Dáil Éireann - Volume 387 - 21 February, 1989

Committee of Selection: Seventh Report.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mr. V. Brady):

The Committee of Selection reports that it has discharged Deputy Liam Hyland from the Committee of Public Accounts and has appointed Deputy Brian Cowen in substitution for him,

that it has discharged Deputy Liam [921] Lawlor from the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies and has appointed Deputy P. J. Morley in substitution for him,

and that it has discharged Deputies Brian Cowen, Alan Shatter and John Stafford from the Joint Committee on Women's Rights and has appointed Deputies Mary T. Coughlan, Charles Flanagan and Joe Jacob in substitution for them.

I move: That the Report be laid before the Dáil.

Mr. Dukes: The Committee of Selection have done the job they were set up to do, and I have no quarrel with them. They must, of course, be allowed to carry out their function properly in the context of the various changes that are required. The reason we did not agree to this matter being taken without debate is that there were a number of aspects of the replacement of Deputy Liam Lawlor on the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies that I believe should be looked at by this House. They will, I understand, be looked at by the joint committee itself during the course of the afternoon and in that respect, a Cheann Comhairle, my colleagues on that committee will be proposing that in so far as the committee are concerned with discussing the affairs of the Irish Sugar Company, they should continue to do so under the guidance of the vice-chairman of the committee, Deputy Liam Kavanagh, until that issue has been dealt with.

Coming to the issue itself, we have the position where the chairman of that committee felt it incumbent on him to resign, I would like to know from the Taoiseach what part he played in that and what the background to it was. As I said earlier, I put down two questions both of which were ruled out of order on the grounds that the Taoiseach had no responsibility in the matter. The fact of the matter is that as far as press reports go it appears that the Taoiseach intervened in the matter on 16 February and Deputy Lawlor immediately resigned from the committee. I would like to know [922] from the Taoiseach what considerations led him to speak to Deputy Lawlor about the matter and what considerations brought them both to the conclusion that Deputy Lawlor should resign.

The history of the affair might go back further than this, but as far as the rest of us know, it began on 17 November last when, according to the information that has been made public, the chairman of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann Teoranta wrote to the committee. Some reports suggest that what the chairman sent to the committee was a confidential document. Other reports — and I think these are the accurate ones — say that what the chairman sent to the committee was a series of replies to questions that had been raised by the committee during a discussion with officers of the company. It appears also that the chairman asked that the matter be handled with sensitivity so that the replies would not become a political football. Some reports suggest that the chairman asked that the matter be treated as confidential. Whatever about that, and I have not seen the actual correspondence, it seems also that the chairman of the Sugar Company separately wrote to the clerk of the committee and suggested that the clerk check with the chairman of the committee on whether the information should be circulated to the press. The then chairman says he told the clerk of the committee not to circulate the information when it was received on 18 November and that, to my mind, is the first extraordinary or unusual event in all this. The then chairman also said that he had not seen the documentation in question. My question is, if he had not seen it how could he decide that it should not be circulated? What grounds were there for not circulating it other than a request by the chairman of the Sugar Company, and was that request to be taken on its own without any reference to the chairman or any other member of the committee as sufficient reason not to circulate to the committee information that the committee itself had asked for and that the committee was bound to get at some stage anyway, or did the then chairman [923] of the committee know what was in it and, if so, what view did he form of it?

It transpired subsequently, in a statement from Deputy Lawlor on 15 February, that the document was available to committee members in the clerk's office. When I first read that I came to the conclusion, and I think it is a fairly reasonable one, that he had taken some steps to inform the members of the committee at the time the documentation was received that while it was not being circulated they could consult it in the office of the clerk, a curious enough procedure but one that one could envisage.

Now it seems that that was not the case because the members were not even told of the existence of the documentation until 7 February and therefore they could not have been told that the documentation was available for them to refer to until that particular date. On 17 January of this year the chairman of a company of which Deputy Lawlor is a director wrote to the chairman of the Sugar Company expressing an interest in acquiring part or all of the operation of the company. Deputy Lawlor at that stage apparently did not feel that he was obliged to declare an interest or to step down because it was not for another ten days that he took any action of that kind. The question must arise did the Deputy know anything in the meantime? If so, what did he know? Did he acquire information or knowledge about the contents of the document of 17 November last during that time, and if so, what did he do with it?

I find it difficult to credit, without any supporting statement from the other side of the House, that he did not know, first, what was in the documentation sent by the Sugar Company and, second, that the company of which he was a director had expressed an interest in acquiring another company. This is not just a normal commercial acquisition. It has become a very large player in the food sector, expressing an interest in acquiring some or all of a major semi-State corporation. It is all the more difficult, without some supporting statement from elsewhere, to credit that [924] he had not that information when we reflect that Deputy Lawlor has apparently a very central role in that firm of which he is a director.

Members of the House will be aware that he played a very forward role indeed in the acquisition by that company of Bailieboro Co-op. Members are also in a position to know that he played a very central role in the activities of that company in Tuam. I am led to believe that Members of the House have personal knowledge of the fact that Deputy Lawlor was seen in Thurles in recent times. Therefore he was playing, as I have said, a fairly central or forward role in the activities of that company of which he is a director. In those circumstances it is hard to credit, without some fairly solid and convincing evidence, that he would not have known of the expression of interest by that company in taking over some or all of the Sugar Company.

The matter is even more complicated because, as I have said, the Taoiseach appears to be involved, in that it has been reported that on 16 February the Taoiseach interviewed Deputy Lawlor and it was after that interview that Deputy Lawlor resigned. There is a clear link between the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the whole affair in that it appears that part of the reason for the expression of interest by this company arose from the mishandling by the Minister for Agriculture and Food of the whole question relating to the position of the Thurles sugar factory. Indeed there is the overall question of the direction that is being taken by the food industry in this country and action that can be taken to reinforce that industry and put it in a position where it can be a valid player on European and world markets in 1992, which is, I know, part of the concern underlying the debate that is going on at present.

All of those points need to be teased out and the House is entitled to have information on them. The only way in which we can apparently get information about this is by having a debate on what is otherwise an innocuous and fairly routine report from the Committee of Selection. [925] Had the Taoiseach been agreeable to answering the questions that I put down to him we possibly need not have had this debate although it is probably a better way of getting information than the process of following up with supplementary questions.

In conclusion, I would like to know why the Taoiseach decided to plead no responsibility when he is so directly involved. Does the Taoiseach believe there is something here that should not be revealed and, if so, what is it? On the contrary, does he take the view that there is nothing to be revealed, that there is nothing untoward, and if that is the case why did he apparently advise Deputy Lawlor to resign?

Mr. D. O'Malley: This matter is a rather serious one. In trying to summarise it one should start by drawing attention to remarks made, and not denied, by Deputy Lawlor last week. Deputy Lawlor, in an interview with a member of the staff of The Irish Times of 15 February, said he had never seen a document from the Sugar Company and did not know of its existence. The following day The Irish Times, after apparently questioning him further as a result of inquiries they had made, stated that he had told The Irish Times on Tuesday night that he had never seen a document from the Irish Sugar Company and did not know of its existence. The previous day, however, he agreed that he had known of the existence of the document but he insisted that he did not see it and had not been aware of its contents. In correspondence, which has been published, from the chairman of the Irish Sugar Company to Deputy Lawlor in his capacity as chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee, he said: “The company will be forwarding today or tomorrow to the clerk of your committee a report”. He said the nature of it was very sensitive and that Deputy Lawlor would have to satisfy himself as to whether or not it should be circulated to the members of the committee.

