Friday 13 December 2019

Watchdog won't be muzzled over grant scheme inquiry


EMILY O'Reilly is a watchdog who will bark when challenged. She is not a fan of the "softly, softly" regulatory approach made famous by the likes of former Financial Regulator Patrick Neary in his dealings with Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide and others.

Her role as Ombudsman, which she clearly outlined yesterday, is to protect the people from any "excess or unfairness" on the part of government. And she clearly believes this is what has happened with the operation of the now infamous 'Lost at Sea' scheme.

She mounted a four-year investigation into a complaint made by the family of Francis Byrne, a fishing boat owner who lost his life along with his 16-year-old son Jimmy and three other crew off the coast of Donegal in 1981. His widow was left with a young family of five boys and three girls. But she was denied a grant under the 2001 Lost at Sea scheme set up to help fishing families who had lost boats at sea to get back into the industry.

In her report, Ms O'Reilly criticised the scheme, the responsibility of former Marine Minister Frank Fahey, saying its design and the way it was advertised were "contrary to fair and sound administration".

But the Department of Agriculture refused to pay €245,000 in compensation to the Byrne family. It was only the second time ever that a state body declined to comply with a directive from the Ombudsman, so Ms O'Reilly took the next step by referring her report to the Oireachtas. But she was fobbed off here again, because attempts to get the report discussed at the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture were voted down by Government representatives.

That is the background to Ms O'Reilly's hard-hitting speech yesterday at a 'Conference on Good Governance' in Dublin.

It is clear that she thinks 'good governance' is something we need a lot more of. She said even the "economically illiterate" now realise that poor governance in a number of key private and public institutions was at the heart of the downturn. The model of government has become a "fiction" because the Dail and Seanad are controlled firmly by a whip system, which forces politicians to vote in line with their parties. The Government takes all the important decisions and the Dail only "rubber-stamps" them.

What Ms O'Reilly says is merely stating the obvious. Just yesterday, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was complaining that every time the opposition brought forward a positive plan (such as their private members' bill to abolish the ban on upward-only rent reviews in current contracts), it was shot down by the Government, which lines up its TDs to vote against it. That is the way it goes. And there will be no Dail reform anytime soon -- because it suits the Government to keep the situation as it is.

But Ms O'Reilly is continuing the tradition of the Ombudsman being a fiercely independent figure, who is not afraid to stand up to the Government. The first Ombudsman was also a former journalist, who regularly had to stand firm against official obstruction. The late Michael Mills, the former political correspondent of the 'Irish Press', found that civil servants he once knew started to avoid him after he had achieved many victories over government departments, as well as bureaucracies in the health boards and semi-state companies. And he also had to frustrate an initial attempt by Taoiseach Charles Haughey to block his reappointment as ombudsman by enlisting the help of PD leader Dessie O'Malley.

Ms O'Reilly has done a lot of valuable work to help members of the public since she was appointed in 2003. She has forced councils to stop "overcharging" the public with fees of up to €5 for photocopying a single page from planning documents and others. As a result of her work, a self-employed man was refunded almost €10,000 in late tax payment interest charges by the Revenue last year after the payment was delayed by a banking error. Three severely disabled children got arrears of €78,000 and a weekly care allowance of almost €300 after their claim was initially rejected by the HSE. A playwright with a "very modest income" was given a pension after his joint ownership of an unsold house with his brother was initially counted against him. And there are many more examples of her overturning unjust decisions by state bodies, which had penalised the public.

But if Ms O'Reilly held even the slightest hope that her criticism might force the Government to think again, she was soon enlightened yesterday. Taoiseach Brian Cowen stood up in the Dail to say that the Lost at Sea report had been debated in the Dail and that the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture (which has a majority of government members) rejected a motion to discuss it.

"I'm satisfied the Oireachtas has fulfilled its responsibility in relation to this report by dealing with it in the way it did," he said.

But that is unlikely to deter Ms O'Reilly, who was independently reappointed to her role last year by President Mary McAleese. She will be around for a further five years and is likely to keep barking, regardless of who is in power. And that is in the public interest.

Irish Independent

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