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John Drennan: Inquiry into bank crisis backed by top lawyer

Legal advice secured by the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has indicated that the PAC will be able to hold a full inquiry into Ireland's banking crisis.

The Sunday Independent has learnt that the PAC met in private session to study a legal opinion commissioned from the senior counsel, Michael Cush, on the viability of a PAC inquiry into the banks.

Mr Cush, who has acted for high-profile clients such as the Quinn family, is believed to have told the PAC that "a comprehensive inquiry'', if its terms of reference are "carefully crafted, is viable''.

The main concern of the PAC is to correctly structure the inquiry to avoid the mistakes of the "Mahon tribunal, which looked at everything, and the errors of other inquiries which were able to ask nothing and do nothing''.

It is believed that the PAC's priority is to ensure the creation of a "structure that will legitimately allow us to include politicians, civil servants and whistleblowers that were ignored. Nothing else will work with a public who are sick of inquiries that are set up to achieve nothing.''

One source told the Sunday Independent "we can conduct an inquiry so long as we follow the money'' and added that "seeing as the banks have received €64bn from the State there certainly is no shortage of money to follow''.

Significantly, the PAC have also been told that while the infamous Abbeylara judgment significantly emasculated the fact-finding powers of Dail committees, it confirms the powers of the PAC to "inquire into the banks so long as they chase the money trail''.

Next week the PAC will engage in a critical meeting to complete a report on the practicality of holding an inquiry which will include the position of Mr Cush and the Dail's own legal adviser.

Such are the complexities of the issues involved, the report is more than 200 pages in length and once this is completed it will be presented to the Oireachtas and the Government.

Though the committee has been advised that it does have the necessary powers to hold an inquiry, it and the Government will, however, face a "race against time to ensure that the necessary structures will be put in place before the summer recess''.

The PAC's capacity to investigate wrongdoing is enhanced by powers granted to it by the Constitution and its unique status in having the power to compel witnesses to attend.

However, they have been told "legislative backing is required to add a bit of steel to the spine'' while, as with a tribunal of inquiry, should the "PAC's investigations be backed by the united will of the people, that will add real moral force to its work''.

The revelation will come as a bonus to a Government whose much bruited plans for a full-scale banking inquiry were initially stymied by the defeat of the Dail Inquiries referendum.

Though there has been some mischievous speculation that a certain "chill factor'' has crept across Fine Gael and Labour's enthusiasm for an inquiry into a crisis, which more than three years after it broke still has not been investigated fully.

However, in spite of growing suspicions that some are "now anxious to derail such an inquiry'', in public both Fine Gael and Labour remain committed to a full-scale investigation.

Sunday Independent