Friday, June 21, 2013

The Public Accounts Committee is a Toothless Tiger

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

A member of the PAC yesterday
Mr John McGuinness TD, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Oireachtas Éireann, has been having a hot time of it lately in the pages of the Irish Independent. Why is neither here nor there at the moment, but a rumour has been floating around that there have been midnight meetings at crossroads by persons unknown who fear McGuinness and his Committee investigating the Bank Guarantee, and those same persons unknown are leaking to the Independent to stop him at any cost.

Most rumours are to be taken with a pinch of salt. We may need the full packet for this particular one.

There are two reasons for not giving this theory the time of day. The first is that Oireachtas Committees aren’t quite the Irish version of the Spanish Inquisition that they are often portrayed to be. This was brought home by Alan Dukes’s appearance before the Finance Committee during his time as chairman of the ghost ship that used to be known as Anglo-Irish bank.

Under strident questioning from then-Senator Shane Ross, Dukes made it clear that he knew very well that Ross and his committee were all bark and no bite, and underlined that by witheringly remarking  that he was “not here to write a column for the back page of the Sunday Independent.” Dukes had no intention of helping Ross make headlines, and there was nothing Ross could do about it except sit there, fuming. When Dukes puts you in your box, that’s where you stay.

The other reason that McGuinness and the PAC will never investigate the Bank Guarantee is that there no history of such accountability in the history of the state. A parade of the great and the good marching in and out of the committee, giving their version of what happened on the night of the bank guarantee? Not before Hell freezes over.

It would certainly be interesting to find out just how that deal happened. The late Brian Lenihan himself did his best to get his side of the story out before his sad and untimely death, and his family have been burnishing his legacy since. Against that, there are many conspiracy theories about fat cats and golden circles being protected at the expense of the poor eejit who is currently paying a €400k mortgage on an €80k house. That man would like some answers.

But, God help him, he’ll never get them. There is no culture of going on the record in Irish politics. It doesn’t suit our nature. It’s not what we do.

In recent times, we have had the tribunals. What was the function of the tribunals? It wasn’t to discover funny business. Even the least-informed of the dogs in the street could tell there was funny business going on during the boom. The purpose the tribunals served in going on for so very long was twofold.

Firstly, they made truckloads of money for legal profession in providing representation that witnesses didn’t need, those witnesses being immune from prosecution by anything said in the course of a tribunal.

The real legacy of the tribunals is that they were a slow release of highly toxic news that, if released in one go, could have been cataclysmic for the political system and caused a root and branch reform. But over seventeen long years, no one revelation has the power to cause that sort of upset. By the end, first-time voters were going to the polls who could not remember a time when there weren’t tribunals. They were just background noise at that stage, a faint buzzing in the distance that, while certainly annoying, were no reason to go rocking boats.

Not only does Irish political culture not do inquiries, neither does it do going on the record. This is illustrated in a telling story in Frank Dunlop’s memoir of his time as Government Press Secretary, Yes, Taoiseach. Dunlop is disgraced currently, but his memoir is a very interesting and seldom-told account of just what goes on in the corridors of power.

Dunlop was originally hired by Jack Lynch as press secretary. When Lynch resigned in 1979, Dunlop called in to see him as Lynch was clearing out his office. Dunlop found Lynch was filling great big plastic bags full of notes and documents from his time as Taoiseach.

“Will you use those in your memoirs Taoiseach?” asked Dunlop. Lynch laughed at him. Memoirs, indeed. Writing memoirs was the very last thing on Lynch’s mind. All those notes were going into the bin and from there to sweet oblivion.

It would have been nice if Jack Lynch thought differently about his time in office, and all the changes he had seen. He had such an interesting life, he was such an extraordinarily popular figure and he governed at a time of great crisis on the island.

But there is no history of going on the record in Irish politics. Deals are done when they are done and the details are kept firmly within the power triangle of Leinster House, the Shelbourne Hotel and Doheny and Nesbitt’s Public House.

And that is why there is no plot to silence John McGuinness and the Public Accounts Committee. Because even though the public would dearly like to know what happened on the night of the bank guarantee, the public really don’t have a say in it.

There is no tradition of openness in Irish public life. Why would a reliable and definitive account of the bank guarantee ever emerge if we still don’t know what happened in the Arms Trial, forty-three years ago? Behind the twinkle in the eye and the lovely, lilting voice, what exactly did the Taoiseach know about gunrunning to Northern Ireland? That’s accountability in Irish public life.