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FactCheck: Has no government minister ever gone before the Public Accounts Committee?

Will Michael Noonan be the first sitting minister to go to the PAC? Or is Leo Varadkar wrong?

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Updated: 8.57pm

FINANCE MINISTER MICHAEL Noonan has finally agreed to appear before the Public Accounts Committee, amid developments and revelations regarding Project Eagle, the sale of NAMA’s Northern Ireland loanbook.

But on RTE’s The Week in Politics last Sunday, his cabinet colleague Leo Varadkar argued strongly that Noonan should not come before the committee, and claimed:

Ministers don’t go before the Public Accounts Committee…To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had a minister go before the PAC.

Is this true? Béibhinn O’Connor in Dublin got in touch with us, so we looked into it.

(Remember, if you hear a government minister, or anyone else, making a major historical claim, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet @TJ_FactCheck).

Claim: A government minister has never gone before the PAC
Verdict: FALSE

  • At least four government ministers (including one Tánaiste) and one Taoiseach have gone before the PAC
  • But it is extremely rare – by our rough count, three ministers and one Taoiseach out of 523 meetings of the PAC since 1999.

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

You can watch a summary of Varadkar’s comments, and other relevant information, in the video above.

The claim we’re interested in is this:

To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had a minister go before the PAC.

The Facts

2011

On 8 December, then Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin went before the PAC to discuss reform of the public service.

On Monday’s Tonight With Vincent Browne on TV3, Social Democrat TD Róisín Shortall correctly pointed out this fact.

1999-2000 – DIRT Inquiry

Screen Shot 2016-09-21 at 3.21.34 PM The Public Accounts Committee meeting during the DIRT Inquiry Source: Oireachtas via YouTube

As part of the PAC’s inquiry into the under-collection of DIRT (Deposit Interest Retention Tax), and bogus non-resident accounts, two government ministers and a Taoiseach came before the PAC’s sub-committee on Certain Revenue Matters.

11 July 2000: Then Tánaiste and Minister for Social Welfare Mary Harney
20 June 2000: Then Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach Seamus Brennan
29 September 1999: Then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Then Attorney General Michael McDowell went before the PAC on 28 November 2000. Although not a minister, the AG does sit at cabinet.

On 29 September 1999, the PAC also heard testimony from four previous Finance Ministers: Albert Reynolds (then a TD), John Bruton (then Fine Gael leader), Ruairi Quinn (then Labour leader), and Ray MacSharry, who had retired from politics.

1971 – Arms Crisis

In 1971 and 1972, the PAC conducted the Northern Ireland Relief Expenditure Inquiry, known as the “Arms Crisis Inquiry”, into the alleged smuggling of arms to the IRA by Fianna Fáil ministers Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney.

As part of its investigation, the committee heard evidence from Haughey and Blaney (by then removed from ministerial office), and several other prominent individuals, including the Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Seán MacEoin.

On 21 and 22 April 1971, then Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries James (Jim) Gibbons, was examined as a witness before the PAC.

Conclusion

11/5/2016. Silicon Valley Announcements Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Since the foundation of the state, more government ministers may well have appeared before the Public Accounts Committee.

However, the evidence we’ve found is sufficient to reach a verdict on Leo Varadkar’s claim.

It is extremely rare for a sitting minister to go before the PAC. By our count, the Public Accounts Committee has met on 523 occasions since the beginning of 1999, and hosted hundreds of speakers.

By our rough count, just three sitting ministers (including one Tánaiste), and one Taoiseach were among them.

However, Leo Varadkar’s claim was that “to the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had a minister go before the PAC”.

That claim is demonstrably FALSE.

In response to FactCheck, a spokesperson for Varadkar broadly reiterated the argument he made on The Week in Politics, but appeared to resile from his claim that no minister had ever gone before the PAC:

Ministers and former Ministers do not generally appear before the PAC, simply because they do not make accounting decisions; they award no contracts, make no decisions on individual sales or financial transactions, etc…

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Michael Noonan has agreed to come before the PAC on 6 October. 

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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