Monday 21 October 2019

Shane Phelan: 'No sign of repentance from TDs as court brings PAC crashing to earth'

Suicide attempt: Angela Kerins was quizzed about her salary by PAC members in 2014.
Suicide attempt: Angela Kerins was quizzed about her salary by PAC members in 2014. PHOTO: COLLINS COURTS
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has done the State some service.

The salary top-ups controversy at the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC), penalty points abuses, and the Grace abuse case are just some of the scandals it has helped expose.

The PAC, particularly under the chairmanship of Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness between 2011 and 2016, gained a reputation as being a tough place for witnesses. Robust questioning was the norm.

It was also a springboard to greater things for TDs.

Three members of that committee - Simon Harris, Eoghan Murphy and Shane Ross - now sit at Cabinet. Another, Mary Lou McDonald, became leader of Sinn Féin.

But this week, a landmark court ruling brought the committee crashing back to earth.

For all the good it has done, the PAC has also divided opinion amid accusations of unnecessary grandstanding.

The matter before the Supreme Court is much more serious, and judges propose finding the PAC acted "unlawfully" in its questioning of former Rehab Group chief executive Angela Kerins.

The ruling not only raised questions over the PAC's conduct but also the failure of the Oireachtas to take any significant action in response.

The court examined complaints by Ms Kerins about her treatment by the PAC in 2014, which she linked to subsequent ill health, a suicide attempt and her decision to quit her €240,000-a-year job.

It is to hear further submissions before finalising the matter, but what it has already found is hugely significant.

Until now, constitutional provisions on Oireachtas privilege have acted as a barrier to courts intervening over comments in parliament. But the court has now signalled it can intervene where "there has been a significant and unremedied unlawful action on the part of a committee".

The three TDs most associated with criticism of Ms Kerins were Mr McGuinness, Mr Ross and Ms McDonald.

One former committee member, Labour Senator Ged Nash said they would have to "account for their actions" in the wake of the ruling.

But so far there is no sign of repentance and sources say it is unlikely there will be.

Both Mr McGuinness and Mr Ross have declined to comment as the case is ongoing.

In response to a request for comment from Ms McDonald, Sinn Féin issued a statement saying: "Those that spend taxpayers' money need to be held to account. This needs to be done without fear or favour."

Rehab was always going to be a tricky proposition for the PAC. As both a charity and commercial group it receives substantial payments from the State to provide services but also has private revenue streams. Also, the PAC ordinarily only examines bodies subject to scrutiny from the Comptroller & Auditor General, which Rehab is not.

Ms Kerins' appearance came in the aftermath of the CRC affair, which put transparency and funding in the charity sector top of the political agenda.

Ms Kerins was informed in advance the PAC would be examining issues relating to HSE and Solas funding and its lottery. But her reluctance to discuss her salary in an interview shortly before the hearing did not go unnoticed.

Much of the focus in the hearing was on her salary, paid out of Rehab's commercial earnings. The Supreme Court said she was invited to the PAC on one basis but dealt with on an entirely different one.

It was put to her by Ms McDonald she earned more than the President of the United States or the Taoiseach.

The TD suggested Ms Kerins was on a different planet.

Mr Ross also honed in on pay and quizzed Ms Kerins about bonuses. He suggested there was an extraordinary opaqueness to Rehab's accounts.

Mr McGuinness criticised as "unnecessary" contact the committee received from Rehab's solicitors about the extent of its remit.

"We may have gone a little bit beyond it in pursuing salaries and so on, but that was because we wanted to get an overall view of the organisation," he said.

Ironically, arguably the most cutting remarks came from Fine Gael's John Deasy, a TD who said he came to the hearing with "an open mind".

He said Ms Kerins' answers had been evasive, that she had unnecessarily "made a big song and dance" and information "had to be dragged out of her". Mr Deasy declined to comment on the ruling.

Irish Independent

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