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A sign outside the Mahon Tribunal Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Column ‘A wheel turning so slowly the hamster died’ – my day at the Mahon

Sinéad Keogh spent a day at the Mahon Tribunal in 2007. Five years later, she remembers her experience.

In 2007 Sinéad Keogh studied the MA Journalism at DIT Aungier Street. Republished below is an opinion piece she wrote at the time on her first visit to the Mahon Tribunal.

IT DOESN’T LOOK like a courtroom at all. It’s rather like a galvanised shed. Such is the first impression when you walk into the Mahon Tribunal as we did yesterday, on class assignment. We were there at 10am for a 10.30am start, perhaps a little late for a tribunal which began a decade ago in November of 1997, but then as it turned out we need not have worried. Proceedings were delayed until 11am.

Such is Mahon, a wheel turning so painfully slowly that the hamster has aged and died. In fact, there’s an even better indicator of its torpor. It is taking so long that one judge has retired and another has taken his place. This used to be the Flood Tribunal you know – one presumes, until Mr Justice Flood heard the phrase ‘I can’t recall’ so many times that he realised that irrespective of whether he’d worked up a really good ass groove or not, it was time to give another man his chair.

Outside, the sign on the wall reads ‘The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments’. Somewhere along the way, somebody realised they were in for the long haul and ordered a plaque. It would be more reasonable to expect a printed A4 page on a white board or something like you would find in a hotel for a wedding, something transient, but it’s not like that; this has been a full time job to some people for a decade.

Dublin Castle is an impressive pile of bricks, but the tribunal rooms lie a swift walk across the cobbles from all that – in less than attractive surrounds. One would think that after ten years in residence, it would have lost the makeshift courtroom look. It hasn’t. Observers are welcome to sit in the Public Gallery – a formal sounding name for what amounts to a few rows of seating at the back of a room that looks nothing like a courtroom and everything like a set out of Oklahoma! with a few computers and chairs thrown in. Incidentally, the chairs are uncomfortable.

‘It seems if Mahon’s walls could talk they would be surprisingly repetitive’

Signs around the room order ‘No Photography’ and ‘No laughing, heckling…’, the list goes on. One immediately wonders if the signs were always there or if they are a response to an outbreak of laughing and heckling sometime in Mahon’s past: “Bwahahaha…..are those yellow trousers?” Oh, Bertie. Some days, when the witness is no great shakes in the notoriety department, the Public Gallery is dismally empty, but it isn’t difficult to imagine a boisterous crowd on days when Bertie is in the box.

To the left of the Public Gallery, reporters tap away at their keyboards. In front, counsel for both sides sit in rows, each with a Dell in front of them.

Each time they refer to a new piece of paperwork, the relevant document flashes onto a big screen at the front of the room – and there are boxes of these documents. The back and forth of questions about a single page can last up to half an hour. The same question pops up more than once in different guises.

On the day we visited, the witness’s evidence was littered with the phrases ‘I can’t recall’, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘It was a long time ago’. It seems if Mahon’s walls could talk they would be surprisingly repetitive.

The list of witnesses is long. There are many more to go, and every need to question them in the manner that the witness we saw was questioned. A decade is a long time, memory is unreliable, and the tribunal can see that matters are amiss, even while the exact details elude them.

Justice should be seen to be done, says one of the cornerstones of the legal system. The observers in the Public Gallery that day numbered two elderly gentlemen and one lady. More than likely pensioners. People who aren’t getting paid to sit here all day can’t afford to do it for free – and yet there’s no other way of knowing what it’s like. The daily papers report Mahon’s proceedings and findings, but have to stop short of the reporter’s gut feeling about a witness, the atmosphere in the gallery, the sense of timelessness in the tribunal courtroom.

‘Like some sort of impressive yacht we read regularly about its cost and length’

The Mahon Tribunal, rather thankfully, won’t always be here. It’s not a landmark, but it’s almost in institution, and in decades to come people will talk about the tribunal years. Like Nelson’s Pillar, it will have been there for so long that you’ll always plan to go tomorrow, and then one day it will be gone and the landscape will be changed once again. It began sitting in 1997, when I was ten years old. Perhaps it shouldn’t be possible that it would still be around now, in 2007, so that I can visit as an adult. Yet, like some sort of impressive yacht we read regularly about its cost and length and it continues to pursue its course.

But let me add that it is sparsely populated as far as an interested public goes, unbearably but necessarily repetitive, and should have its physical make-up understood before we can hope to discuss it. Before you read another word about the cost of it, know that in a day’s sitting we didn’t hear one straight answer nor see more than a dozen documents out of hundreds make it up onto the screen.

It’s difficult to come down on the side of justice, even knowing as we might that it is imperative at any price, but like our own personal Groundhog Day it seems impossible that anyone would choose to wake up to ‘Good Morning Mr Justice Mahon’ every day any more than Bill Murray enjoyed hearing ‘Good Morning Campers, rise and shine…’. Even an hour in Mahon’s shoes says it’s just trying to figure out how to break the curse and move on to a new day.

Postscript: Groundhog Day had a budget of $14.6 million. The Mahon Tribunal is estimated to come in at an eventual cost of €250-300 million once third parties are paid. Even converting via abacus with closed eyes, the former would seem to be more cost-effective. And has aged better.

In 2006, 13 years after its release, Groundhog Day was added to the United States Film Registry on reason of being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. In 2012, 15 years after its foundation, The Mahon Tribunal this week published its full report. Indeed it is historically significant, but it will likely mean six more weeks of winter and not an early spring. It was easy to have ideals in 2007. The cash-poor state of the state in 2012 means having to conclude that Mahon cost far, far too much.

  • Sinéad Keogh is Commander-in-Chief of pop culture blog and a regular print and broadcast contributor. She edits books as her main job and likes politics, poker and knitting. She can be found on twitter @sineadkeogh.

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