12 January 2014 Edition
Holding the Irish Government to account
New Oireachtas committee gives everyone in the 32 Counties a direct line to Leinster House
‘We can receive petitions from right across the 32 Counties – from Derry or Belfast to Cork or Kerry’ – Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD
A NEW COMMITTEE established in the Oireachtas and chaired by Sinn Féin Justice and Equality spokesperson Pádraig Mac Lochlainn aims to give citizens a direct say in the parliamentary agenda.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions keeps a close eye on Government departments and ombudsmen’s reports as well as considering petitions submitted by the public on issues of concern to them.
“Where we come in is to ensure we bring in Government ministers, departmental bodies and others, to hold them to account,” Pádraig tells An Phoblacht.
“In the past, on some occasions, ombudsmen reports have been left to gather dust on a shelf or the Government felt they didn’t have to take the report findings onboard. We now make it very uncomfortable for anyone trying to ignore those reports.”
As well as holding these departmental bodies to account, the committee has another very important function which gives any person – anywhere on the island of Ireland – the direct ability to influence the parliamentary agenda through a new petitions system.
“For the first time this allows individual citizens or organisations to submit a petition to the parliament on an issue of public concern and calling for changes in legislation or a campaign on an issue,” says Pádraig.
There is no minimum number of signatures required, a single person can lodge such a petition with the committee.
“If a person identifies an issue of poor public policy, or something which requires a change in the law, then we will look at that.”
In June, the committee made Oireachtas history when the first petitioner was invited in to speak to them on what he perceived to be a flaw in the eligibility for the Back to School Education Allowance. Representatives from the Department of Social Protection and the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed were also invited in to discuss his submission.
Pádraig says the independence of the committee is very important: “They’re not afraid to challenge Government policy.”
If the committee feel the petition is indeed valid and an issue of concern, they can call in the relevant Government minister to provide answers. It can also make recommendations to change legislation.
The varied nature of petitons submitted so far is impressive. These include calling for a national campaign on suicide prevention akin to the road safety campaign, one calling for an investigation into the US and CIA’s use of Shannon Airport, the issue of votes for Irish citizens living overseas, and the issue of the height of overhanging trees.
Although the ability to submit petitions has been in place for over a year, Pádraig says initial problems with resoures mean that it is only now finding its feet.
“We fought hard here to get more resources and I’m glad to say that recently we’ve been allocated additional staff which has been a huge help so we are clearing the backlog. In my view some of the initial petitioners were left waiting too long to get a response. But that will now change.”
This year there will be a push across local radio stations and newspapers to promote the work they’re doing and invite people to engage with the committee. The body has also been engaging with a similar committee established in the European Parliament.
“What’s very important to note is that this is applicable across all of Ireland,” says Pádraig. “We can receive petitions from right across the 32 Counties in relation to matters of public concern. So it’s equally important for people from Derry or Belfast to Cork or Kerry to be aware that if they are engaged in a campaign for change that they should get their petitions in to us.
“This is a committee that is really growing in importance. One of the cornerstones of Irish republicanism is the belief that all citizens are equal and all citizens have rights. I think our committee is at the forefront of ensuring that.”
The impressive and varied nature of petitons submitted so far include:
- National campaign on suicide prevention akin to the road safety campaign
- Investigation into the US and CIA’s use of Shannon Airport
- Votes for Irish citizens living overseas
- And the issue of the height of overhanging trees
For more information, or to submit a petition, visit petitions.oireachtas.ie