Nat O'Connor: Many current news stories are about accountability, either seeking it or the lack of it. In some cases, there is a clear public understanding of the process we use for seeking accountability. But when it comes to the causes of the banking crisis, there isn't.
Ireland has a number of what you might call 'accountability institutions'. The reports of Eamonn Lillis's trial for murder are familiar territory for most of us. We know about the role of the judge and jury, the prosecution and the defence. We know that Lillis is innocent until proven guilty and that the prosecution are looking for evidence that indicates Lillis's guilt 'beyond all reasonable doubt'. If it were a civil proceeding, only the lower threshold of 'the balance of probability' would have to be met. And in either case, the trial is held in public and reported daily. Most importantly, the proceeding guarantees some kind of result. Either he's innocent or guilty; and if guilty, the judge will impose some kind of sentence.
However, when it comes to the banking inquiry, we seem to lack a sense of how we get accountability. What is the correct place for the inquiry to occur? Who should be involved? What is the correct threshold for evidence? And what guarantee do we have about the outcome?
Maybe the most pressing question is why is this a choice for the Government? Whatever happened to the idea of the division of powers? In parliamentary democracies, one role of the legislative is to hold the executive to account. In the case of our parliament, we were reminded that Oireachtas committees do not have the right to make judgements about disputed claims of fact. This would appear to be a real weakness.
Why don't we have accountability institutions that get automatically activated for public interest inquiries, in the same way that the courts are activated when the DPP decides to prosecute. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a strong, independent inquiry might uncover some embarrassing findings for the Government. All the most reason why governments should not have the power (and temptation) to set up weak or slow inquiries.
What we have had, over the last couple of decades, are a series of ad hoc decisions by successive governments to use different institutions at different times, including tribunals, Oireachtas inquiries (e.g. DIRT) and various commissions of inquiry, such as the Government is proposing in relation to the causes of the banking crisis. Even institutions of the same type work differently in the detail. For example, bizarrely, the Moriarty Tribunal transcripts are copyrighted to a private company, unlike the other Tribunals, which publish their transcripts online.
The Tribunals have been a hugely costly way of patching the gaps in our system of accountability institutions. Setting up some sort of permanent mechanism that can be activated to deal with public interest inquiries would seem to be a priority, whether it is through giving Oireachtas committees more powers or through some other body.
In relation to the Government's proposed commission, according to the Irish Times, the Minister for Finance has said that "an Oireachtas committee would then have an opportunity to examine the report and call witnesses if it wished". But this exposes another weakness in the balance of power. Except for the Public Accounts Committee, Oireachtas committees are chaired by a Government appointee and they all have a pro-Government majority. Hence, their ability to provide independent and robust analysis is limited, especially if there is anything embarrassing to the Government.
The lack of consistency and potential weakness of public interest inquiries is not the only gap in the system. Yesterday, Transparency Ireland launched a report into the weak whistleblower protection in Ireland. Transparency Ireland argue that: “We know what we know about corruption in our banking system and regulatory failure because of whistleblowers. Yet those who would report wrongdoing in our banks and public service still have little or no legal protection or guidance. The situation doesn’t just leave thousands of people exposed to disciplinary or legal action - it leaves the country exposed to another financial crisis”. They are calling for a universal system, like the one that works well in the UK, which will protect whistleblowers everywhere in the State equally. The full report (PDF) can be read here.
Various whistleblowers spoke at Transparency Ireland's launch yesterday, including Eugene McErlene, who was the internal auditor who exposed overcharging in AIB in 2000/2001. McErlene spoke of the very difficult experience of being "isolated" when he spoke out about the wrong-doing that he uncovered. There simply were no adequate accountability institutions in place to which he could turn to. It was very revealing to read an article from last year in the Irish Independent reporting that McErlene does not hold a grudge against AIB. Instead, his frustration was directed at the Financial Regulator.
The issue of how best to find out the root causes of the banking crisis is not just about the detail of the proposed commission such as who's on it, or how many sittings will be private or public (although these are important details). We need to take a long, hard look at our whole system of accountability institutions, from the Oireachtas to the regulators, which are meant to investigate errors and wrong-doing. And the division of powers in a democratic state requires that strong independent accountability institutions will be activated when the public interest requires them, even if their findings may be embarrassing to the executive of the day.
Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a Lecturer of Public Policy and Public Management in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.
Previously Director of TASC, Nat also led the research team in Dublin’s Homeless Agency.
Nat holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin (2008) and an MA in Political Science and Social Policy form the University of Dundee (1998). Nat’s primary research interest is in how research-informed public policy can achieve social justice and human wellbeing. Nat’s work has focused on economic inequality, housing and homelessness, democratic accountability and public policy analysis. His PhD focused on public access to information as part of democratic policy making.