By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A growing move to give new powers and a new role to Oireachtas committees to act as public watchdog bodies and move away from expensive and lengthy judicial tribunals has received a major setback.
The High Court on Friday upheld a challenge by 36 gardai to an Oireachtas subcommittee’s probe into the shooting dead of John Carty in Abbeylara, Co. Longford, last year.
At the Four Courts, the three judges found that TDs and senators don’t have the power to conduct inquiries that might result in findings that would have an adverse effect on the good name, reputation and livelihood of people.
The outcome puts the judges and the politicians on a collision course on the constitutional division of powers between the elected executive and the courts.
The gardai took the case to the courts as they were about to testify at the committee hearings to establish the facts of what happened when Carty, who was apparently suffering from depression, was shot dead following a 25-hour siege at his home.
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An internal Garda inquiry had cleared members of the force of any wrongdoing during the siege. The family of Carty has been seeking a public inquiry.
The gardai involved had challenged many aspects of the committee’s inquiry, including its powers to force them to attend and produce documents. The judgment has vindicated their stand.
During the standoff, Carty had fired shots at gardai. He had been apparently surrendering and walking from the house toward gardai, and carrying his shotgun, when they opened fire.
The High Court ruling is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court. A constitutional referendum may follow if the High Court judgment is upheld.
Fianna Fail TD Sean Ardagh, who chaired the committee, said he believed it was the responsibility of elected members to scrutinize the operation of the state’s institutions.
This was particularly the case with the Revenue Commissioners and the gardai who themselves had the right to intrude and evade on the lives and privacy of law-abiding citizens.
The judgment has wide-ranging implications for a number of Oireachtas inquiries and would have caused serious problems for the DIRT tax scandal inquiry, which grilled top politicians, bankers and taxmen in sessions broadcast live on TV.
It was judged a huge success as it has so far resulted in an extra _349 million uncollected tax for the state.