Tuesday 25 June 2019

If Noonan is so eager for PAC to do its job, he should go before it

Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Minister of State for European Affairs Dara Murphy and Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Fine Gael’s annual party meeting at the Keadeen Hotel, Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Minister of State for European Affairs Dara Murphy and Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Fine Gael’s annual party meeting at the Keadeen Hotel, Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

What better way for the Government to demonstrate its commitment to new politics than for Finance Minister Michael Noonan to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)?

For the past few days, Mr Noonan's advisers will have earned their salaries looking for an escape hatch in a seemingly impenetrable wall - a credible excuse to decline an invitation to appear before PAC - but Houdini himself would find it hard to get out of this one.

First, they will have studied the Dáil's standing orders, particularly Order 186, which gives PAC its powers.

Regrettably, it is of little assistance. While it doesn't state that Ministers can be compelled to appear before PAC, it doesn't rule it out either.

Instead, the standing order is annoyingly broad and open to any number of interpretations, including that the minister should just suck it up and promptly RSVP. It simply states PAC has the power "to send for persons, papers and records".

Mr Noonan may find some wriggle room in the fact that the rules governing select committees explicitly allow for ministers to be called to give evidence to discuss policy and legislation.

Consequently, it could be argued that if it had ever been envisioned that ministers could be called before PAC, an explicit reference would have been made to that eventuality somewhere in the standing orders.

Unfortunately for the minister, his cabinet colleague Leo Varadkar test-drove a version of this excuse on RTE's 'This Week' programme on Sunday and it immediately crashed and burned.

According to Mr Varadkar, the prospect of Mr Noonan slumming it with the other plebs, like Nama CEO Frank Daly, when PAC examines the C&AG's damning report into the Project Eagle deal, is unthinkable.

The Social Protection Minister said the proper venue for an august member of Cabinet, like Mr Noonan, to be interrogated and held to account was the Dáil chamber.

It simply wouldn't be right to subject Mr Noonan to a barrage of questioning from upstart committee members.

Of course, the problem with this reasoning is that Mr Noonan has persistently ducked, dived and squirmed his way through scores of questions relating to Nama and any number of other controversial issues during his tenure as Finance Minister in the Dáil.

When TDs have sought information, using parliamentary questions, oftentimes only the minimum possible scrap has been forthcoming.

The result has been opposition deputies, elected to hold the Government to account, preferring to use freedom of information requests instead of parliamentary questions because the former process is more productive.

Now, Mr Varadkar would have us believe the Dáil is some kind of model of accountability and probity and that a minister, with a track record of treating routine parliamentary questions as if he were being asked to reveal the third secret of Fatima, will suddenly open up like a flower.

In other democracies, perhaps it would be proper for the minister to only answer questions in parliament.

However, in this country, instead of considered and thoughtful Dáil debates, in which complex issues of public importance are teased out carefully, what we get are bored TDs shouting speeches they haven't written to an empty chamber.

While Mr Varadkar sought to maintain that it would be unprecedented for a minister to be summoned before PAC, it's not. When PAC conducted the Dirt inquiry nearly 20 years ago, the last time we tried to clean up banking, a serving finance minister deigned to appear before it.

Amazingly, the sky didn't fall in.

So, Mr Noonan can try to cite convention and procedure all he wants, if he's determined to evade the clutches of the PAC, but the electorate will simply infer from those lame excuses that he has something to hide - or, at least, that the Government's purported commitment to a new politics, characterised by transparency and openness, is nothing more than empty sloganeering, devoid of any real authenticity.

After all, if Mr Noonan is genuinely eager for PAC to do its business, and intelligibly interrogate the C&AG report into Project Eagle, then surely the least he can do is make himself available for questioning, unpleasant and all as that may be.

While an appearance before PAC may be an unwelcome surprise, Mr Noonan has been accommodating when asked to appear before Dáil committees before.

He recently spent a number of hours being grilled by the Housing and Homelessness Committee, so has some recent experience of dodging a volley of bullets aimed at him by his political opponents.

Government TDs will never admit to this, but it is also important that Mr Noonan attends PAC to answer questions because any statutory inquiry set up to investigate Project Eagle is doomed to failure.

While politicians view statutory inquiries as some kind of fire blanket that should only be deployed in emergencies, when political heat threatens to overpower them, beleaguered Fine Gael-led governments are increasingly being forced to use them.

Despite this, they don't seem to be very adept at their creation.

It is worth remembering that one of the most recent statutory inquiries that was set up - into IBRC transactions over €10m - had already cost the State nearly €4m, excluding legal costs, before the Government accepted it had set it up without giving it the requisite legal powers to do its job.

The proposed inquiry into Project Eagle, investigating events that occurred in at least two jurisdictions, will be altogether more complex and, with little prospect of witnesses in Northern Ireland agreeing to co-operate, is unlikely to yield any new information.

With any statutory inquiry destined to be an expensive exercise in futility, the PAC hearing into the C&AG report may be the only opportunity to open the Project Eagle deal up to further scrutiny.

Mr Noonan should relish the opportunity to take part and defend his, and his Government's, record.

Irish Independent

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