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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Kicking the can of responsibility down the road




Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey leaves a police station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on September 6. Picture: Reuters

HERE comes another inquiry with all bells and whistles attached. The latest revelations about Nama’s disposal of its assets in the North looks set to open up fresh prairies of investigation in this state.
The filming of an adviser to Nama in the North apparently accepting a bag with £40,000 in cash from a developer appears to have pushed over the line the requirement for an inquiry down here.
There has been a smell off Nama’s business in the North since Mick Wallace first told the Dáil in July 2015 that £7m had been deposited in an offshore account as a pay-off associated with the sale of Nama’s assets in the North.
For over a year, the Government rejected calls for a full-blown inquiry on the basis that there are inquiries, including a criminal investigation, afoot in the North and in the US over the deal. Fianna Fáil has largely supported the Government’s stance on the matter, but now the smell has become a stench.

A commission of investigation, the mother and father of all inquiries these days, looks set to be established. A hunt will be undertaken to track down an idle, retired judge, a species that is becoming increasingly rare in these inquiry saturated days.
Once a commission is established the whole affair will be off the political agenda and deemed out of bounds. Any political reckoning will be placed on the never-never. In the Nama controversy, this amounts largely to a question as to whether the agency was put under political pressure to sell off assets quicker than its original design allowed for. In such a scenario, the potential opened up for the exchequer to get fleeced as a price for the political capital that might accrue to the Government.

Any such question will be long-fingered with an actual result most likely due between two and four years into the retirement of Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny.
So like much else, the Nama inquiry will be another problem to be long-fingered by the coalition for kicking the can down the road.
A huge chunk of the business of government has been thrust onto the never-never in this fashion. Apart from Nama, there are commisisons of investigation afoot into alleged Garda malpractice, alleged sweetheart deals in the IBRC/Siteserv, and alleged ticket touting at the Olympic games.
An inquiry has also been completed into the case of alleged abuse of “Grace”, the disabled girl whose experiences in a foster home in the South-East were highlighted
That inquiry is at a stage where the minister of state concerned, Finian McGrath, is examining whether it can be referred to a full commission of inquiry.
All of these have about them the common theme of kicking the can down the road. In each case, the Government has effectively silenced controversy by setting up an inquiry. What is noticeable is the difference in approach to establishing these inquiries.
Some, such as Fennelly (into taping of calls at Garda stations) and the Rio affair, get off the ground almost immediately.

In both those cases, the fallout is likely to fall on bodies or agencies outside the Cabinet and therefore there is no reluctance to find those who should be held accountable.
This approach differs when dealing with the likes of Siteserv/IBRC and Nama. In these instances, decisions at Cabinet come under close scrutiny and possible criticism. While Messers Noonan and Kenny can fortify themselves in the knowledge that a result won’t be due for years, there is also the matter of their legacies, something politicians hold dear.
It’s not just controversies that involve allegations of wrongdoing that are getting kicked down the road: Two of the most contentious issues of recent years, water and abortion, are also being thrust onto the never-never.
The expert commission on domestic public water services has been handed the task of debating what exactly is the best way to pay for the water infrastructure in this country. There was a time when a government would decide a matter like this, but that was oh so long ago.
At least this commission has done some service for one of the political parties by giving cover to Fianna Fáil to change its principles on paying for water.


An anti-water charges protest in Cork. The issue of paying for water is another one kicked down the road. Picture: Dan Linehan

Heretofore, the party was in favour of some form of water charges but it has now told the commission that it no longer espouses that principle. The people didn’t like Micheál Martin’s principles, so he changed them.
Another handy vehicle to kick another can down the road is the citizens’ assembly which will decide on whether and how to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
In a functioning democracy, the Oireachtas would make this decision, but that would cause headaches for the Cabinet. In a functioning democracy, the people would simply be allowed to have their say on such a primal matter, but that might cause further grief.
So as with much else, the issue is put on the never never, where a decision might be arrived at after the next election, which, in political, terms, is engulfed in a foggy future off on the horizon.