In the events that happened it was not circulated to the members of the committee. No doubt the clerk ascertained [926] the advice of the chairman on this matter because he would have been aware that the chairman of the Sugar Company had written to Deputy Lawlor. Deputy Lawlor therefore, in considering what instruction he should give to the clerk of the committee, would have had to take account of the contents of the report that was sent to him by the Sugar Company. Therefore, in spite of what he told The Irish Times on Tuesday last, Deputy Lawlor firstly knew that such a report existed and, secondly, it seems he knew the contents of it because he could not have acted as he subsequently did unless he knew the contents.

That is a very serious matter and one that has serious consequences not just for Deputy Lawlor personally if this is the position, as it appears to be, but for the committee concerned, for the House and also for the semi-State body which is involved. The reason, as is well known, that the chairman of the Sugar Company was apprehensive about the matter was that he was aware it was a matter of public record that Deputy Lawlor was also a director of a company called Food Industries plc which had an interest apparently in the possibility of the acquisition of the Sugar Company or part of it or, more specifically, part of the Sugar Company's beet quota which was, it seems, of special interest to them. How many members of the Government knew in November of the existence of the interest of Food Industries plc is not clear but the suggestion has been made that at least one senior member of the Government was alerted to that interest.

On Wednesday of last week Deputy Lawlor is quoted in the newspapers as saying that no conflict of interest arose and therefore he had no intention of resigning as chairman of the committee. On Thursday, following a very brief visit to the Taoiseach's office, he announced his intention to resign. In the circumstances and since apparently the indication of his total change of mind on this matter followed immediately on his visit to the Taoiseach, the House and the country are entitled to the Taoiseach's [927] observations on the matter and what view he formed in regard to it.

The Taoiseach has been silent in respect of this whole matter since it started. An end should be put to that silence and this debate here today is an ideal opportunity for him to put his views on the matter on the record of this House and to make them available to the country generally. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for Deputy Lawlor, as a Member of this House, to be a director of a company like Food Industries plc. I do not think anybody objects to that but it is questionable whether he should be a director of a company like that and at the same time either hold office as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies or, in particular, hold the chairmanship of that body.

It is common knowledge that for some time apparently Food Industries plc, which is the holding company of a number of other companies involved in different aspects of agri business here, have had an interest in the Sugar Company. They have apparently corresponded with them and have had meetings with them. On the face of it, it seems that there was a considerable conflict of interest or, at the very least, a potential conflict of interest. Because of the circumstances the onus is very much on Deputy Lawlor to prove to this House and the public generally that that in fact did not arise. He needs to give a detailed explanation of that. The explanations he has given up to now in newspapers, and which have been contradicted by himself in some cases the day afterwards, have by any standards certainly not been satisfactory.

It is a well known fact, and I saw this adverted to in an article in The Irish Times yesterday written by Mr. Jim Dunne, their senior finance editor, that Food Industries plc and its subsidiary companies are beginning to play a very dominant role in Irish agriculture and in Irish agri business. The argument made in that article — and it is one with which I find myself in agreement — is that [928] because of the dominance of the role of that public company, its subsidiaries and associated companies, there is an obligation on them to be less secretive about their affairs than has been the case up to now. The obligation to be less secretive is particularly apposite in this instance where a Member of this House and the chairman of the only committee here who deal directly and solely with commercial State-sponsored bodies is such chairman and at the same time a director of the main board of Food Industries plc.

A great many questions have been raised on this whole matter and they have not been answered. There is a duty on Deputy Lawlor to answer the obvious questions that have arisen and which have been asked throughout the country over the past week. However, there is a duty on more than just Deputy Lawlor, there is a duty on the Taoiseach and on the Minister for Agriculture and Food because his role in regard to the Sugar Company and their plans over the last few months is something that has not been clarified either. That requires clarification. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, in particular, was first alerted to the possibility of a conflict of interest in this matter as far back as 26 November last when a question was put down to him by Deputy Pat O'Malley calling the Minister's attention to Deputy Lawlor's directorship of Food Industries plc and his chairmanship of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies, asking for his views on any possible difficulties that might arise in relation to that and if he had any discussions with anybody arising out of that matter. Therefore, the Government have been on notice since the date on which that question was put down which, presumably, would have been four or five days before the date on which the question was answered here.

I have been trying to go back to see what was done in respect of matters of this kind in the past when there were involved major unresolved questions of fact regarding the credibility of Members of this House. I have found that usually [929] the Committee on Procedure and Privileges or, in one instance, the Committee of Public Accounts sought to set up an appropriate inquiry. In some instances the matters were thought serious enough to have a High Court judge involved in conducting the inquiry. In one instance which, on the face of it, seemed a great deal less important than this particular matter, no fewer than three High Court judges were commissioned by the Government of the day and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to hold an investigation into the matter concerned. It seems that some form of formal investigation should now be undertaken to look at all aspects of this matter and that the investigation should not be confined solely to what may now, for all I know, be in progress, a system of questioning of Deputy Lawlor by some of his former colleagues on the particular committee.

The Ceann Comhairle as Chairman of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, should make clear to us, what form of inquiry it is proposed to hold and if it will be a judicial inquiry in some fashion because it seems that it will be necessary to take evidence on oath in this matter due to the conflict of evidence that has so far come to light. It is in everybody's interest that the concerns which are widely felt throughout the country in relation to this matter would be resolved as quickly as possible and, therefore, that the arrangements for the holding of a sworn inquiry into it would be announced in the course of this debate either by the Ceann Comhairle or by somebody on behalf of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

Mr. Desmond: This is perhaps the first occasion on which I can concur with all Deputies on the Opposition on the virtues, so to speak, of a minority Government because without that virtue today we would not be conducting this comment on the report of the Committee of Selection. The first and essential point to be made in relation to this matter is that it would not have come to the attention of any Deputy in the House had it not [930] been for a question raised by Deputy Liam Kavanagh at a meeting of the committee. He has assured me that his suspicions came when an IFA spokesperson at the meeting indicated surprise that the committee were not aware of certain fundamental information relating to the Sugar Company. To his amazement it was only then, when he asked specifically about this information, that the document was produced. That was in February and that is extraordinary. We owe Deputy Kavanagh, who is a very quiet but effective operator, a particular debt of gratitude for the work he has done on this matter.

The second and fundamental point to be made before this House is, that contrary to the assertion by Deputy Lawlor, this document, supplied by the Sugar Company in confidence and clearly headed to be a document of the strictest of confidence, is not an ad hoc series of replies to an ad hoc series of questions by the committee. It is now common knowledge that the document is a composite analysis of the totality of the operations of the Irish Sugar Company and their subsidiaries from 1988-89 right through, year by year, to 1992-93. That is the essential point. This document contains the sugar company's profit projections for every year — an analysis of stock and cash flow, borrowings, debtors and creditors, the values of subsidiaries and interest on borrowings. As we now understand, this document is a composite overview based on two options — Thurles in or Thurles out, and the profit available to the company in 1992-93. The document, presumably prepared internally in the Irish Sugar Company, is of inestimable value to any competitor, and more particularly to any inside or outside trader, parliamentary or otherwise. Without it, it is difficult to see how one could have a view of the Irish Sugar Company.

