THE most powerful Dail committee always sits in secret. Decisions are handed down to the Dail, where necessary, but otherwise no whisper of its activities is meant to reach the outside world.
The Committee on Procedure and Privileges (CPP) convenes in the grandest room in Leinster House. Its nine members (one vacancy) sit at the old cabinet table.
It is chaired by the Ceann Comhairle, who presides in an atmosphere of luxury and elegance. His seat is flanked by huge European and national flags. The carpet is priceless Donegal, its pattern directly reflecting the elaborate design of the ornate ceiling. At one end of the room is a massive portrait of Daniel O'Connell, at the other Speaker Connolly. In between the two, Parnell watches down on the proceedings. Other, lesser committees, like the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) sit in more Spartan surroundings below ground in the Leinster House dungeons. They provide seats for the public and the press. The CPP does not allow them inside the door.
The secretive CPP controls much of the action in the Houses of the Oireachtas, the centre of Irish democracy. It controls other committees' activities. Last week, it was heading for a clash with the PAC. It was unenthusiastic about our efforts to compel witnesses, including Frank Flannery and Angela Kerins, to appear.
In anticipation of a clash, I asked to attend the meeting of the CPP on Wednesday evening. Merely as an observer, not a contributor. My request was turned down flat, within minutes. The activities and words of the members are top-secret. They have been secret since 1923. They will remain secret. Two little-known rulings from Ceann Comhairles of the Dail (in 1964 and 1989) had sealed the Omerta.
So could I see the minutes of the meetings of this powerhouse that protects our democracy? I must have been joking. They are held under lock and key. Stalin would be proud of Ireland's hidden politburo.
So much for open government. Accounts of the workings of the Dail's most influential cabal must not reach the eyes, nor the ears not only of the public, but even of other TDs. And on the whole, they never do. Rumours abound about its proceedings, but only its decisions are publicised.
The CPP has a guaranteed Government majority. Its membership includes the whips from both Coalition parties and from all three main opposition groups. The other members are hand-picked Fine Gael and Labour TDs. The Government is under no threat at its unpublished proceedings. Votes are rare. No need for such inconvenient demands of democracy, if nobody ever knows what goes on behind closed doors and the result is a foregone conclusion.
My request to attend last week was prompted by the rumour that the CPP was finally going to issue its response to two requests that we in the PAC had made, seeking powers to compel witnesses to appear before us. One was for the Rehab duo, the other for witnesses about the controversial Siptu National Health and Local Authority Fund account.
After the meeting, we received a legally crafted reply. Tales are circulating in Leinster House that the crucial meeting was all over within minutes, that a lawyer had been asked to prepare two letters which were explained to members and then rubber-stamped by the assembled politburo.
The replies to the PAC were derisory. In the Siptu case, it was insulting. It began: "I have been directed by the Committee on Procedures and Privileges to reply to your letter dated February 14..."
February 14? It had taken four months to respond to an urgent request from just down the corridor. The letter went on to demand further obscure information. Delay was the order of the day. Compellability was being buried.
The response to our request to the CPP for compulsory powers to question Rehab's Flannery and Kerins was more prompt, but also sought more elusive detail. The Government majority on the CPP had dictated that compellability would be frustrated. Our wings were being clipped.
It was not the first time. This is the same CPP which refused to allow the PAC to record and publish a tape of the session we held with whistleblower Maurice McCabe, despite the sergeant himself requesting a transcript. Just imagine if a true record of what Maurice McCabe said was unleashed on the public. They might find out what was happening in the murky world of Ireland's Garda hierarchy.
Sources close to the CPP barely bother to attempt to justify this brick wall of darkness. They weakly volunteer that it has "always been like this", admitting that not only are its activities strictly confidential but that its TD members are honour-bound not even to talk about them to outsiders. They point to the second deeply restrictive ruling of the Ceann Comhairle in 1989, especially the vaguely threatening words, "The business of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges is expected to be treated as private and confidential". CPP sources insist that this phrase binds its members to total secrecy unless the detail has already reached the public arena through official channels.
This powerful little politburo appears to have wrongly seized on secrecy as the norm. Under the Constitution (article 15.8), Dail standing committees "may by order at any time sit in private". The CPP has adopted secrecy as the default position while the Constitution sees it as the opposite way around. The politburo is conveniently not subject to Freedom of Information requests utterly at odds with the enlightened words of Independent Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, "information should always be used as a gift, never as a weapon".
The body that controls the heart of our democracy is rigidly Coalition-controlled. Last week, the Dail passed a new standing order from the CPP about compellability. It has important implications for the PAC. It flew through, almost unnoticed "without debate". It was sprung on ordinary TDs at short notice; it was technical, drafted in obscure legal language and undoubtedly not understood by most TDs. It flashed through without speech or explanation, a silent diktat. We are in dangerous territory.
Down at the Public Accounts Committee, we have been forced by the CPP's actions to seek our own independent legal advice. It will undoubtedly challenge the activities of the CPP including the recent standing order, particularly as it affects Oireachtas committees.
Such clandestine manoeuvres from the controlling committee of the Dail would be alarming in normal circumstances, but the increased role given to the CPP as rule-maker and implementer under recent inquiries legislation bodes badly for the banking inquiry.
This culture of secrecy and party-political control by committee has already torpedoed the credibility of the same Banking Inquiry. Last week the sinister, below-the-radar activities of those in power were exposed to public view by the fiasco surrounding the political make- up of the inquiry's membership. It was not a pretty sight. The Banking Inquiry has been exposed as a political charade posing as a crusade for truth. The CPP, the body in hiding directing our democracy, is now in the firing line.