Water woes
- Noel Baker
The issue the Government must wish would simply disappear down the plughole.
Water charges proved to be an issue that many voters wouldn’t swallow, meaning the Government’s planned rollout of payments was stymied from the beginning. First came the sop of the water conservation grant, then the precipitous drop in the number of people making quarterly payments, and finally the general election result. The Government would still prefer to pay for water through charges, but without Labour and down numbers in the Dáil, there was no way it could push it through.
With charges suspended, the expert commission on domestic public water services was formed as part of the agreement which allowed for the formation of the Government. It will make recommendations having considered submissions made before last Friday’s cut-off, but the Fianna Fáil position has hardened. It wants water paid for through general taxation and a scrapping of any charges.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has said Ireland could be fined over the suspension of water charges as it is a signatory to the water framework directive. Like a yard tap on a frosty night, this one will run and run.
Abortion
- Noel Baker
Historically, no single issue has proved as divisive, emotive and, arguably, downright toxic as abortion.
It could be argued Labour’s implosion in the last general election had one silver lining for the Government: The smaller party was committed to holding a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, whereas Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s position was always more circumspect.


Amnesty International and supporters demonstrate outside Government Buildings over the Eighth Amendment and issues surrounding abortion in Ireland. Picture: Rollingnews.ie

The issue hoved back into view after the election when the UN concluded Ireland’s ban on abortion subjected a woman carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
It sparked calls from pro-choice advocates for the Government to change the laws, with pro-life groups equally steadfast in calling for the existing ban to remain in place.
The Government-appointed citizens’ assembly, chaired by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, is now due to meet next month and the matter of the Eighth Amendment will be top of the agenda.
Just this week People Before Profit TD Brid Smith said: “The citizens’ assembly is really just a cover and kicking to touch an issue that is very urgent.”
Project Eagle
- Noel Baker
Nothing to do with a fictional German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill at the height of the Second World War, nonetheless Project Eagle appears to have its own fair share of intrigue.
Nama, the State’s bad bank, took over property loans made by Irish banks in the North with a book value of more than €6bn. In April 2014, it sold the lot of them in a single transaction, covering 860 properties, to Cerberus, a US investment giant, for about €1.6bn. The codename for the sale within Nama was Project Eagle.
As the biggest property deal in Northern Ireland, the sale was first dogged by controversy after €7m linked to it was found in an Isle of Man bank account.
Project Eagle has been examined on several occasions by the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee and opposition politicians are currently calling for a commission of inquiry. It’s also under investigation by the UK’s National Crime Agency, the US department of justice’s securities and exchange commission, and the subject of a parliamentary inquiry in Stormont.
In August, Finance Minister Michael Noonan received a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General into the sale by Nama of its Northern Ireland properties.
It is due to be published on Wednesday.
‘Undue’ benefits
- Noel Baker
The Apple cart was well and truly upset when the European Commission ruled that Ireland had granted undue tax benefits of up to €13bn to the technology giant, in a move which not only called into question the country’s international reputation, but also caused a significant wobble within the Government.
The finding by European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager prompted sustained complaint from senior government figures, with Finance Minister Michael Noonan instantly saying that the decision would be appealed.
However, some Independent figures in government, including Finian McGrath and Katherine Zappone, needed to be convinced.
The issue was also complicated by soundings that other EU states would be interested in sharing any €13bn windfall, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and others stressing that at no time did Apple get a sweetheart deal, and that our tax affairs were entirely our own concern.
According to the Department of Finance, the State has two months and 10 days to lodge the appeal but the European Court process is expected to take several years and it is likely to be a year before there is an oral hearing. Ultimately, the result will have huge ramifications for the country’s finances and economic outlook into the future.
Siteserv sale
- Noel Baker
Siteserv was sold by the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) in March 2012 to the Denis O’Brien-owned firm Millington for €45m.
The deal saw State-owned IBRC (formerly Anglo Irish Bank) write off €110m of its €150m debt, effectively a 70% haircut.
Subsequently, an unsuccessful underbidder raised concerns saying they were prepared to offer more for Siteserv. It also emerged the law firm Arthur Cox advised both Siteserv and Millington on the sale. In 2015, the Siteserv controversy blew up again after Independent TD Catherine Murphy retrieved documents under freedom of information, which revealed a level of official concern over the deal. In an effort to quell the controversy, the Government announced a review of IBRC deals, including Siteserv and a commission of inquiry was set up. The inquiry is investigating the sale of IBRC loans where there was a loss of at least €10m to the taxpayer. Six transactions involved write-offs of over €100m. Last year, the commission’s examination of up to 38 transactions — including the 2012 sale of Siteserv — effectively stalled after the commission’s chairman, Judge Brian Cregan, concluded he did not have sufficient legal powers to proceed. New laws were drafted to allow him continue his work.
‘Grace’ report should clear way for full inquiry
- Noel Baker
The report into the ‘Grace’ case is with Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath, who said just last month that he would aim to bring it to government as soon as possible with a view to early publication.