It is not unusual that such documents are given to the Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies. I served on the committee for a number of years and on many occasions we received such documents, but they were always treated in [931] an appropriate manner. I have not the slightest doubt about the integrity of Mr. Chris O'Brien, the secretary of this committee, prior to his retirement under the now extinct voluntary retirement scheme. We must put on record that his retirement has absolutely nothing to do with the work of the committee. The committee chairman was alerted by the chairman of the Irish Sugar Company on 19 or 20 November 1988 — I only got a fleeting glance of the letter on television — about the unique sensitivity of the composite document available to him sent to the secretary of the committee for the information of the committee, by a Mr. Martin under separate cover.

If it had been merely a series of generalised replies to questions raised by the committee to the Irish Sugar Company, one could see some point in the observations of Deputy Lawlor. But the situation is otherwise and a fundamental problem arises. The company in question, Food Industries, and Mr. Laurence Goodman have expressed a direct interest in taking over all or part of the sugar company. I understand that Mr. Goodman and his colleagues have been in Leinster House meeting the leaders of the various parties conveying his interest in this matter. Arising from this, and long before this issue arose, the Leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Spring, wrote to the Taoiseach expressing grave concern about the prospects of privatisation of the Sugar Company. At that time, Deputy Spring knew nothing of this matter. Indeed, I knew nothing of it and I assume the Taoiseach knew nothing of it either. There was the extraordinary coincidence of events and dates and but for the fortuitous question by Deputy Kavanagh at a committee meeting, it would not have come to light that a non-executive director of that company — namely, Deputy Liam Lawlor who was the then chairman of the Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies — was involved in the affair, at whatever level we are not quite sure yet, but presumably it will come out.

On that basis, I find that the criticisms and questions raised by us are legitimate. [932] It is not a question of personalising or disputing the integrity of individual Deputies; it is a function of this House that we must have answers to questions of this nature. I want to emphasise that we should have a Standing Order similar to that in the House of Commons which would apply to that committee in particular — it could equally apply to the Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation, and God only knows the kind of sensitive data we will receive between now and 1992 in relation to tax harmonisation from the Department of Finance, the Community or in representations that will be made by individual companies.

As I understand it, the House of Commons has a Standing Order in relation to committees of the House of Commons. The clerk of the committee on receiving a document is obliged to immediately transmit that document to each member of the committee and if I recall the Standing Order correctly, the words used are “unaltered in any way.” They cannot be edited and all the documents must be sent to each Member. We do not have a Standing Order that requires the clerk, of an Oireachtas committee to send documents immediately to each Member of that committee. In our framework, the clerk of the committee operates at the behest of the chairman or at the behest of a formal committee meeting where he would receive a direction.

We had the extraordinary situation today where the clerk of the Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies tried earlier this afternoon — I presume at the request of the Government Whip — to cancel this meeting and to postpone it until next week, for some reason or another.

The Taoiseach: I am not aware of that.

Mr. Desmond: All I know is that the Labour Whip came to me at 3.20 p.m. and told me so, but Deputy Kavanagh said no. He said that the meeting had been called for 4 p.m. and the meeting was going ahead. He also said it had been agreed at the last meeting that he was to [933] be in the Chair for the next meeting. As the House knows, constitutionally he is acting on behalf of the Dáil, as the Ceann Comhairle or the Leas-Cheann Comhairle would act in this House, and I presume he is conducting the business of the committee now. There appears, and I am sorry to have to say this, to be some concerted effort to have Deputy Kavanagh removed from the Chair but I do not think he can be removed under the Standing Orders of this House because at the last meeting he was appointed to preside over this meeting today and in due course a Motion will be put down, four days' notice will be given and the appointment of a chairman will take place at the next meeting.

Finally, should it come to this, we need to have a tribunal established. Deputies have no great love of tribunal proceedings but if one cannot get to the bottom of the matter, a formal tribunal under the Tribunals Act should be established because, as we well know, the Joint Committee can meet, anybody can refuse to appear before it in effect but if a tribunal were to meet to hear evidence, it could compel the interested parties to give evidence, and the whole truth and nothing but the truth would be known. Therefore, on behalf of my party leader in particular who was removed from the House last week for raising this matter, I hope all this material will come out at the meeting of the Joint Committee.

For 20 years I have been asking for a declaration of interests by members and only after considerable pressure on the local authorities and when I was chairman of Dublin County Council did we bring it in. There is a sort of declaration now in some local authorities whereby property interests are recorded but in this House it should be a fundamental Standing Order of the House that when we come in we declare all our interests, our membership of particular organisations, our financial dealings with organisations and so on. It is not enough for a Deputy to simply come into the House and say that he is a non-executive director of company X. It is in the [934] interests of our integrity that there should be a statutory requirement for declaration of interests. That would meet many of the problems and many of the issues that will inevitably arise in the future work of this committee. Accordingly, the Taoiseach should explain to us what exactly Deputy Lawlor has been up to in terms of his resignation from the committee and his resignation as chairman of the committee. That information is essential to this House if we are to get to the bottom of this matter.

Proinsias De Rossa: It is extraordinary that this issue would not have come on to the floor of the House at all if Deputy Lawlor had not resigned. It is quite interesting that despite the public concern about an issue that had been aired in the newspapers and in the media it has been found almost impossible to raise it here in the House up to this point, that one Deputy was expelled from the House last week in an attempt to raise the matter, that various questions were ruled out of order on the matter and that it is only by the combined strength of the Opposition Deputies in the House that it has been possible to have any airing of the issue on the floor of the House.

I have no intention of trying Deputy Lawlor on the floor of this House. It is not the function of this Dáil to attempt to do that, so I will not talk about the various reports of what he said or did not say and of what he did or did not do. I put down a motion to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges asking for an inquiry to be instigated into the issue. I have asked the committee to look as a matter of urgency at the question of a register of commercial interests. Perhaps Deputy Lawlor inadvertently stumbled into this mess, although I honestly find it difficult to accept that, given the acknowledged competence of Deputy Lawlor in business matters. Nonetheless, the House should agree that some form of inquiry should be instituted as it is clear that there is a prima facie case to be answered. The committee should at least agree to set in train an inquiry into the matter.

[935] The more important issue which may be lost sight of because of the specifics of the case surrounding Deputy Lawlor is the question of a register of commercial interests by Deputies. There is not any suggestion that Deputies as a rule will attempt to abuse their position but it is essential that the Deputies be above suspicion, that the public at large can have confidence that the work of this Dáil is carried out fairly and above board. That can only be done seriously if the electorate generally understand that when an issue comes up which may have a bearing on the commercial interests of a Deputy, the Deputy's interest is on record and that whatever may be said by the Deputy can then be judged in the light of the public knowledge of the Deputy's interest.

It is not a good idea that Deputy Lawlor should be tried on the floor of this House. I would urge, therefore, that in order to allay public concern and the concern of Deputies, that the motion which I have tabled to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges should be agreed to and that an early meeting of that committee should be called to deal with it. Another Deputy said, and I agree, that the matter cannot be fully resolved by the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies. I do not know the full membership of that committee but it would be in everybody's interests if at this point they declared whatever commercial interests they may have in relation to outside businesses.

