Saturday 17 August 2019

'Chilling' Angela Kerins case will continue to shake the foundations of Oireachtas

Angela Kerins. Photo: Collins Courts
Angela Kerins. Photo: Collins Courts

John Downing and Denise Calnan

Fallout from the Angela Kerins case continues to reverberate. It will not go away until the TDs and senators frame proper rules allowing an effective complaints system for parliamentary inquiry witnesses who feel they have not experienced fair play.

It was unprecedented for the highest court in the land to call the Oireachtas's most powerful committee to book for the way it conducted its affairs. Since the foundation of this State, the "big house on the quays" in Dublin has avoided engaging with the workings of that other "big house in Kildare Street".

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But matters unprecedented continued yesterday as Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl went on RTÉ's 'The Week in Politics' and "personally apologised" to the former chief executive of Rehab, Angela Kerins, over her treatment by members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in February 2014.

The Dáil chairman noted the Supreme Court judgment found the PAC "acted unlawfully" in its treatment of Ms Kerins. Mr Ó Fearghaíl said he found the verdict "chilling" and the committee had "trampled" on Ms Kerins's rights.

The court ruling last month has been deemed highly significant by everyone who counts at Leinster House. It has sparked intense discussion about the manner in which Oireachtas committees should conduct their business in future.

Ms Kerins had sued the committee, its clerk, the clerk of the Dáil, Ireland and the Attorney General over her treatment at two PAC meetings in 2014. She attended the first of these meetings and did not attend the second.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl. Photo: Tom Burke
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl. Photo: Tom Burke

In 2014, the PAC, chaired by Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, was doggedly pursuing the spending of money by free-standing charitable organisations which received large sums of taxpayers' money. There had been huge public controversy surrounding Rehab and other organisations, most notably the Central Remedial Clinic, both of which got significant State funding and also relied on public fundraising. Apart from anything else, there were concerns about other charitable organisations being hit.

But there were also two important procedural debates at Leinster House. One question was whether the PAC had any real role given established practice that it pursued State organisations, and more often worked off initial inquiries done by the spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General. The other question was whether these issues were better dealt with by another committee such as the one dealing with health.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court found it had the power to declare the committee acted unlawfully, if it "as a whole" acted outside its remit and breached the terms of the invitation it extended to Ms Kerins to appear. The court had then sought further submissions on this and on May 29 gave its final ruling on the issue.

The decision means Ms Kerins may now pursue further legal action for remedies in the High Court. Mr Justice Clarke said the Supreme Court intended to award Ms Kerins both her costs in an earlier unsuccessful High Court action and costs for her successful Supreme Court appeal.

Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Gerry Mooney
PAC chairman in 2014, John McGuinness. Photo: Tom Burke

Ms Kerins lost the earlier High Court case and had to pay a third of her costs under that ruling.

It means the case could end up costing the taxpayer in the region of €1m.

But the ultimate cost to the taxpayer could be even more, should Ms Kerins now seek damages. Ms Kerins told the Irish Independent she had no comment to make about the Ceann Comhairle's apology, though a family friend said she was both "surprised and pleased" by Mr Ó Fearghaíl's words.

The Ceann Comhairle stressed the need for change, saying an internal group of officials was set up to address the issues. He hoped to put proposals to the Dáil in September to change the committees operations also avoiding the duplication of inquiries.

Now the Dáil chairman has apologised, all eyes will be on John McGuinness and the committee's key members in 2014, Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and the current Transport Minister Shane Ross.

Irish Independent

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