Finian McGrath: Has received ‘Grace’ report.

The allegations are grave: That decades of sexual abuse of a woman with severe intellectual disabilities who lived in foster care may have been covered up.
The case involves a foster family in the South-east who looked after 47 children and adults with severe intellectual disabilities between 1983 and 2009. The old South Eastern Health Board became aware of concerns about the family as far back as 1992 and three years later removed all of the people in their care.
Yet one woman, given the pseudonym Grace and who turned 18 in 1996, was left with the family for 14 more years, and is alleged to have suffered severe sexual abuse.
The report into matters related to the former foster home was prepared by Conor Dignam SC, who advised some legal procedural and administrative issues should be addressed before the report is published.
Once published, it should open the way to a full commission of investigation into the care of individuals with a disability in the former foster home. The case is also the subject of a garda investigation.
A separate case, based in Cork, is the subject of another review by the HSE and Tusla.
Olympics lap of honour turned into massive headache
- Noel Baker
When OCI president Pat Hickey flew out to Rio for the Olympic Games, it must have seemed like a lap of honour at the end of a glittering career. Instead it has turned into a personal nightmare for Mr Hickey and a massive headache for the Government.
While Mr Hickey has consistently proclaimed his innocence of all the charges levelled at him by Brazilian authorities, the staccato nature of the controversy seemed to catch the Government on the backfoot. Some members of the Dáil were not convinced a non-statutory inquiry would be sufficient to answer the many questions sparked by the tickets scandal.
Transport Minister Shane Ross admitted Mr Hickey “ate me for breakfast” during their meeting in Rio before the latter’s arrest, although he’s bound to be the more chipper of the two men at the moment.
The collective countenance could change if Brazilian authorities do provide the evidence they claim they have that shows widespread abuses regarding the dissemination of tickets.
In addition to the process in Brazil and the inquiry here, the OCI is carrying out its own review, which is likely to conclude in October. Already, some OCI affiliate bodies are querying why everything seems to be on hold and have called for changes in corporate governance.
Given the importance of sport to this country and its international reputation, the outcome of all three probes are eagerly awaited.
Industrial action over pay
- Noel Baker
And now begins the winter of our discontent. That is how some members of the Government might be feeling after the Luas strikes gave way to the on-running (and sometimes non-running) Dublin Bus dispute.


Last week’s two-day stoppage by Dublin Bus staff affected as many as 400,000 commuters daily.

Last week’s two-day stoppage affected as many as 400,000 commuters daily, and more stoppages are planned after workers rejected a Labour Court recommendation on increased wages, to be phased in over three years.
The next stoppage is scheduled for Thursday and Friday of this week. The situation appears to be in deadlock, but given the earlier Luas drivers wrangle, how this plays out could influence how workers elsewhere view their rights to increased pay following years of austerity.
Where the bus drivers go, Dart and train workers could follow. There is also the issue of teachers, who have consistently voiced their concerns not only over central issues such as pay and pupil-teacher ratio, but also over proposed reforms to the curriculum.

Just last month, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland said it may take industrial action over pay discrimination against newly recruited teachers, claiming the removal of qualification allowances from new entrants almost five years ago was effectively a 20% pay cut compared to their colleagues.
Michael Clifford