It is important to re-establish the credibility of Deputies generally by pursuing as quickly as possible the issue of a mandatory register of interests. Before I sit down, I refer back to a question I put to the Minister for Finance on 31 January when the Minister quite bluntly said he had no intention of introducing such a register. I ask the Taoiseach to reconsider the position and to move quickly on it.

Mr. McDowell: I will not detain the House overlong, but a few points remain to be made prior to what I understand will be a reply by the Taoiseach. It has [936] been suggested in the press, and repeated by a number of people who should know better, that some Members of this House were actuated by constituency jealousy or malice in the manner in which they conducted themsleves in relation to this matter. It is as well to put on the record how untrue that is.

Deputy Pat O'Malley who is by coincidence a member of the same committee came into the possession of information, which was not difficult to come into possession of, it is fair to say, prior to 21 November 1988, to the effect that there was an intention on the part of Food Industries plc at least to investigate, and certainly to pursue with some degree of enthusiasm, the possibility of an acquisition of all or part of the assets including the sugar quota of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann. That information came into his possession and at that time the record shows the committee in question were investigating the circumstances of that company, its viability, its future plans. In that context they had already made demands to Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann to explain to the committee the problems they were facing, their intentions in relation to how these problems might be resolved and to indicate what future plans they had for the disposal of some or all of the assets and the closure of some or all of their facilities. These issues were raised and it was in reply to them that the document, the subject matter of this discussion to some extent, came into being. They were raised at a meeting with the Sugar Company at Thurles, I understand.

Deputy O'Malley did not seek to sensationalise the matter, to make any cheap points arising from the matter, draw the attention of the media to the issue or to make any points which could have embarrassed Deputy Lawlor on a constituency basis. The Deputy's behaviour has been exemplary and has been a model for all people in this House. He put down a Written Question to the Minister for Agriculture and Food which did not, because of the rules of this House, refer specifically to Deputy Lawlor but to a person in respect of whom details had [937] been supplied and asked the Minister if he was aware of the potential conflict of interest. The Minister replied to that written question on 26 November 1988. It is of some significance that at that juncture a member of the Government was aware that Deputy O'Malley was worried about a potential conflict of interest and that he had time to consider the issue and, I suggest, bring it to the attention of the Taoiseach if he saw any conflict in the matter. We do not know what happened at Cabinet level. We do not know what the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy O'Kennedy, sought to do with the situation which had been brought to his attention by Deputy O'Malley, but that there was a conflict of interest there can be no doubt and that Deputy O'Malley had in the gentlest possible way brought it to the attention of a Minister who has responsibility for Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann is also very clear. The Minister who is a member of a Cabinet with collective responsibility was at that time put in possession of enough information and, I suggest, motivation to raise the issue with Deputy Lawlor and bring to his attention the anomalous position in which he then was. That happened in November 1988.

Deputy Lawlor has not contributed to this debate thus far — and perhaps he is elucidating his version of events elsewhere, or perhaps he wants to reserve his position — but he has, as Deputy O'Malley, the leader of my party, pointed out, put on record some at least vestigial account of his involvement in this matter. One thing I think deserves special regard by Members of this House when they are viewing this matter and its significance is his statement that the question of the Sugar Company or the acquisition of any part of that company was never considered at any board meeting of Food Industries plc. That is a matter within the exclusively private knowledge of that board but if it is the case — I suggest it must be the case and is true — that the company were at some level actively investigating that possibility and if it was not discussed at the board [938] meeting, then it was discussed somewhere else. The well measured truth which tells the darker untruth would be served in this matter by saying that it was never discussed at a board meeting. It must have been discussed at some level if it existed at all as a project in the minds of the directors. The information this House is entitled to get, when a disingenuous bland statement of that kind is made in public that it was never discussed at the board of Food Industries plc, is where it was discussed, who was actively pursuing it and if Deputy Lawlor was party to those discussions. Those are the issues which have to be resolved, and a half smokescreen to the effect that it was not discussed at a board meeting does not suffice in the circumstances.

If the matter was discussed at any level outside the board, inside the board, by a sub-committee of the directors of that company or the executives of that company, then it must be the case that what the company would clearly want to know in relation to the affairs of the Sugar Company were their plans, the problems they had encountered, their dealings with the IFA, their intentions in relation to their sugar quota and the difficulties they were experiencing in relation to their capitalisation, profitability and maintenance of their various plants. Those were very significant issues which arose in the context of any attempt to pursue the issue of acquiring any part of that company or indulging in a joint venture with them.

It follows from that that sensitive information which would be of assistance to that board would by any standards be something which the board of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann would be most keen to keep secret from a potential rival in the food industry and a potential negotiating party in terms of first, any joint venture, or, second, any acquisition of their assets. It is an inescapable and logical conclusion from the fact that Food Industries plc were pursuing actively the question of a joint venture or an acquisition of part or all of the Irish Sugar Company that a conflict of interest of fairly substantial [939] proportions would arise between a director on their board and if that person also came into confidential information in relation to the policies and problems being encountered by Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann. There is no escaping that conflict of interest and there is no point in saying in public through the media or to this House here today that there was not a conflict of interest: there was a clear and unambiguous conflict of interest. The attitude of the Sugar Company in particular in relation to the letters they sent when they enclosed that information to the clerk of the committee in question clearly underlined that they regarded the information as sensitive and, therefore, asked for it to be treated in confidence. If one gives information in confidence to a member of a board of directors of a company which might mount a hostile take-over of your company, might seek to purchase some of your assets, would know your negotiating position and bargaining position and the strength of it in relation to any negotiations, a conflict of interest would necessarily arise and there is no point in sweeping under the carpet the conflict of interest which did actually arise.

As I have said that conflict of interest was apparent to anyone from the outside who viewed that situation and if it was sufficiently apparent to Deputy Pat O'Malley to encourage him to write to the Minister and draw it to his attention it must have been equally apparent to the Minister when he contemplated Deputy O'Malley's question that the conflict of interest was a real one and, I suggest, it must have also been apparent to Deputy Lawlor that he was in a position of major conflict of interest. I should stress that this House and the committee of which Deputy Lawlor was until today a member are not in any sense empowered to try Deputy Lawlor or adjudicate on his moral qualities or whatever and it would be very wrong for us to attempt to do that but he has described himself as a “non-executive director” of that company and I can only echo what Deputy Dukes said in relation to that adjective [940] which he applied to himself by saying that there is a huge question mark as to what that meant. As I understand it, Deputy Lawlor devotes a substantial amount of his time to furthering the interests of that company and he put a considerable amount of time and effort, on what basis of remuneration we do now know, into the Bailieboro acquisition and made efforts which no non-executive director would normally make on behalf of a public limited company in these circumstances. To suggest that he was simply a non-executive director, an honorary member of the board, is simply deceiving us again; he was not that and it is wrong to suggest that he was.

The letters which were sent to Deputy Lawlor on 17 September 1988 and to the clerk, Mr. O'Brien, on 18 November 1988 deserve some close scrutiny because the letter to Deputy Lawlor indicates that the items covered included an update of the effect on the group, that is, Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann, of continued production in Thurles; historic capital investment in individual factories; numbers, age and structure of the Thurles workforce and negotiations with the IFA. The letter went on to say that, as had been the practice, the company were willing to co-operate with the committee and supply fully the information they required but on that occasion, however, they had to be mindful of the sensitivity of the Thurles issue and they were concerned that the information being forwarded might mistakingly be perceived and used to political advantage. It also said that the information forwarded on the Thurles update was put before the company's board meeting on 17 November and the consideration of the document by the board should not be misinterpreted. The only decision by the board relating to Thurles was taken in November 1987. That letter showed clearly that the board had devoted some considerable time to deciding what kind of response they were to make to the committee's inquiries made at Thurles prior to the date of that letter.

