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The end of the Tribunals?

Joe Craig

4th June 2003

‘This madness can’t go on,’ was how one government source put it in relation to the many Tribunals of inquiry that exist in the Southern State, ‘we just can’t afford it.’   It has thus been reported that the government is looking at ways of closing down or reforming existing or any future Tribunals so as to minimise costs, which, it has been estimated, could have a final bill of €500m.

Last year there were 10 public inquiries sitting costing an estimated €60 million at which lawyers can earn 2,500 a day.  Promises to recoup costs from some witnesses have already run into opposition that has entailed even more costs.  There is no sign of the end of the Moriarty Tribunal and at the current rate we have been told the Flood Tribunal will last another 15 or 20 years!

It would be tempting to demand a cap on the payments to the fat cat lawyers as the means of resolving the difficulties but this would not solve the problem of the length of time these proceedings are taking and nor is it the least bit likely to happen.  This would interfere with the God given right of the rich to buy band sell and would be particularly unpopular with certain classes in Ireland for whom the professions, and especially law, have historically been a way of making money in a society that closed off other options.

Some on the left have attempted to relate to the widespread frustration and anger among working people by calling for the jailing of corrupt politicians but this does nothing to indicate what mechanism would achieve this.  To answer this some then proposed using the Criminal Assets Bureau but this amounted to a call to strengthen the repressive powers of the State.

To respond to the current plans to scrap or curb the current Tribunals socialists must understand what they represent.  Should we be encouraging the ‘all hell will break loose’ response recently enunciated by the Minister of Justice Michael McDowell if he went ahead with the reported plans?

The Tribunals

The Tribunals, as with Royal Commissions in Britain, and all sorts of inquiries in the North, have always been a means for the government to look as if they are addressing a problem when in fact putting it on the long finger.  In the end it hopes that judges will join the cover up, or refuse to challenge the governments own steps to cover up, and come back with findings or recommendations that support it or at least cloud the issue with so much legal verbiage that the issue is lost in confusion.  Failing all this it hopes that some lowly functionary can be made to shoulder the blame or that blame will lie with the system in general while no meaningful changes to that system are proposed.  The British are especially good at formulations that simultaneously appear to admit and deny culpability.

Whatever the innumerable ways of burying the issue turn out to be it is always expected that putting the thing on the long finger through an inquiry will take the heat out of the issue so that by the time the findings are reported the government can get away with the most minimal response.

All these considerations no doubt have lain behind the appointment of so many Tribunals since the late nineties.  As usual the terms of reference of these Tribunals have been carefully limited.  That is one important reason why judges are usually put in charge, so that they are very clear on the legal limits of any investigation.  Such has been the anger and extent of wrongdoing however that the terms of reverence of Tribunals have had to be extended under political pressure.

The Tribunals are necessary in order to maintain some sense of legitimacy.  In the last analysis only the ideas in people’s heads about the society they live in prevent them from trying to overthrow it.  Maintaining all the fictions about the law and about the honesty and fairness of the State is vitally important to the State’ continued survival.  The number of Tribunals existing is testament to the comprehensive disrepute which many facets of the State face coming into.

The list of State and establishment bodies under investigation testifies to the foul nature of the Southern State.  Central and local government and politicians, various branches of the civil service, the Central and private banks, Garda, Church and the health services have or are the subject of investigation.  Closing all of the Tribunals down would therefore be such an act of political pardon it could not but affect the political legitimacy of the State that these Tribunals were set up to protect in the first place.  Continuing any investigation in private would be greeted by widespread and justified cynicism.

Real Problem

Such is the weakness and rottenness of the Southern State that it now faces a problem difficult even to deal with by the traditional means of passing them off to a judicial investigation – there are just too many of them implicating too many powerful establishment figures.

When you or I are suspected of committing an offence we are hauled before the court and the evidence presented against us by the police after an investigation.  Not so the rich.  Instead we are told that what we have here is an institutional problem, that we must first establish the facts and that a criminal court is an inappropriate response.  Of course we are assured that criminal prosecutions will follow if proven necessary.  In the meantime you cannot prosecute or punish institutions.

Not unless you prosecute a revolution, and that is why we are revolutionaries.



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