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Seanad could be given role to hold public inquiries... if it survives

The Seanad could be given the opportunity to seek the right to hold major public inquiries – if it is not abolished first.

The Seanad could be abolished in a referendum this year - but if it survives (or even if it doesn't) it could be given the power to hold major public inquiries.
The Seanad could be abolished in a referendum this year - but if it survives (or even if it doesn't) it could be given the power to hold major public inquiries.

THE SEANAD could be given the power to hold major public inquiries into matters like the banking system – if it survives a planned referendum to abolish it.

Draft legislation behind a new system of Oireachtas inquiries – to beef up the Oireachtas’s powers of inquiry after the defeat of a referendum on the issue two years ago – will see the Seanad given the opportunity to ‘pitch’ for the right to hold inquiries.

The draft Bill, which is currently being compiled after feedback from TDs and Senators, will allow the Seanad to conduct inquiries a whole.

The crux of the legislation will see Oireachtas committees essentially making a pitch to the Dáil’s Ceann Comhairle and Seanad’s Cathaoirleach for the right to undertake an inquiry, based on the resources and time they believe they would need to complete their task.

However, it will also provide that an entire House of the Oireachtas – meaning, either the Dáil or Seanad – can undertake an inquiry if it so desires.

The possibility of the Dáil deciding to take on an inquiry as a whole is slim, as it would mean massive interruptions in the general lawmaking process, but the Seanad – which traditionally has shorter days and is less bound by party politics – could yet seek the opportunity.

The prospect of the Seanad being able to do so, however, is contingent on whether it survives a referendum to abolish it, which is due to be held in the autumn.

‘Out with a bang’

However, many within Leinster House expect the wording of the referendum to allow the current Seanad remain in place until the next Dáil election, in order to minimise the disruption that an immediate abolition would cause to the running of joint Dáil-Seanad operations like committees.

This means that even if a referendum to abolish the Seanad is carried, Senators could have up to two years to wield the power of holding inquiries – opening up the possibility of the chamber going out ‘with a bang’.

The provisions governing committee inquiries will also allow the independent chairmen of the Dáil and Seanad to settle an ongoing dispute over which Oireachtas committee would get the right to hold an inquiry into the banking collapse and the events of September 2008.

Both the Public Accounts Committee (which is made up of TDs alone) and the Oireachtas Finance committee (which has both TDs and Senators) believe they should be given the role of conducting that committee, whenever it is finally held after the new legislation is enacted.

The proposals would ultimately mean it would be up to the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, to decide which committee would be given the job.

“Even in this instance, it might not be the Public Accounts Committee or the Finance committee [conducting the inquiry] – the Seanad could do it if it so chose,” the Finance committee chairman Ciaran Lynch (Labour) told TheJournal.ie.

Lynch’s committee, which has signed off on the proposal to allow the Dáil or Seanad to hold inquiries themselves, said committees would have to submit a draft terms of reference, timelines, resources, estimates of cost and so on, as part of a written pitch to be allowed hold an inquiry.

Because the 2011 referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries was defeated, the scope of any investigation undertaken by the Oireachtas will be limited – and will not be able to make any findings of fact.

Read: Voters want to scrap Seanad, give diaspora the vote and review Constitution

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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