Sunday 17 November 2019

Noonan has every right to defend himself from criticism of TDs

Dail committees are definitely not tribunals, and should stop trying to act as if they are

Anger: Finance Minister Michael Noonan told the Dail last week that he and his officials 'refute absolutely' any claim they 'acted inappropriately' Photo: Frank McGrath
Anger: Finance Minister Michael Noonan told the Dail last week that he and his officials 'refute absolutely' any claim they 'acted inappropriately' Photo: Frank McGrath

Eilis O'Hanlon

Did Michael Noonan threaten to injunct the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to thwart publication of its report into the sale of Nama's Northern Irish loan book, otherwise known as Project Eagle?

Fianna Fail's Sean Fleming, who chairs the PAC, claims that he did, and now questions the Finance Minister's fitness for office as a result.

Noonan, in turn, is aggrieved that the report criticises his department for meeting US firm Cerberus before it bought the Project Eagle assets for €1.6bn in 2014. That, PAC says, was "not procedurally appropriate" and could have given an impression of "preferential treatment".

Visibly angry, the Finance Minister told the Dail last week that he and his officials "refute absolutely" any claim they "acted inappropriately", adding that he was "shocked the PAC disregarded due process" by not giving any of them an opportunity to discuss the PAC's concerns about the meeting before issuing its report, as well as accusing some committee members of "political grandstanding".

Noonan should arguably have taken it on the chin. It's always unseemly to see a senior minister get involved in a spat with TDs; but on this issue, he can probably be forgiven some irritation.

Dail committees increasingly seem to regard themselves as great brotherhoods of superheroes, holding the country to account, fighting for truth, justice and the Irish way. That this is an inflated view of their own influence and effectiveness is exposed by the Justice Committee's repeated failure to land a blow on Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan in spite of numerous opportunities.

Financial irregularities at the Garda College were raised by an internal audit. The garda breathalyser scandal, which resulted in a million more tests being recorded than ever actually took place, and in thousands of people being wrongly convicted of motoring offences, came to light because of an internal review.

Other scandals came to light because of good investigative reporting. What do TDs ever do but jump on the bandwagon afterwards?

They have done the State some service by highlighting issues such as the hounding of garda whistleblowers; but they should know their limits.

The people were asked in 2011 to amend the Constitution to allow the Dail and Seanad to conduct inquiries into matters of public importance, and they said no, reluctant to hand more power to politicians at a time when their standing had never been so low. There were fears not least that politicians would use it to pursue vendettas, specifically that the Fine Gael/Labour government might use any future inquiry into the financial collapse to lay all the blame at Fianna Fail's door.

Since then, TDs seem to have decided to plough ahead anyway as if they won, rather than lost, that referendum.

Let's take those proposed amendments in turn.

"Each House shall have the power to conduct an inquiry, or an inquiry with the other House, in a manner provided for by law, into any matter stated by the House or Houses concerned to be of general public importance."

That's precisely what they do, only now they call them Dail committees instead.

"In the course of any such inquiry the conduct of any person (whether or not a member of either House) may be investigated and the House or Houses concerned may make findings in respect of the conduct of that person concerning the matter to which the inquiry relates."

Check again - and the cross examination of those targeted by Dail committees has not been without controversy.

Former Rehab boss Angela Kerins went to the High Court in a bid to secure damages for what she claimed was "bullying, harassment and persecution" by the PAC.

She lost the case, but is entitled to still hold the view that she was mistreated.

Finally: "It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into any matter to which (the above section) applies."

Isn't that precisely what Michael Noonan thinks the PAC has done to him and his officials in Finance over their handling of Project Eagle?

Some might say that the minister is being hoisted by his own petard, as part of the Government which tried to give such wide-ranging powers to TDs to do unto others what has now been done to him. That may well be the case, though gloating hardly answers the substantive point. Either Noonan has been unfairly maligned or he hasn't. If he has, then his party's former positions on similar issues is no more relevant than whether he himself is deemed to deserve a put-down.

Oireachtas committees are not tribunals. They don't have judicial powers. It's worrying that they sometimes act as if they're God; as if the sun shines out of those parts where the sun don't shine.

It's certainly a great way to make a name for oneself as a TD. Indeed it's ironic that some of those who have done so, such as Clare Daly, who sits on the Justice and Equality Committee, were members in 2011 of the umbrella group United Left Alliance, which strongly opposed the constitutional amendment to give the Dail and Seanad the right to conduct inquiries.

It's undoubtedly tempting to interpret the current row between the PAC and Mr Noonan as a simple fable of the little guy standing up to Big Government. But committees get things wrong too; they shouldn't be above criticism.

Nor is it unreasonable of Noonan, if he genuinely feels that he and his department behaved appropriately at all times over Nama sales, to be angered at having his reputation tarnished by insinuation by people who have a huge power without being held to account in the same way he might argue ministers are.

He would hardly be the first to complain that committees have got a bit above themselves. There have been regular accusations that members play to the gallery in many of their hearings.

Sean Fleming continues to insist that the PAC was "utterly fair" to Noonan in all its dealings, and, of course, any hint of a threat to the committee should be deplored.

But it's worth remembering - there was no injunction; the report was published in full; amendments suggested by FG TDs were voted down by fellow committee members. That's democracy in action.

So, however, is Nama's right to stand by its commercial decisions against the PAC's hindsight, and Michael Noonan's to defend himself.

Sunday Independent

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