I am informed, and believe, that at a meeting of the board of directors of [941] Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann prior to 18 November the advisability of releasing the document to the committee of the Oireachtas was discussed at some considerable length and that reservations were expressed by board members — some of whom are the Minister for Agriculture and Food's nominees, it must be remembered — regarding a potential threat to confidentiality that might arise if the document were forwarded to the committee. I am also informed, and the matter has been raised by Deputy O'Malley yet again in a disallowed private notice question today, that Deputy Lawlor's role was discussed at that meeting, that members of the Sugar Company board stated their awareness at that meeting of an interest on the part of Food Industries plc in acquiring some or all of the assets of the Irish Sugar Company, and that the matter was finally put to a vote of the board of directors as to whether the particular material should be released to the committee, of which Deputy Lawlor was chairman.

If it is correct, that again shows that in the minds of the members of the board of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann, some of whom are ministerial appointees, the conflict of interests to which Deputy O'Malley had pointed in his question to the Minister was alive issue and clear enough to people closely involved at that time. The question then arises in those circumstances as to why it was not apparent to the Minister for Agriculture and Food and, if it was apparent to him, why he did not consult the Taoiseach and, in those circumstances, why the Taoiseach did not immediately warn off Deputy Lawlor and tell him that he was, in effect, riding two horses in different directions, that he should decide to stick with one or other but make his position very clear very quickly and put himself, if that were possible at the time, beyond reproach.

The statements made by Deputy Lawlor to the press seem to have suffered from a degree of variability. That point has been made before and I shall not now dwell on it, except to say that if the matter was put before Deputy Lawlor by the clerk of the committee, as the Chairman [942] of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann requested him to do, as to how the document should be treated, it defies belief that he could make a decision as to how the document should be treated without acquainting himself of its contents. It would be most wrong of him to suggest that nothing should be done about it for three months without acquainting himself in some shape or form as to what was contained in the document. It would be equally wrong of him to arrive at a view as to whether it should be circulated unless he knew substantially what was contained in that document. The important matter is that when the Chairman of the Sugar Company wrote to Mr. O'Brien on 18 November he specifically said:

Please note that our Chairman has written to Deputy Lawlor, Chairman of your Committee, about the information contained in this update. You should contact your Chairman about this, prior to any circulation of the enclosed document.

Unless we are to believe that no such contact was made for some reason, it follows that contact was made and that instructions were obtained from the chairman of that committee as to how that letter should be treated. It follows again from that, that unless Deputy Lawlor made a decision as to how the document should be treated in complete ignorance of its contents and nature, we must put a question mark over his statement to the public that he was totally unaware of the contents of the document. It follows, as night follows day, that he either made a decision blindfolded as to what was the appropriate way to deal with a document, the contents of which he was unaware of, or alternativley, that he has again been incorrect, or that his memory had deceived him, to put the most favourable complexion on it, as to what his state of knowledge was in relation to that document.

All this arises out of, and the debate is centred on, a report from the Committee of Selection and there is no motion before this House now in relation to this set of circumstances. Therefore, this debate is [943] bound, as were many other debates in this House, to be inconclusive. The first lesson that we can learn is that this House should debate matters which are of relevance to it and of importance nationally and should not conduct itself on the basis that every newspaper and every barstool is a location of discussion on issues but this House is silent on matters of substantial public importance.

Secondly, also of significance, is that in the nature of things the State is engaged in a major reassessment of its portfolio investments in the semi-State area. It is of the utmost importance that if the State is to deal with those semi-State bodies fairly and properly and secure their co-operation, high standards should apply in relation to the manner in which the State, through the Oireachtas, conducts itself. When the board of directors of a semi-State company, some of whom are ministerial appointees, find themselves having to vote on the question of whether they disclose information to a committee of this House and find themselves discussing the actual composition and potential conflict of interests of members of that committee as an issue in whether they should co-operate fully with a committee of this House, it is a sad day. It undermines the authority of the House in particular and the whole process of reasonable relations between the Parliament of this country and the semi-State industrial sector.

More than that, people have called in public for the establishment of a register of interests. With the greatest of respect to these, as to whether that is a good idea — and I believe it to be a good idea — it is completely irrelevant to what is happening in this circumstance. Nobody had any doubt as to the interests Deputy Lawlor had. It was a matter of public record and wide notoriety in this House that he held the particular directorship which brought about this conflict of interests. Absence of a register of interests was not relevant to the circumstances. There is a wider issue, one which must be addressed in a way which is much more complex than putting down [944] a register of interests of Members of this House. It was a wider issue of a duty, expressed or implied, to divulge a conflict of interests and, most particularly, to refrain from involvement in an area where that conflict of interests was bound to have an effect. I say expressed or implied because there does not seem to be in this House an expressed code of conduct in these matters. There is, I think, an implied code of conduct which can be followed in this regard by any Deputy at his or her peril. That is unacceptable. There should be clear guidelines. In this case any Deputy who was in doubt as to a potential conflict of interests could have had reference to such a clear set of guidelines and would immediately have been aware that the doubts raised by Deputy O'Malley in this question and those raised by the Sugar Company directors in their deliberations as to how they should deal with that committee gave rise to a conflict of interests which demanded immediate disengagement by Deputy Lawlor, not disengagement three months later when the matter came tumbling out in a slightly accidental fashion. It is not a question of a register of interests, desirable though that may be. It goes much deeper than that. There is an enforceable rule in this House and one which every semi-State body and every member of the public knows operates in this House, that one can deal with an institution of State without any reservations that one's dealings are tainted by a conflict of interests on the part of those with whom you are dealing.

The Taoiseach doubtless, in his reply to this debate, will deal with the last issue which ought to be addressed, which is, that once the question put down by Deputy O'Malley came to the attention of the Minister, it was the Minister's duty to tell the Taoiseach that a member of the Opposition had put to him a potential conflict of interests and that the Minister would like the Taoiseach's advice as to how he should deal with that matter. The Minister for Agriculture and Food should have informed the Taoiseach of the potential conflict of interests and if he did not, this House is due an explanation from [945] him and from the Taoiseach as to why that was not done.

The Taoiseach did become aware at a later time of the issues around which this debate centres. It seems that Deputy Lawlor initially took the view that no conflict of interest had arisen and that the matter was maliciously generated, although the record shows clearly it was not. He believed that in the circumstances his membership of the committee was not affected and that his continued chairmanship of it did not come into question. When the Taoiseach was acquainted with the circumstances, did he send for Deputy Lawlor, put to him the conflict of interest and ask for his explanation, or was it merely a matter of Deputy Lawlor's seeking the paternal advice of the Taoiseach as to what he should do next? Before his chat with the Taoiseach Deputy Lawlor was undoubtedly of one mind and saw the matter completely in one light, but after it he saw it in a different light. The House is entitled to know whether Deputy Lawlor sought the advice of the Taoiseach or the Taoiseach summoned Deputy Lawlor to give him a strict instruction to resign his chairmanship and membership of that committee.

