – it is probably the key reason why people voted against giving the Oireachtas more powers.

You would think that the Government – which has a near 2:1 majority in the Dail – would be at pains to show such an inquiry could be politically neutral.

Not a bit. At Leaders' Questions on Tuesday, Enda Kenny – egged on by smug-looking government deputies – engaged in the worst type of political tribalism on the issue, almost ignoring the role of the bankers and focusing entirely on the previous government.

The low point was his allegation of an "axis of collusion" between Fianna Fail and Anglo Irish Bank. That type of language was two-a-penny when Fine Gael and Labour were in opposition. Fair enough, politics is a tough business. But it ill-befits a Taoiseach, whose first duty is to act in the national interest.

Mr Kenny was slightly more measured in his words yesterday, but the same did not hold for those around him. One senior Labour TD shouted across the floor that the previous government had shredded the files relating to the night of the bank guarantee "before you left". Another Fine Gael deputy, delighted with this intervention, chipped in with "Micheal the shredder", aimed at the Fianna Fail leader.

If wild and utterly unsubstantiated allegations are the order of the day from government deputies, what chance is there of getting to the bottom of the banking crash?

It seems obvious that both government parties have taken a conscious decision to remind the electorate on a daily basis of Fianna Fail's sins. That is a perfectly legitimate tactic. However, it is utterly incompatible with its claims that a government-dominated Oireachtas can hold a non-partisan banking inquiry.

It is also not smart. Thanks to the Taoiseach's blunderbuss approach, Micheal Martin managed to get the better of Mr Kenny in Tuesday's debate, even though he was a member of the cabinet that presided over the mess. A recently revitalised Fianna Fail has a huge amount to lose from any banking inquiry.

But, by its cack-handed approach to date, the Coalition risks letting the party off the hook. An angry public wants answers, not a government playing politics on the issue.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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