Putting tribunals to bed

 
 

With major cutbacks to be a constant feature of government, Charles O’Donnell questions whether tribunals should be on top of that list.

Earlier this month the Morris Tribunal published its final two reports, re-associating us with that word, ‘tribunal’. With the onset of a recession, this word has never been so resented. It is the epitome of public money excessively spent to line the pockets of an elite few.

But were the tribunals really such bad value for money? Is it true to say that what they exposed was such a reward that cost should not be a concern? Or were they an idealistic pursuit of truth that became institutionalised by the problems they tried to tackle?

The Mahon Tribunal, for example, had an anticipated cost in excess of €300m. This was to be a rigorous investigation into planning permission corruption. It should have terrified those who were implicated. Instead it became a frivolous piece of Irish culture. It took on the air of a soap opera, providing drama for its audience.

With over 500 witnesses, it became a mark of esteem to be drawn in. Anyone who was anyone in the planning industry was a nobody if they weren’t in some way involved, even if only as an innocent witness.

Successful strategies such as private evidence hearings before the public round to protect ones’ good name ceased. This gave the legal teams the opportunity to draw out the process and the right to interfere in evidence. Even when Bill Clinton was impeached, legal interference was not allowed in his testimony. At stages of the Mahon Tribunal witnesses would stand by and watch legal teams wrangle, occasionally for up to 45 minutes.

At the very root of the problem was this emphasis on legal process being driven by barristers. Tribunals were intended to be quick, informal and inexpensive. Instead they became drawn out and overly focused on legal procedures and technicalities. A tribunal’s main function is to investigate a matter of public importance and write a report to give to the Oireachtas. Is it really necessary to have Ireland’s finest barristers involved, considering they demand the fees they do?

This job could easily be done by less well-known people in the profession. It is not as if Ireland has a shortage of barristers, in fact the opposite is true. To blame the legal practice for the inefficiency of the tribunals is unfair. The reality is that it was politicians who passed the legislation for each tribunal. The legislation sets the costs, the timeframe and the terms of reference.

Too often, the terms of reference were left open. True, many things would not have come to light if it was not for this, but it got to the stage that any small new piece of irrelevant evidence could be debated, greatly adding to costs and drawing out the process.

Where Watergate brought down an administration, Bertiegate couldn’t even affect an opinion poll

Again, this is a classic example of the political establishment orchestrating an ineffective public service. At the end of the day it was they who created the framework for the legal profession to work around.

There is an argument that the tribunals have exposed a culture of corruption and incompetence, which, under the circumstances can be seen to be true. In relation to planning corruption however, we haven’t really discovered anything new, with the exception of Bertiegate, that we did not really know in the earlier parts of the tribunals. They have become a dinosaur.

So is there any consequence of these tribunals? No punishment ever comes from them; political or judicial. At best you might get a sacking or a tax settlement. Michael Lowry got both. A year after being kicked out of Fine Gael however he topped the poll in Tipperary North. Even in the height of Bertiegate in the weeks before a general election, the people of Ireland voiced their opinion. They don’t care. Where Watergate brought down an administration, Bertiegate couldn’t even affect an opinion poll.

In the case of the recently concluded Morris Tribunal, it seems that its justification in terms of efficiency and findings was worth it. However, its findings must be of consequence. Besides vindication of the victims and exposure of corruption and incompetence within the Gardaí, we are left with criminal action and reform. And as no criminal action will be taken against those guilty of the uncovered wrongdoing, its success is will be determined on the success of the reforms.

The reforms as a result of this tribunal came after the second report, in the shape of the Garda Síochána Act of 2005. It contains measures to address accountability and create a complaints procedure. There is no guarantee however that these measures will stand up to an institution that has not been reformed since the beginning of the state. Some critics would argue that these steps are only illusions of reform.

If this is the case, the purpose of the Morris Tribunal is lessened. Within the Gardaí, they must be serious about the need for change and not hide behind sound bites such as ‘a few bad apples’ and ‘a dark period in a proud history’. It takes more than a PR campaign to institute change.

So do we really need to pay for these services? Of course we must investigate matters of public importance and make those in the wrong accountable. It seems the only spoil of truth here comes in the shape of €3000 a day. Even when a tribunal ceases, its costs still climb, even quadrupling by the time legal fees and compensation is paid out, giving them an air of the living dead.

Maybe it is time to realise that the tribunals, while they had some major success, are in their present form a failure. We cannot ignore the role that they set out to play however. It is a question of finding a new way to pursue these inquiries, confined to their original intention, to be quick, informal and inexpensive.

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