Dail Committees and the behaviour of PAC

Those who know me won’t be surprised when I say that I have been following with interest the case that Angela Kerins is taking against the Public Accounts Committee. I don’t know Angela; may have met her at some event or other in the past, but I have no recollection that I did.
She is taking a case against the PAC for the way she alleges she was treated when she appeared before the committee in 2014, saying that the abuse she suffered at their hands effectively destroyed her life. The case was heard for seven days, and is now postponed until October 4th.

I was often amazed at the behaviour of the Public Accounts Committee during the last Dail, and by the fact that nobody in public office or in the media seemed to see anything wrong with what they were doing. And this was not just in the case of Angela Kerins, but with many others who came before them. What I found particularly objectionable was the fact that, regularly, while a sitting was taking place and some person or group were before them, members of PAC were on the midday news on RTE and Newstalk rubbishing what was being said inside. The two most notable culprits were Shane Ross and Mary Lou McDonald, but that behaviour was not exclusive to them. How could anybody be expected to have a fair opportunity to explain their situation or to get a fair hearing when public opinion was being whipped up against them while they were still in session. Commentators on radio and newspapers, many of whom would regard themselves as serious and fair, regularly joined in the frenzy of condemnation. It was a strange time. Two of that PAC are now senior ministers in the present government.

The first few days of the court case were devoted to senior council John Rogers putting the case for Ms. Kerins. The final two days of the current sitting were given over to senior counsel Gallagher putting the defence for PAC. If I understand it correctly, his main area of defence has to do with Dail privilege, the notion that whatever a public representative says within the confines of the oireachtas is covered by privilege, and cannot be challenged. One of the three judges who are hearing the case asked him would that still apply even if the member said something that was so ‘monstrous’ as to destroy a person’s reputation. Mr. Gallagher’s argument is that it does.

I will wait with enormous interest the final judgment in this case. If Ms. Kerins wins the case it seems to me that it will put the positions of Simon Harris and Shane Ross, the two senior ministers, in some jeopardy. If the judgment goes the other way, and agrees with Gallagher’s interpretation of Dail privilege, then I cannot see how anybody would ever appear before any Dail committee again; -if they have the power to say anything they wish about you, true or false, and you have no comeback against them.

So, whatever way the judgment goes, it seems to me that Dail committees are going to be the losers, and that a much more nuanced notion of Dail privilege will have to be considered. The history of our parliament for the past almost one hundred years shows that TDs had a strong code of behaviour, and generally observed codes of decency and respect when they spoke about people outside of the oireachtas. In recent years that has changed, and much more venom, animosity and ugliness has crept into our parliament. The old standards no longer apply, so new restrictions will have to be put in place. The committee tasked with regulating behaviour, The Standards in Public Office (SIPO) committee has shown itself to be almost completely ineffective.
When Mary Lou McDonald made very serious accusations against five people who were not members of the Dail, and named them, without any real evidence, SIPO made a pathetically weak objection, but were unable to impose any sanctions. That clearly will not work with the personnel in our present oireachtas.