The company in question is a very substantial one, whose economic power is very great indeed. It is a company which has a dominant role in one of our dominant businesses. It has grown dramatically in power and influence and other bodies, including RTE, have seen the speed with which it can react to any questioning of the propriety of its activities. It is a powerful company, staffed and directed by powerful men. They are influential people and it is no secret in this House that they seek to use their influence in the interests of the company in a rigorous and robust manner. In those circumstances in particular, it is of the utmost importance that a clear dividing line be writ large between those who exercise on the part of the people a function in relation to the examination, supervision and control of the semi-State sector and those who serve the private [946] capital interests of the company in question.

I have no objection to Members of this House having directorships of a company or private interests but it is of the greatest importance when those interests come into conflict with public duties as Members of this House, members of the Government or members of committees of this House, that the public have absolute confidence that a strict code of conduct will automatically come into play and that somebody who finds himself in a position of ambiguity will immediately seek advice from a capable adviser and receive appropriate advice in the circumstances.

The failure of the Minister for Agriculture and Food to note the conflict of interest pointed our privately and in a gentlemanly fashion by Deputy O'Malley last November raises serious questions in the mind of every observer as to whether it was thought then, as it was thought prior to this debate, that the matter could simply be swept under the carpet. The Government tried to avoid a debate on this issue. Although the majority of Members of the House wanted to debate the issue, the Government said there would be no debate. Why was that attitude taken in regard to a matter of public importance, which it undoubtedly was since it ended with the resignation of the chairman of one of the committees of the House? Why was an attempt made effectively to stifle debate on the matter? This is a piece of a greater pattern. I do not want to elaborate now because it would be irrelevant.

The attitude shown by the Government in relation to the power and duty of this House is echoing the attitude shown by the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Deputy Burke, as to the comparative legislative roles of the Government and the House. This House is one of the great institutions of State. It is not here to be trampled down by the executive of the day. It is entitled to debate issues which it wants to debate and not to have its desires thwarted by Standing Orders, however conscientiously they are carried out by the [947] Chair — as I accept that they are — or by the will of a minority who happen to support the Government of the day. The House has a wider interest and the public has a greater interest in securing adherence to proper standards of behaviour.

If this debate had not occurred this afternoon, this House would have failed yet again in its duty to vindicate its own standards, membership and procedures. It would have done so yet again at the behest of a Government who seem to value those things in a very small measure. The manner in which this debate was treated by the Government, the manner in which they attempted to prevent it, the manner in which the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy O'Kennedy, failed to take the very gentlemanly hint by Deputy O'Malley that there was something awry and failed to secure proper action by the Taoiseach over a period of months — all these things are part of a piece and show low standards in high places.

Mrs. Doyle: Since the entire House awaits with interest the Taoiseach's response, I should like to put a very succinct question now that the Minister for Agriculture and Food has joined us. Regarding Deputy Pat O'Malley's parliamentary question on 26 November last, what discussions did the Minister for Agriculture and Food have with the Taoiseach and Deputy Lawlor regarding a possible conflict of interests before he answered that parliamentary question? I suggest that both the Minister and the Taoiseach are culpable if the Minister did discuss the issue with the Taoiseach and no action was taken to resolve the matter and prevent a possible conflict of interests arising. If the Minister discussed it with the Taoiseach, action should have been taken. Since it was not, both must stand culpable. If the Minister did not discuss the matter with the Taoiseach, I accuse the Minister for Agriculture and Food of a gross dereliction of duty. He cannot have it both ways. Perhaps there is more than one issue of conflict of interests involved as the Minister, Deputy O'Kennedy, appears not to know whether he is [948] coming or going in relation to the entire issue of Thurles, which is, of course, in his own constituency. I await with interest, as do all Members, the response of the Taoiseach on this very important issue.

The Taoiseach: I want first to mention the report with which we are dealing. It is a report from a Committee of Selection. This is a time-honoured device for dealing with appointments to committees on the basis of agreement and procedures. As far as we can ascertain, the last time a report of this kind was debated was in 1935 and there has been a fairly powerful corpus of precedent built up in regard to the Committee of Selection. As far as I and the Government are concerned, we were simply dealing with a routine procedural matter of a person resigning from a committee and the normal mechanism being availed of to appoint somebody else in his place. There was nothing more than that involved.

(Interruptions.)

The Taoiseach: Deputies can throw precedents of this House out the window when it suits their political purposes, as they are doing on this occasion, but it is regrettable.

The majority in the House have decided that the report should be debated and so be it. I just register that point. It is a breach of the time-honoured tradition of dealing with these matters on an agreed basis between parties. I regret that it happened but presumably the House will, in due course, recover from it and no great damage will have been done. I want to make the position of the Government party clear. We were nominating a replacement on this committee and that is why we brought the report before the House.

A number of points have been raised by different Deputies but I will not deal with them all because it is not appropriate for me — although some Deputies have done so while others have not — to go into the merits of this matter. I want to suggest how they should be dealt with. I think it was a Progressive Democrats [949] Deputy who talked about secrecy in this matter and the House not being permitted to debate the activities — or non-activities — of Deputy Lawlor. I recall in the last Dáil that a junior Minister of the Fine Gael Party was removed from office by the then Taoiseach and we never got an opportunity in this House to debate the matter. We were in Opposition and we sought to have the matter raised here but we were prevented by the rules of the House from doing so.

Miss Kennedy: By threatened legal action.

The Taoiseach: We accepted the ruling and the matter never came before the House. Let us try to keep a sense of proportion and balance about these matters. There is a booklet of rulings of the Chair which all Deputies have — or at least to which they should have access — which specifically states that Members must not allege that another Member is guilty of a criminal or unlawful act or reflect on his character or personal honour. That would very much circumscribe this House in dealing with matters of this kind. Therefore, it is well established that a matter of this kind cannot effectively be satisfactorily dealt with on the Floor of this House as we are not in a position here to have papers brought before us to be examined in detail, witnesses examined and so on. A discussion of this sort is a totally inappropriate way of dealing with this matter.

That is not to say that the matter should not be raised in this House and I want to make two statements of fact. I was not aware of any suggestion — and the Chief Whip assures me the same is true in his case — of any postponement of the committee this evening. It is not my business nor that of the Chief Whip to seek a postponement this evening of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies. Nor indeed — and this may not be so clear — was I approached by any of the Leaders of the other parties to have a debate on this matter in the House. Leaders of parties [950] have many ways of seeking to have matters raised on the Floor of this House and I assure the House and the public that, so far as I was concerned, there was no suggestion put to me for a debate on this matter on the Floor of the House. If it had been put to me it would have been considered.

Miss Kennedy: On a point of order——

The Taoiseach: It was said that this was not as clear as the other point and if that is so I accept it.

(Interruptions.)

The Taoiseach: I said that no Leader of a party——

Mr. S. Barrett: The Taoiseach is not fooling us, he would not agree to a meeting this morning.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Byrne): The Taoiseach without interruption.

Mr. J. Higgins: On a point of Order, I formally sought a debate in the House from the Government Chief Whip.

Acting Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Mr. S. Barrett: P. J. Mara is looking after the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach: I was attempting to say that no party Leader approached me for a debate on these matters. The matter was processed through the Whips in the normal way. A suggestion was made that I should have had a discussion about this matter with some of the persons concerned.

