On October 27th, the same day we will choose our next President, we will be asked to vote on a number of referenda which will change the wording of the Irish Constitution.
The first will ask if you think it is right that judges’ pay can be reduced in line with public service salary reductions which are necessary in the public interest, for example during times of economic hardship.
The second will ask whether or not you feel that the Oireachtas, that is the Dáil and Seanad, should be given powers of investigation to allow matters of public importance, such as the banking crisis, to be put under the spotlight in a public, cost-efficient and timely fashion.
Before coming to office, Fine Gael promised reform of how our political system works and by putting these questions to the people of Ireland we intend, with the will of the people, to do just that.
In 2002, a Supreme Court judgement in the Abbeylara Case found that there was legal doubt regarding the power of the Oireachtas to carry out inquiries; power which this Government believes is instrumental in ensuring accountability in public life, which has been seriously lacking in recent times.
If passed, the 30th Amendment to the Constitution (Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries) Bill, 2011, which has completed its passage through the Oireachtas, will give people the opportunity to strengthen our democracy so that inquiries in the public interest can be carried out in our national parliament. This will go some way to putting us on an equal footing with how things are done internationally, as it will provide the Oireachtas with comparable inquiry powers to parliaments across the world.
A ‘Yes’ vote on the 27th will also ensure that an effective alternative is put in place to drawn-out and expensive tribunals, which drag on for years – much to the benefit of lawyers,. It will provide a transparent and effective alternative which will mean that those responsible for failures which have cost the public dearly can be held properly to account.
It is my firm belief that those who have failed the public by acting irresponsibly or wasting public money should be made to account to a public forum. There is no better way to do so than through the people’s parliament. Fine Gael wants to strengthen the power of parliament to act on behalf of the people to secure accountability in our society in areas where significant systemic failures have taken place. A ‘Yes’ vote will ensure that this happens.
Inquiries will be fairly conducted, tightly defined and carried out in a cost-efficient and expeditious way and any attempt to harm the constitutional rights and liberties of the individual, as has been suggested by some, will be rigorously safeguarded against. To ensure this, the author of the referendum Bill, Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, introduced an amendment, reaffirming the obligation on the Oireachtas and its committees, to abide by fair procedures.
If we are to learn anything from the crises that have shaken our country to the core and have seen the IMF take control of our purse strings, the Oireachtas must be enabled to make findings and recommendations so that we can get to the root cause of the serious systemic failures that have taken place in our society.
It is not our aim to set up a system that allows inquiries into the behaviour of all individuals in all cases, but for a system that is free to pursue public policy issues, whether they involve adjudication on the conduct of certain individuals or not.
The Oireachtas all-Party Committee system has demonstrated that it works well and with a considerable degree of success. Committees such as PAC (the Public Accounts Committee) have been key to tackling issues of public concern, such as the overspending at FÁS. If we want a system through which the review of public policy issues can be intensified the role of the Oireachtas must be strengthened.
This referendum will not to serve the Government of the day or any one particular party-political agenda. In the spirit of the current Committee system, it will provide for a cross-party parliamentary system of inquiry which will ensure that matters of general public importance that come to light can be subjected to full investigation and rigorous inquiry. We want a system whereby costs are reduced and all parties work together to investigate key issues affecting the people of Ireland.
For too long those in position of power who have failed us have not been held to account. It is time for transparency and for a more open system of public administration for all. We can, and will, get to the bottom of the issues that people want addressed; the golden handshakes, the cosy relations at the top and the endless waste. A ‘Yes’ vote in this referendum on the 27th October will ensure that we finally get the answers to the questions the previous Government did not dare to ask.