independent

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Referendums overshadowed by battle for the Presidency

Published 25/10/2011 | 14:22

THE PRESIDENTIAL race has reached the finishing line after an ugly, bruising personality contest. From a punditry perspective, my prediction is Michael D Higgins to win comfortably. Since David Norris's campaign imploded (his temporary withdrawal), the Labour veteran was poised to win by default. Despite valid age concerns, he conducted himself with most composure. His CV as a public representative is strongest. He will garner most preferences from eliminated candidates.

Two referendums were overshadowed by the Áras battle. The first proposed Constitutional amendment facilitates the government determining judicial remuneration. Pay of a judge can not be reduced in any circumstances. This led to the previous government requesting a voluntary implementation of the pension levy, that was imposed on all other public servants. One in seven refused to accept this. Subsequent pay cuts were declined by all judges, despite being among best paid anywhere.

Arguments advanced by opponents, such as former chief justice Ronan Keane, state this will undermine independence of the judiciary, making it subservient to the executive. Bunkum. This self-serving nonsense undermines respect for those serving on the bench. The dire state of public finances requires pain for all on the public payroll. An independent body should be established to determine fairness in downsizing all public pay. Judges should be treated no differently to teachers, nurses and gardaí. The electorate must see through hollow special pleadings and surely vote yes.

A tailwind of opposition emerged in the past fortnight to the referendum in relation to empowering the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries. This proposed change involves three aspects: to compel witnesses under investigation to attend; to entitle a committee of Dáil/Seanad to make findings about conduct of a person; to allow, in legislation, parliament to determine the appropriate balance of individual rights of persons versus the public interest in ensuring effectiveness of an inquiry. This latter clause is contentious. Will courts be the final arbiter of a person's rights?

Background context to amend Article 15 relates to emasculation of an investigation into incidents at Abbeylara. Parliamentarians were effectively neutered in carrying out probes since 2001. The primary method of investigations has been tribunals. These included McCracken, Moriarty, Mahon and Beef (1991) tribunals.

Total costs of nine tribunals exceed €315 million – with more bills due. Taxpayers have been ripped off by excessive legal fees, interminably lengthy processes and findings that form no basis for criminal prosecution of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, public scrutiny of the banking collapse and regulatory disasters haven't materialised. Seán FitzPatrick, David Drumm, Michael Fingeleton and Eamon Sheehy refused to attend hearings.

The key issue for me is accountability. In the UK and US, House of Commons and Congress conduct public sessions. Findings of fact are facilitated. While persons can remain silent under the Fifth Amendment, representatives of Congress have a free hand to pursue anything deemed to be of public importance. Rupert Murdoch was forced to answer questions about phone hacking. Some fear these powers amount to establishment of a kangaroo court, with politicians riding roughshod over people's rights.

While respecting genuine fears, consequent legislation, with a yes vote, must have regard to 'the principles of fair procedures'. Rejection of the 30th amendment to the Constitution could undermine the possibility of an enhanced Oireachtas. Minister Brendan Howlin, Taoiseach and Tánaiste sleepwalk under the misapprehension that this will be readily approved. Complacency and poor communication makes prediction of this outcome hazardous.

BUILDING BLUNDERS

The latest debacle of public mal-administration beggars belief. Shocking scenes of 249 residents evacuating Priory Hall in north Dublin are unacceptable. They have been failed by the local council and Department of the Environment. When building up to 80,000 houses a year (in the Celtic Tiger era), government set a target of only 12 to 15 per cent being subject to checking by inspection. Building control officers surveyed one in eight properties for essential features such as disability access, fire controls, insulation and ventilation.

There was scant regard for rights of residents, adhering to lowest legal standards. Fire certificates were issued on a desktop basis, without subsequent scrutiny for compliance with regulations. Self-certification prevailed. More Priory Halls probably exist all around the country. Problems of Pyrite mean structural faults in buildings have to be repaired at enormous cost to householders. Previous consumer protection through the National House Building Guarantee Scheme (1978) and HomeBond Insurance Service (1995) have lapsed.

Again, victims are ordinary people who have unsustainable mortgages on defective homes. Costs of alternative temporary accommodation are subject to court orders. This is rendered redundant if developers have gone out of business. Local authorities didn't retain adequate financial sureties. Instead, tax incentives were provided to build unwanted accommodation in the Shannon region and hotel investment – now transferred to Nama. This shambolic state of affairs has seen no public official or politician accept any responsibility or culpability – Irish-style accountability.

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