(Interruptions.)

The Taoiseach: If the House does not want to hear my explanation——

Acting Chairman: I appeal to the House to let the Taoiseach reply.

[951] The Taoiseach: I did not interrupt any Member. There was a reference to a question put down by Deputy Pat O'Malley to the Minister for Agriculture and Food last November. It has been suggested that Deputy Pat O'Malley indicated to the Minister for Agriculture and Food at that time that there was a danger of a conflict of interests. I do not think that can in any way be read into what happened. I have the text of the question here, it was a written one and, therefore, not followed up by supplementaries.

In the question Deputy P. O'Malley asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if he had any discussions or negotiations with representatives of a company (details supplied) regarding a possible takeover by that company of one of the three Siúicre Éireann sugar processing plants on condition that part of the Irish sugar quota would be made available to that company and if he would make a statement on the matter. That is a very straight forward, specific question and the reply of the Minister for Agriculture and Food was that he had had no such discussions or negotiations.

Mr. McDowell: What about “details supplied”?

The Taoiseach: Presumably that would be the name of the company, FII. I ask Deputies to consider that aspect of the matter again. I do not think any fair-minded person, looking at that record and the full gist of the question and the Minister's reply by written answer, could draw the inference which has been drawn today.

Mr. McDowell: The Minister well knew what it was all about.

The Taoiseach: All these matters can be pursued further to a conclusion, to, we hope, a truthful conclusion. I make that point in defence of the Minister for Agriculture and Food because an accusation has been made without any substantiation.

I will mention another aspect of this matter because of the suggestion that [952] there is a cloak of secrecy about all this. Deputy Desmond mentioned it, he is absolutely right because my information is that one of the companies in question, Food Industries, at — I am not sure what level, probably the highest — took it on themselves to hold discussions with parties in this House about this very matter, that they were received by a very strong delegation of the Front Bench of the Fine Gael Party. I cannot say whether they were received by the Progressive Democrats, but I assume that they were. The Progressive Democrats can confirm whether they were or not. I know they were received by the Labour Party——

Mr. Desmond: We did not know about the report.

The Taoiseach: Nobody did. They were received by the trade unions who had a vital interest in this matter.

Mr. Desmond: They did not know about the report either.

The Taoiseach: I also understand that they were received by the IFA, particularly by the IFA Tipperary branch located at Thurles because the beet growers they represent would have a great interest in the matter. As I understand it, the interest of this company in the Sugar Company was well known to many Members of this House and indeed it was made known through this procedure, which I think is a very unusual procedure, but anyway it was engaged in——

Miss Harney: When did that happen?

The Taoiseach: The interest of that company, Food Industries, in the Sugar Company was, as I said, canvassed by that company——

Mr. McDowell: According to Deputy Lawlor, the matter was never discussed at a board meeting, which is very strange.

The Taoiseach: Deputy McDowell has quoted from what he says happened at [953] a board meeting of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann Teoranta.

Mr. McDowell: It was never discussed by the board of Food Industries according to Deputy Lawlor.

The Taoiseach: I have no knowledge of what happens at board meetings of Food Industries, but Deputy McDowell purported to tell us what happened at, presumably a confidential meeting of the board of the Irish Sugar Company.

Mr. McDowell: The Minister has nominees on the board. He can tell us what happened.

The Taoiseach: That is the way, apparently, the Progressive Democrats like to do their business in so far as State companies are concerned.

Mr. O'Kennedy: The Deputy has distorted it enough today already. He should withdraw it.

The Taoiseach: We have a Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies. It is an important committee but it is also a very sensitive committee because, as some Deputies have pointed out, information of a very important commercial nature comes before that committee which could be of use. It is important that the committee conducts their affairs to a very high standard.

It is a select committee with several Members of the Dáil, with responsibility to examine the reports and accounts and overall operational results and, in the light of the reports published pursuant to subparagraph (a), the common issues relating to board responsibilities, structure and organisation, accountability and financing together with the relationship with central Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas of State-sponsored bodies engaged in trading or commercial activities referred to in the Schedule and to report thereon to both Houses of the Oireachtas and to make recommendations, where appropriate. I have no doubt, and it was always my intention [954] since this matter started, that the correct way to deal with this matter is for that committee, an all party joint committee, to go fully, and thoroughly into this matter. It has the——

Mr. Howlin: Chaired by whom?

Mr. Desmond: With Deputy Roche in the chair — questions and answers.

The Taoiseach: We will deal with that matter in a moment.

Mr. Desmond: Let Deputy Kavanagh deal with it.

The Taoiseach: If Deputy Kavanagh chairs the committee, that is perfectly all right by me.

Mr. Desmond: That is a bit better than——

The Taoiseach: I hope Deputy Desmond is not casting aspersions on all the Fianna Fáil members of that committee.

Mr. Desmond: I would never do so. I have a special affection for Deputy Roche.

The Taoiseach: I would like to think, that just as I would be prepared to give any Labour member of that committee my confidence as chairman of it, that Deputy Desmond would equally give——

Mr. Howlin: The Taoiseach sought desperately to remove him.

Mr. Desmond: The Taoiseach desperately tried——

The Taoiseach: The Deputy can be facetious about this matter if he wishes, but as he said this is a very serious matter and I think he should be serious about it.

Mr. Desmond: It certainly is but the Taoiseach tried to cancel the meeting this afternoon.

[955] The Taoiseach: The proper way to proceed with this matter is for that committee, as it is seized of this matter, to investigate it fully, to go into every aspect and to report to this House. At that stage——

Mr. Howlin: Is the Taoiseach content to leave Deputy Kavanagh in the chair?

The Taoiseach: I have no objection. It is a matter for the committee who becomes chairman.

Mr. Desmond: Deputy Roche's ambition has been thwarted.

The Taoiseach: Please treat this as a serious matter. How many of these committees are there?

Mr. V. Brady: Seven.

The Taoiseach: Fianna Fáil have the chair of three. If the Deputy wishes to take the chairmanship of that committee from us, by all means do so. The Deputy is welcome to it.

Mr. Desmond: Thank you very much.

The Taoiseach: Again, you are breaking honourable agreements and long-established precedents.

Mr. Howlin: Not discussed with the Labour Party——

Acting Chairman (Mr. Farrelly): I ask that there be no further interruptions.

The Taoiseach: It is my view, and I think it is the view of every sensible Member of this House that the right way to proceed is for that committee to go about this matter and to investigate it fully and in complete detail. We will all give the committee whatever assistance they need. If they find that their terms of reference, as I read them out, are not adequate for them to do this job, they can always come back to this House and we can expand those terms of reference to enable them to deal with this matter. [956] When that committee have gone as far with this matter as they possibly can, we would expect them to reach a satisfactory conclusion and they will report to this House. This House can then, and I make the point that this was always our intention, debate the report of that committee because we would then have facts on which to found our debate.

Mr. Desmond: That is not within the terms of reference of the committee. They cannot inquire into the conduct of their former secretary who has already retired.

The Taoiseach: It is within their terms of reference to report to this House——

Mr. Desmond: On the conduct of Deputy Lawlor?

The Taoiseach: ——and if they find there is something in their terms of reference which prevents them from fully exploring this matter then they can come to this House, as happened before, to get an expansion of their terms of reference to enable them to deal fully with the matter. That report can come before this House and we can have a full debate on it.

