Sunday 24 February 2019

Stephen Donnelly: Why I will not take part in this Banking Inquiry

Stephen Donnelly on why he is withdrawing from the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry that has been taken over by the Cabinet

Anglo Irish Bank
Anglo Irish Bank
HANDS ON LEVERS OF POWER: Taoiseach Enda Kenny has ended any hope of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry working free of Cabinet control. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins

Stephen Donnelly

On Tuesday morning, the Taoiseach ended any hope of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry working free of Cabinet control. In an extraordinary statement on the floor of the House, he admitted the Government majority, being railroaded through, was so the Government could set the terms of reference, pass the final report, and ensure they would know what the members of the Banking Inquiry would do.

The Government plan to have a five-four majority on the Inquiry failed last week, when Labour senators didn't turn up for their own selection meeting. Due to Fianna Fail Senator Marc MacSharry being nominated instead of Labour Senator Susan O'Keeffe, the nine person committee was now three Fine Gael, one Labour, two Fianna Fail, two Independent and one Sinn Fein. The Government held four of the nine seats.

It should have been left like this, for two reasons. First, the Banking Inquiry is, under law, an Oireachtas Inquiry, not a Cabinet Inquiry. The rules of the Oireachtas were properly followed in voting through all nine members. The Labour senators didn't show up to vote, so they lost the vote – tough luck. But the Cabinet decided it didn't like the outcome of the Oireachtas vote, so it reached in and changed it. What, then, is the point of having an Oireachtas?

Second, the unintended composition of the committee would have been trusted far more by the public than one with a government majority. With no majority on either side, the committee would have had to proceed on the basis of genuine consensus, rather than an enforced whip from Government Buildings. The public, knowing this, would surely be inclined to take the findings more seriously.

But by last Tuesday morning we heard the Government was planning to add another two senators to the committee, both from the government benches. If this happened, Fine Gael/Labour would secure a 6-5 majority on a new 11-member inquiry. I admit that I didn't think the Government would be that crass, cynical, or just downright obvious. But then, I haven't been in politics very long.

In the Dail Chamber, the Taoiseach was asked by Micheal Martin if he was proceedings with the extra two senators. He was. Why? Here's what he said: "Clearly, the situation that applies at the moment is that the Government don't have a majority. We have to get a report and we have to be able to adopt terms of reference. If [the Government] don't have a majority we can't do that."

This is nonsense. It's for the committee to agree terms of reference, and to write the final report, regardless of which parties its members belong to. The Taoiseach knows this of course, and rather than trying to insist otherwise a second time, he told the bare-faced truth. "How do I know", he asked, "what the members will do?"

And there we have it – the realpolitik of Irish parliamentary democracy, where Cabinet control is everything. The Banking Inquiry members might want to do things the Taoiseach doesn't want them to do. They might think it relevant to look at events he doesn't want them to look at. They might want to question people he doesn't want questioned (like himself and Michael Noonan for example). But if the Government didn't have a majority, he couldn't control it. He openly admitted that he would be directing the Government committee members so he could control the terms of reference, the final report, and what the inquiry members did.

But the Taoiseach hadn't finished. Just in case we hadn't fully got the message, he took a sledgehammer to the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Once more it was pointed out to him that it's up to the members of the inquiry to set the terms of reference. To which he replied, "Yes, but the Government members of the committee".

It's fair to say that any notion of political reform in this Dail term is dead. The Government has stopped even pretending that things could be different. As soon as the outcome of the Seanad selection meeting was known, they sprang into action. In the Seanad, accusations were made that Senator MacSharry would have to be deselected, due to a conflict of interest. But they couldn't back this up, and withdrew it. So they asked the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, CPP, to rule on the senator's potential bias. But the CPP said it couldn't investigate until the terms of reference had been agreed. By which point, of course, it would be too late for the Government. It was suggested in the Seanad that Labour had been 'ambushed' at the selection committee. This remark was also withdrawn, presumably on the basis that the only people who ambushed Labour, were Labour.

Having failed to get MacSharry booted off the Banking Inquiry, the Government switched to plan B. On Thursday morning, a new item appeared on the day's business for the Seanad – the election of another two senators to the Inquiry, this time, both from government parties. The vote was passed, and Fine Gael/Labour now have a majority of six, on the larger eleven-person inquiry. The Taoiseach can set whatever terms of reference he wants. He can ensure nobody is brought in for questioning he doesn't want questioned. He can exclude events from consideration he wants excluded. And he re-establishes veto over the final report.

The committee includes high calibre Oireachtas members from all sides, Ciaran Lynch will be an excellent chair, and it can still do useful work. For me, it was imperative that the inquiry was run by the Oireachtas. This week, through their words and actions, the Cabinet has shown definitively that this will absolutely not be the case, and that the Government will use its majority to control the inquiry. So I, for one, will not be taking part.

In 2011, the new Government asked the Irish people, via referendum, to give the Oireachtas far-reaching new powers to run inquiries. They wanted the power to force people to attend inquiries, deny them normal due process under law, and make findings against them. The need to investigate the banking collapse was cited. Trust us, they said, things have changed, there's been a democratic revolution. These inquiries will be cross-party and in the public interest, not political show-trials. On October 27, 2011, the people said 'No'. On June 12, 2014, the Government proved them right.

Stephen Donnelly is the Independent TD for Wicklow and Carlow East.

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