Climate committee seeks legal advice after Paschal Donohoe insists he is ‘not obliged’ to attend

Brian Leddin chairs the cross-party Committee on Environment and Climate Action© Collins Photos

Caroline O'Doherty

An Oireachtas committee has sought legal advice after a senior Government minister refused to appear before it.

The cross-party Committee on Environment and Climate Action took the step after Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe twice turned down its invitations, saying he was under no obligation to accept.

That puts him in conflict with lawyers consulted by the committee who have advised that the minister is legally obliged to attend. The committee has been holding public sessions with senior ministers to discuss their roles in relation to the Climate Action Plan.

Ministers Simon Coveney, Eamon Ryan and Charlie McConalogue have attended and Darragh O’Brien is to appear in the next few weeks.

Mr Donohoe was initially asked in February but he replied that the issues the committee was discussing were of more relevance to ministers responsible for sectors with specific “sectoral emission ceilings”.

These were set last summer and limit how much greenhouse gases individual sectors of society and the economy can emit.

Mr Donohoe said that did not apply to him but he offered to send officials in his place if the committee would specify what topics they wanted to cover.

The committee obliged with a list but the members stressed they felt the minister was best placed to address it and again asked him to attend.

They cited Section 14 of the 2021 Climate Act but Mr Donohoe again declined, saying Section 14 did not apply to him.

The committee then sought advice from the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers which said the minister had a particular responsibility in relation to the public sector and so was answerable for sectoral emissions ceilings.

Besides that, the office said: “The scope of any attendance under Section 14 is not limited to sectoral emission ceilings, as suggested by the minister in his reasons for declining the committee’s invitation.”

A spokesperson for Mr Donohoe told the Irish Independent the minister had given a commitment to respond to areas of interest but stressed again that no sectoral emission ceiling applied to his department.

“Therefore it would not be appropriate for the minister to come before the committee.”

The spokesperson said Mr Donohoe had not sought or received any legal advice regarding attendance.

Asked for comment, committee chairman Green Party TD Brian Leddin confirmed legal advice had been sought and said if it had not yet reached Mr Donohoe, it was on its way to him. He said the minister’s role in ensuring public spending aligned with climate targets was crucial.

“We would be encouraging him to attend,” he said.

“His department has an important role with respect to the Climate Action Plan so we’d like to engage with him and his officials and tease out what his department is doing.

“Every department is relevant to our targets. It is an all-of-Government issue.

“The committee’s engagement may become more interrogative over time because ministers will need to be asked what they have and haven’t achieved but this is new territory and the discussions so far have been very open.”