Speaking during today's (15 September 2011) Dáil debate the proposed Oireachtas Inquiries referendum, Sinn Fein's Peadar Tóibín TD said that it was vital, “that the proposed amendment to the constitution strengthened democracy and was not a sop to populism”.
Tóibín, who chairs the Dáil's Committee on Investigation, Oversight and Petitions, said: “This proposal that the Oireachtas should have constitutional power to undertake inquiries is the most significant Oireachtas reform in modern times.
“As cathaoirleach of the Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee I believe that reform can radically improve the democratic function of the Oireachtas.
“There will be significant benefits to public policy from the operation of a system of parliamentary inquiry. This proposal could empower the Oireachtas to hold individuals to account. There can be strategic and systemic problems investigated leading to improved legislation.
“Much of the frustration in Irish society is because Irish people have been cheated of justice. Elite individuals and organisations that have done wrong have not been held to account, in stark contrast to the fate of the average citizen.
“In the course of the banking crisis, justice has been denied and the guilty have not been held to account. In the Moriarty, Morris and the Mahon Tribunals justice has been costly (€1/2 a billion in total at my last count), toothless or dropping slowly.
“In other cases such as Abbeylara, once the gardaí refused to cooperate, the Oireachtas has been ineffectual. Elected representatives were hamstrung by the Supreme Court findings that the Oireachtas does not have an inherent power to conduct inquiries.”
Tóibín went on, “We will give careful consideration to what Oireachtas inquiries are meant for? Which type of matters should be inquired into? How will the public interest test be applied? How will the constitutional rights of witnesses and others affected by parliamentary inquiries be safeguarded in the exercise of the new powers?
“Risks inherent in the proposed process include the potential loss of a person’s right to cross-examine someone who has made allegations concerning them, risk of prejudicing criminal proceedings and the risk of this quasi -judicial process being contaminated by political bias.”
However, in conclusion, Tóibín said:
“I have misgivings that the rights which will be afforded to citizens will not be determined by the text of the constitutional amendment, but by legislation which could change over time. There is not enough of a brake on the potential erosion of rights contained within the text of the amendment.
“I understand that there is a view that Article 43 of the Constitution will safeguard these rights, however I believe that we need further clarification on this.
“I second the proposal being made by my colleague Deputy Mary Lou McDonald that the constitutional amendment should be strengthened in the matter of the rights of the individual.”