There is another aspect of this matter which Deputy De Rossa has adverted to. If it is felt by that committee, or indeed by this House, that the matter should be further investigated by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, that is also open to this House. Both these committees are there to serve the purposes of this House in matters of this sort. As far as I am concerned, that is the proper way to proceed. We cannot conduct the sort of inquiry——

Mr. Desmond: Does the Taoiseach not think it merits a tribunal of inquiry?

The Taoiseach: It may——

Mr. Desmond: I am glad to hear it.

The Taoiseach: ——if the joint committee in their investigations recommend [957] that a tribunal of inquiry be set up, that is something this House can then deal with. There is no difficulty or argument about that. I want to persuade the House to deal with this matter in an orderly procedural way. This committee is seized of the issue and it is a matter for the committee in the first instance to deal with it, to investigate it as fully, thoroughly and completely as possible, have access to all possible information they require and if they need expanded terms of reference, we can give them. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges is also available to Members or parties to bring matters before it and these two committees have, I believe, the capacity to do a complete and thorough investigation of this issue, and when they have done so their reports can be considered by this House and any further action considered necessary can be taken. I want to assure the Deputy that now the matter has arisen in this way, it is my wish and the wish of my colleagues that the fullest possible information about it be disclosed to this House and to the general public.

One other question was raised about Deputy Lawlor's resignation from the committee and my role in that matter. I could, if I wished, say to the House that is a matter confidential between Deputy Lawlor as a member of my party and myself, but I do not propose to do that. When I became aware of the difficulties that had arisen and of the suggestions that were being made I asked Deputy Lawlor to come to see me, which he did. I explained to him that there was a danger that the committee would not be in a position to carry out their function in regard to this and other matters impartially, objectively, in a non-political way if he were to remain a member of the committee. I want to assure the House that, with no hesitation whatsoever, he immediately said to me he would resign from the committee. That was exactly the conversation that took place; that was what happened.

I felt I was not in a position to decide on Deputy Lawlor's behaviour, activities [958] or lack of activities. That is a matter for himself, a matter which he must explain first of all, in my view, to that committee, perhaps to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges if that is considered necessary, and ultimately to this House. That is a matter for himself. I had not the information. I was in no position to make any worth-while judgment about his behaviour, but I could see from the way the matter was developing that it could prevent that committee from doing their job in regard to this matter. I put these points to him, and he immediately accepted them and indicated to me his intention to resign from the committee.

I accept that the matter warrants the most thorough and and complete examination and investigation, and I suggest to the House that the right way to deal with it is to have this committee now proceed with their work in an impartial, objective, non-political way, decide exactly what happened and what the truth of the matter is, ascertain if any culpability attaches to anybody, report to this House and we can take our decision after that.

Mr. D. O'Malley: Would the Taoiseach tell the House——

Acting Chairman: That concludes the debate.

Mr. D. O'Malley: ——on what date he became aware Food Industries plc had an interest in the Irish Sugar Company or in Thurles?

Mr. McDowell: The debate is open-ended. The debate does not end because the Taoiseach sits down.

Acting Chairman: You can ask a question, Deputy.

Mr. D. O'Malley: When did the Taoiseach first become aware that Food Industries plc or any of their subsidiaries had an interest in the Irish Sugar Company or their Thurles factory?

The Taoiseach: Even at this stage I [959] have no particular official information available to me on that matter. I am only, as the Deputy is, aware of the general discussions that have taken place right through the whole agricultural community and in this House. I know this interest was expressed. I think it was in the public press, but so far as I am concerned I have no official knowlege of any such interest. It has never been considered by me or by the Government in any way, but I know the company had discussions on a very wide, broad level indicating to all concerned that they had an interest in this company.

Mr. D. O'Malley: The Taoiseach said he had no official knowledge. Could I ask him if he had informal or unofficial knowledge?

(Interruptions.)

Mr. D. O'Malley: Did he meet Mr. Goodman or Deputy Lawlor in November or at any earlier time on this matter?

The Taoiseach: Pardon?

Mr. D. O'Malley: Did the Taoiseach meet any director of Food Industries plc to discuss this matter?

The Taoiseach: I do not know who the directors of Food Industries are apart from the fact that I now know, as the dogs in the street know, Deputy Liam Lawlor is a director and presumably Mr. Larry Goodman is a director. That is all I know about Food Industries plc.

Mr. D. O'Malley: Did he meet any of the directors on this matter?

Deputies: Chair.

Mr. O'Kennedy: Are Deputy O'Malley and Deputy McDowell now ready to withdraw statements which both of them made specifically? I will say what they were. I was asked by Deputy Pat O'Malley if I was aware of the potential conflict of interest. He asked in those specific [960] terms. In the light of the question I was asked, will they now withdraw the suggestion that I was asked that question in those terms? I was not.

Mr. D. O'Malley: The Minister's attention was drawn to that fact and he cannot deny it. Let him look at the details given to him in the question about Food Industries plc and the Irish Sugar Company.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Dukes: If he had any sense the Minister for Agriculture and Food would keep his peace at this stage because, as the Taoiseach said, the dogs in the street know Deputy Lawlor was and is a director of that company, Food Industries plc. The dogs in the street and the Minister for Agriculture and Food should have known that fact last November. For the information of the Taoiseach, in case he is in any doubt, the discussions to which he referred between directors of Food Industries plc and my party took place in this House on 31 January and I understand further discussions took place either on that day or on the following day. I mention that date only because that was two days before the managing director of Food Industries plc was quoted in the public press as having confirmed that the company wished to take a majority shareholding in the Irish Sugar Company and that was two clear weeks at least before the date on which Deputy Lawlor came to the conclusion, following the Taoiseach's remarks, that he did. I note the Taoiseach has agreed——

Mr. D. Gallagher: Are we having another debate?

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Dukes: There is no time limit for this debate. I think this debate has achieved something in that the Taoiseach has now confirmed that he shares some of the concerns we have on this side of the House to the point where he made a suggestion to Deputy Lawlor that there [961] was a problem here. I assure the Taoiseach that in so far as members of my party are concerned, the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies will carry out an investigation of the kind the Taoiseach has suggested and I look forward to full co-operation from members of all other parties in this House, including the Taoiseach's party, in that investigation, and I look forward to what that committee report back to this House. I want it to be made clear that whenever that report comes back to this House it will be fully debated. Finally, let me say that perhaps the Taoiseach could have served his own ends better in the interests of the House had he, instead of trying to stop this debate here this afternoon, made the statement he has just made now before the matter arose in the House.

(Interruptions.)

Acting Chairman: I am putting the question. The question is: “That the report be laid before the Dáil.”

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Desmond: We are not opposing the question.

Acting Chairman: Is this agreed? Those in favour say “Tá”.

Mr. Desmond: On a point of order——

Acting Chairman: Those against say “Níl”.

Mr. D. O'Malley: Against what?

Acting Chairman: I think the question is carried.

Mr. D. O'Malley: What question?

Acting Chairman: The question is, “That the report be laid before the Dáil”.

Mr. Desmond: On a point of order, we are not calling any vote and we are not opposing the adoption of the report. I [962] want to make that clear and I welcome the conclusion on behalf of my party leader who cannot be here. I welcome the statement——

(Interruptions.)

Acting Chairman: It is not a point of order.

Mr. Howlin: It is an open-ended debate.

Question put and agreed to.