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Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 809 No. 3

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  12 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Sean Fleming: Information on Seán Fleming Zoom on Seán Fleming] This indicates that the head of the Oireachtas has formed a strong prior view that an issue of collusion arises. It was the Taoiseach who raised that issue. I am of the view that the conversation in which we are engaging now will be played out in the courts before an Oireachtas inquiry comes into operation because some witness who does not want to come forward will take a case regarding the bias of this institution. That prospective witness will use the words of An Taoiseach to demonstrate the institutional bias referred to by the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case.

The matter does not stop there. The main party in Government has been producing and circulating to all its members documents relating to the roles played by Fianna Fáil and the former Anglo Irish Bank. This demonstrates that Fine Gael and, by definition, all of its members - some of whom will serve on the committee of inquiry - have been influenced by the Taoiseach's approach in respect of what he refers to as collusion between Fianna Fáil and the former Anglo Irish Bank. We entirely refute the idea that there was such collusion. The relevant tapes have subsequently shown how furious were the people in the former Anglo Irish Bank with the then Minister for Finance, the late Brian Lenihan Jr. This shows that there was anything but collusion. Since the Taoiseach made his comments, he has sent out his minions to appear on several national media programmes to restate the position that there are charges to be answered by Fianna Fáil. This shows that a bias exists. Inquiries must examine the facts and people are not brought before them, charged with wrongdoing and made to answer for what they have done. Members of the Fine Gael Party recently appeared on national television and indicated that there are charges to answer. They also restated this view in the House in the past day or two.

The actions of the Taoiseach and his party should be a source of concern to the Minister. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, contributed to scuppering the referendum on the previous amendment to the Constitution in this regard by his display of arrogance. Now Fine Gael, led by the Taoiseach and supported by his minions, is talking about collusion and the fact that there are charges to be answered. In my opinion this demonstrates not only subjective bias on the part of individual Members but also an institutional bias on the part of the head of this Oireachtas. Whatever chance the Minister had of having an objective inquiry carried out in respect of the banks has been damaged by the Taoiseach and other Fine Gael Ministers. I have not been following everything that has been said by members of the Labour Party on this matter and I accept that I am singling out the Fine Gael Party.

The Minister would, if he could accept these amendments, be in a position to put up some small defence when a case is brought before the courts regarding why this legislation should not be used in respect of the holding of an inquiry into banking. Regardless of what the Taoiseach stated, we are prepared to accept the committee of inquiry being chaired by a member of the Opposition. That is the basis of amendment No. 4. Despite the personal and institutional bias the Taoiseach, as leader of this Parliament, has demonstrated in respect of any future banking inquiry, we are of the view that a minimum of 40% - the Minister could opt for a higher percentage - of the membership of that inquiry should not be from the Government parties. If the Minister were to accept my amendments, he would be showing the courts, the public and those who might be called to give evidence that the proposed inquiry will not be tainted by either institutional or personal bias. As I have already stated, the Taoiseach's comments - which demonstrate personal and institutional bias on the part of Fine Gael and its members - are going to remain on the record. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment to the effect that the inquiry should be chaired by a member of the Opposition and that 40% of its membership should comprise those in opposition, then he will also be demonstrating bias. Not only will he be insisting that the Government should have a huge majority on the inquiry, he will also be insisting that it should control the Chair.

It is not acceptable to state that this is a matter for the Oireachtas to decide upon because the Taoiseach controls the Oireachtas. We witnessed what he did yesterday when members of Fine Gael defied the Whip and voted against the Government. We had not even left the Chamber when e-mails to remove those individuals from Oireachtas committees were issued from the Office of the Government Chief Whip. That is how the Government and the Oireachtas operate at present. If the Minister cannot accept the amendments, this will show an even greater level of institutional bias than that demonstrated by the Taoiseach.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald I recognise the intent behind Deputy Sean Fleming's amendments. For the purposes of underscoring inclusivity and putting paid to any concern relating to the Government delivering a ready-up in the context of the membership of a committee of inquiry, it would be useful if they were included in the Bill. I think we are all clear on the fact that in the context of the legislation before the House, we must work within the existing constitutional and legal framework. As a result, we cannot make adverse findings of fact. There is, of course, an issue of bias and there is an attempt to cater for this in the legislation. However, I cannot accept Deputy Sean Fleming's narrative in respect of what has transpired recently with regard to any potential inquiry into banking. By definition, when an inquiry - whatever its format - is under way, it will examine what happened in the banks and a very legitimate public question that will arise will relate to the interaction or otherwise between the political system and the banking system. I do not believe that raising this issue represents bias, it merely acknowledges one dimension of what was, in some ways, a very complicated turn of events.

I am not even sure that this is the right place in which to engage in this discussion. However, I could not allow the Deputy's commentary to pass without stating that for its part, my party recognises the limitations - by definition - of any potential inquiry into banking. The latter will simply reflect the legal position. I am also of the view, however, that a methodology can be found to ensure that bias can be offset. In such circumstances, the inquiry will have to be very structured and focused and I believe this is possible. I do not buy the Fianna Fáil line that this endeavour is doomed because the Taoiseach has hurt the feelings of that party by making a legitimate political charge against it. Not so long ago, Deputy Sean Fleming was very much in favour of an Oireachtas inquiry into banking. At that time there was some tension between the Committee of Public Accounts and the joint committee on finance on the issue because people believed an inquiry would be a good thing and they all wanted to be involved. Let us not back off holding a legitimate, properly structured, disciplined and functioning public inquiry because as such it is politically awkward. People should not make charges of bias, either individual or institutional, unless they are based in fact. Neither should they make charges of bias against any potential inquiry simply because such an inquiry would be politically uncomfortable. Making such charges is dishonest.

Deputy Shane Ross: Information on Shane P.N. Ross Zoom on Shane P.N. Ross I thank Deputy Sean Fleming for putting his finger on the kernel of the problem. I do not agree with everything he said but the issue we must debate and decide upon relates to the composition of the inquiry. This is the most controversial aspect of the Bill. Nobody in the House doubts the need for an inquiry and everybody has been seeking such an inquiry. If, however, we proceed with the composition proposed in the Bill, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the inquiry to reach any conclusions.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin There is no proposed composition in the Bill.

Deputy Shane Ross: Information on Shane P.N. Ross Zoom on Shane P.N. Ross I apologise, the composition proposed in the amendment. I do not agree that there should be a 40:40 split, that the Chairman should be a member of the Opposition or that a Government Deputy should hold that position. I am of the view that this matter is no longer suitable to be examined by a committee of inquiry comprising Oireachtas Members. I say this for a specific and obvious reason, namely, that I cannot think of any Oireachtas Member who has not already stated quite categorically how he or she feels about the underlying issues relating to this matter. Neither can I think of one who has not made statements about bankers - such statements are almost always in the negative - which will provoke those witnesses who are going to be called at a later stage, namely, bankers and civil servants, into going to the Four Courts. It is common knowledge that bankers and well-off existing and former civil servants are already equipping themselves with well-heeled lawyers as they prepare to injunct this inquiry.

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