Tribunals of inquiry


Ireland's Parliament (Oireachtas) has the power to establish tribunals of inquiry to investigate certain matters of public importance. If the Government considers that a particular issue of controversy or dispute is of such public importance that a public inquiry is necessary, it can propose propose a resolution to set up a tribunal of inquiry.

These tribunals are not permanent tribunals. Instead, they are set up with powers to investigate specific matters. They are usually chaired by judges or senior lawyers.

At the end of the investigation, the tribunal submits a report to the Oireachtas, which may contain recommendations.

Examples of tribunals that have been set up

The tribunals that have been set up in since 1990 are:

Tribunal Year established What it investigated Findings
Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef Processing Industry (the “Beef Tribunal”) 1991 Alleged irregularities in the way the beef industry in Ireland was run The Beef Tribunal Report (pdf – very large file) was published in 1994
Tribunal of Inquiry in the Blood Transfusion Service Board (the “Finlay Tribunal”) 1996 The infection of large numbers of people in the 1970s and 1980s through transfusion with contaminated blood The Finlay Tribunal report was published in 1997
Tribunal of Inquiry into Payments to Politicians (the “McCracken Tribunal”) 1997 Payments to politicians from private businesses The McCracken Tribunal findings were published in 1997
Tribunal of Inquiry (Dunnes Payments) (the “Moriarty Tribunal”) 1997 A further investigation into payments to politicians from private businesses The Moriarty Tribunal report was published in 2 parts –

Part 1 in 2006

Part 2 in 2011

Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (the “Mahon Tribunal”, formerly known as the “Flood Tribunal”) 1997 Allegedly corrupt payments to politicians to influence planning decisions The Mahon Tribunal report (pdf) was published in 2012
Tribunal of Inquiry in the Infection with HIV and Hepatitis C of Persons with Haemophilia and Related Matters (the “Lindsay Tribunal”) 2000 The infection with HIV and Hepatitis C of haemophilia patients, as a result of the use of contaminated blood products The Lindsay Tribunal report (pdf) was published in 2002
The Barr Tribunal 2002 The circumstances surrounding the the fatal shooting of a man by members of An Garda Síochána in Abbeylara, Longford, in 2000 The Barr Tribunal report (pdf) was issued in 2006
Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Gardai in the Donegal Division (the “Morris Tribunal”) 2002 Allegations of misconduct by some members of An Garda Síochána in Donegal The Morris Tribunal’s final report was published in 2008
Tribunal of Inquiry into Suggestions that Members of An Garda Síochána or Other Employees of the State Colluded in the Fatal Shootings of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan on 20 March 1989 (the “Smithwick Tribunal”) 2005 Allegations that members of An Garda Síochána (and others) colluded in the fatal shooting of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police service in Northern Ireland at that time) in 1989 The Smithwick Tribunal Report (pdf) were published in 2013
Tribunal of Inquiry into protected Disclosures made under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 and Certain Other Matters (the “Disclosures Tribunal”) 2017 Allegations made about the Garda Síochána by whistleblowers The Disclosures Tribunal's final report was published in 2023

Powers of tribunals of inquiry

To carry out the investigation, the tribunal has certain powers, including the power to hold public or private hearings. The Oireachtas may decide that any tribunal that it sets up shall be invested with the powers set out in the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2011.

This Act provides that a tribunal can make orders to force witnesses to attend and give evidence. It also allows the tribunal to apply to the High Court if a person refuses to give evidence or is in contempt of the tribunal.

The High Court may order a witness to give evidence. If he or she continues to fail to co-operate with the tribunal, the High Court may hold the witness in contempt of court and have the witness imprisoned until he or she has co-operated with the tribunal. It is also a criminal offence to refuse to give evidence or to co-operate with a tribunal.

Any statement or admission made at a tribunal cannot be used in evidence against a person in criminal proceedings. However, sometimes the findings of tribunals can give rise to an investigation leading to independent criminal or civil proceedings.

This means that strict procedures are applied in the course of the tribunals. Interested parties usually have legal representation, including a solicitor, and both junior and senior counsel barristers. Witnesses are usually cross-examined.

Costs of tribunals of inquiry

The cost of tribunals of inquiry, including the cost of legal representation of all interested parties, is usually paid by the State. If the tribunal considers that there is sufficient reason to do so, it can order any person to pay the costs of another person appearing before the tribunal or the costs of the tribunal itself. This may happen if a person fails to co-operate with the tribunal or gives false or misleading evidence.

Recommendations and findings

At the end of the tribunal's investigation, it will submit a report to the Oireachtas setting out the findings it has made. In many cases, a tribunal of inquiry will also be given the power to make recommendations with a view to preventing the same problem happening again. These recommendations may include suggestions for law reform.

The tribunal's function is purely fact-finding and investigative. Although it may make recommendations, it does not make a binding judgement on the rights or liabilities of individuals. It simply states, in its report, the results of its investigations and the findings of fact it has made.

Page edited: 22 February 2024