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Watchdog wounded by political flak

Posted on: June 18th, 2013

 

THE Dail’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is a pretty sniffy body. It looks down its nose at other Oireachtas committees. Uniquely, its members are deemed so distinguished that no substitutes are ever allowed.

 

The rules do not permit a mere senator within an ass’s roar of its proceedings. Until recently, the vulgarity of voting was never indulged. This elite cabal, full of politicians, perpetuates the nonsensical fiction: that it is above politics.

Last Thursday, that little myth exploded. The PAC’s proceedings were pure politics. Some members came to hang Fianna Fail chairman John McGuinness, others to save him. Politicians outside the committee were watching the proceedings eagerly. Nervous civil servants were believed to be glued to their screens in their offices.

The PAC is the watchdog over public expenditure. Its chairman is a crusader for thrift in public bodies, a consistent critic of waste and extravagance. Consequently, more than one or two eyebrows were raised when Irish Independent journalist Fiach Kelly revealed that when John McGuinness was a minister in 2007, his office had been extravagantly refurbished, his son had been employed in his department where he received generous overtime, and his wife had enjoyed a few happy trips abroad at taxpayers’ expense.

John McGuinness had made a career out of his crusade against extravagance with the public purse. It probably gave him the profile that saw him made a junior minister in 2007. But his ministerial career was abruptly ended by Brian Cowen in 2009 – a sacking that, ironically, probably saved his Dail seat. He took the opportunity of his dismissal to distance himself from Fianna Fail excesses.

After his removal, he lashed out at Mr Cowen, his own senior minister Mary Coughlan and his former department. He was furious, giving angry interviews, including one to The Late Late Show, and even defying the party by missing crucial votes in the Dail.

Within weeks, he became a Fianna Fail maverick. At one stage soon after his removal, he denounced his former colleagues in withering terms, declaring: “I am only sorry that I did not have the time, as a minister, to kick a larger hole in the wall of incompetence, waste, inefficiency and lack of professionalism that confronted me at both political and bureaucratic levels within my department.”

Such a record and his semi-detached status in Fianna Fail made him an ideal candidate for the chair of the PAC when he was re-elected a TD in 2011. New leader Micheal Martin picked him for the post, a gig traditionally reserved for the biggest opposition party.

(I must declare a minor interest here : as a member of the committee, I contested the position but was trounced by Mr McGuinness. By agreement, the three biggest political parties whipped their TDs into line, putting Mr McGuinness in position and me in my place!)

Mr McGuinness has been good at his job, far better than I would ever have been. He is patient, fair-minded, challenging to witnesses and determined to pursue waste.

Such an exalted reputation for abstinence and thrift is double-edged. When Fiach Kelly broke the bad news, RTE’s Morning Ireland demanded answers. TDs followed suit, wanting to know how a zealot against waste could justify apparent extravagance in his ministerial office and taxpayer-funded benefits for his family?

He answered the charges last Thursday. He did pretty well. He pleaded no wrong-doing and the totally different economic circumstances prevailing today. Even if he was far too shirty at times, it was obvious – early on in the proceedings – that the chairman had not committed a hanging offence. He had broken no rules or guidelines. He had been foolish, maybe. He held bizarre views on spouses travel, but that was all.

The questions were mostly confined to detail about various trips to Canada, Edinburgh and London when he was a minister. After two hours, the grilling was coming to an end. Mr McGuinness was bruised, but unbowed. Walking towards freedom.

Suddenly, the Dail division bells rang. We adjourned to allow members to vote.

Just outside the committee room door, waiting patiently, sat the Financial Regulator, Matthew Elderfield. Originally billed for a hearing much earlier, the nation’s key mandarin was fiddling with his iPad.

I arrived in the Dail chamber for the vote to be greeted by independent TD Finian McGrath. “How’s the hanging going,” asked the only TD to have demanded Mr McGuinness’s resignation.

“There will be no hanging,” I replied. “McGuinness is through the hoops.”

Mr McGrath sighed.

Mr McGuinness was free as a bird because he had dealt with the questions and rebutted any suggestion of breaching rules. He had been guilty of appalling judgment, at worst. The meeting had been defused, an anti-climax. There was no politicking. The PAC was emerging with its reputation as a non-political body confirmed.

Even the partisan intervention of Taoiseach Enda Kenny two days earlier, criticising Mr McGuinness from faraway Rome, seemed forgotten.

When we reassembled, Fine Gael dissident John Deasy emerged from the shadows. It was a high-octane intervention. RTE described his contribution as a “bombshell”. Mr Deasy began to inject the entire room with political dynamite.

Members from all sides had been fearful that Mr McGuinness might be ambushed with politically charged allegations from the Fine Gael ranks. It was anticipated that Fine Gael members might echo Mr Kenny’s cry that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”. The political fiction that the PAC was above politics could be exposed.

Mr Deasy is well capable of such an outburst. But he indulged himself in a different type of outburst. Instead of ambushing Mr McGuinness, he torpedoed his own side. Speaking very deliberately, he paid veiled compliments to the Fianna Fail chairman’s “combative” style.

Pointing towards the Cabinet, he spoke of how “people throughout government think you have crossed the line”, of how certain individuals will “use this as an opportunity to remove you”. He spoke glowingly of how Mr McGuinness fulfilled the need for a “combative” chair and of his political enemies. A conspiracy theory was being fuelled.

Mr Deasy was plunging the bayonet deep into the ribs of his Fine Gael colleagues and his party leader. And he was thoroughly enjoying it.

Mr McGuinness, grateful for the leg-up, responded with an equally friendly compliment about Mr Deasy’s own “combative” style. A mutual admiration society had been formed. Mr McGuinness, preaching from the high ground, proceeded to lecture the meeting about the “bell tolling for democracy”. Referring to the media stories, he said he was “damn sure the leaks came from the department”.

Suddenly the genie was out of the bottle. Mr Deasy and Mr McGuinness had decided to play the political card. The rumoured sources of the leaks were named in public. No evidence was produced. An embittered Fine Gael TD was pointing the finger at his bosses. Mr Deasy used the PAC to shaft his leader, to undermine his colleagues and to throw a lifeline to Mr McGuinness. This was raw politics. Mr McGuinness responded by attacking civil servants in the Department of Enterprise. It was the best political one-two witnessed in Leinster House for many years.

Fine Gael members are furious with Mr Deasy for saving a Fianna Fail chairman from embarrassment. Such a manoeuvre may yield short-term benefits for Mr Deasy and Mr McGuinness, but will leave the watchdog over public expenditure permanently weakened.

The meeting ended in acrimony. Labour TD Derek Nolan described the final exchanges as a fiasco. The sniffy PAC, which supposedly looks down its nose at political manipulation, has been relegated to the realm of a political battleground.

As this political scrap dragged on, Matthew Elderfield remained outside the door playing with his iPad.

The man in charge of regulating the banks was forced to play second fiddle to politicians throwing shapes at each other and settling scores within their parties.