The State has paid over half a billion euro on tribunals of inquiry, commissions of investigations and other inquiries, according to new figures compiled by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER).
In a recent letter to the Dáil spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, David Maloney, secretary general of DPER, has given on update on the costs of all inquiries and tribunals as of the end of September 2022. Mr Maloney has pointed out that his department is not in a position to estimate outstanding costs, or costs that might be accrued in future.
The total cost for the seven tribunals, 12 commissions of investigation, one commission to inquire and three reports established over the past 25 years amounts to €517 million.
The biggest single component of the costs is for tribunals of inquiry which cost an average of €53 million each. The biggest single cost is for the Planning (Mahon) Tribunal which has accumulated costs of almost €143 million. Despite being established a quarter of a century ago – and having concluded its work in 2004, there is further ongoing expenditure expected.
The Moriarty Tribunal into certain payments to politicians has cost €77 million to date.
Legislation to establish commissions of investigation was brought forward by Michael McDowell when he was minister for justice in 2002. The reasoning was to have inquiries that would be much speedier than the cumbersome tribunals, which took a decade to complete in some instances, and would avoid the large legal costs associated with the latter. To achieve that, much of the commissions’ work occurred in private.
While the costs associated with commissions are much less than those of tribunals, the figures supplied by DPER show that many have been relatively costly, and some have taken longer than tribunals of inquiry to complete their work despite being predominantly held in private.
The 12 commissions have cost €58 million or about €4.7 million on average. However, they have ranged from having very narrow terms of reference (the investigation into the fatal shooting of a Real IRA member by an Garda Siochána) to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, and the Cregan Commission into the sale of Siteserv, each of which have accumulated costs of over €12 million to date.
In a separate category, the Commission to inquire into Child Abuse (commonly known as the Laffoy Commission after its chair, Justice Mary Laffoy) was established in 2000 under a specific Act and it investigated child abuse in orphanages, industrial schools and other residences. The total ongoing cost of that commission have now reach €85 million.
Mr McDowell, who is now a Senator, said his motivation in establishing the commission was to set up inquiries that would be relatively quick and would not involve substantial costs to the State.
He said yesterday: “If you back to the fundamentals here, that is the In Re Haughey decision.
(The decision related to a successful court challenge taken by a brother of former taoiseach Charles Haughey, Jock Haughey against an Oireachtas committee in 1971. It did not allow him to have legal representation to challenge serious allegations made against him in relation to the illegal importation of arms into the State.)
“That [judgment] held that the if you were going to have an inquiry which could seriously damage somebody’s reputation, they had to have an opportunity to participate, challenge the evidence which affected them, and it all had to be done in public.
“So the commissions were established to avoid all of the trappings of tribunals of inquiry and to permit private investigations.”
Mr McDowell has said that such inquiries, including commissions, were not always the best solution. He referred to the terms of reference being very important as if the scope was too wide it could lead to difficulties.
“You really have to think carefully about how much you can achieve by giving fairly broad terms of reference which would satisfy every potential victim that their particular complaint is going to be dealt with.
“There is need to have a reasonably early report and, secondly, a reasonably economic approach to how much money and resources are going to apply to a process.
“I think sometimes there has to be inquiries. But I think there’s, you know, you cannot just use them as a form of social theatre or a knee-jerk reaction by politicians establishing [an] inquiry that will get it off the floor of the Dáil.”