Dáil Éireann - Volume 472 - 10 December, 1996

Private Members' Business. - Inquiry into Alleged Payments by Dunnes Stores Ltd.: Motion.

Mr. Molloy: I move:

That Dáil Éireann, bearing in mind:

i. serious public concern arising from newspaper reports concerning alleged payments by, or on behalf of, Dunnes Stores Ltd. and/ or Mr. Ben Dunne to members of the Oireachtas and public officials in the period prior to December 31 1993, and

[1182] ii. widespread public concern that the truth or untruth of the aforementioned newspaper reports should be established.

Resolves that it is expedient that a Tribunal be established, under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, as adapted by or under subsequent enactments, and the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Act, 1979, to enquire urgently into, and report and make such findings and recommendations as it sees fit, in relation to the following definite matters of public importance:

i. whether, and in what circumstances the former Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Michael Lowry, was in receipt of payments or other benefits made available by, or on behalf of Dunnes Stores Ltd. and

ii. whether newspaper reports published between November 25 1996 and December 6 1996, concerning alleged payments by Dunnes Stores Ltd. to, or for the benefit of members and former members of the Oireachtas or members of their immediate families and other public officials, or members of their immediate families, are true in substance, and what the motives and circumstances of any such payments were.

And that the Tribunal be asked to report on an interim basis, not later than the tenth day of any oral hearings to the Taoiseach on the following matters:

the number of parties then represented before the Tribunal;

the progress which has been made in the hearings and the work of the Tribunal;

the likely duration (so far as that may be capable of being estimated at that point in time) of the Tribunal proceedings;

any other matters which the Tribunal believes should be drawn to the attention of the Taoiseach at that stage (including any matter relating to the terms of reference);

And that the Taoiseach should inform the person selected to conduct the Inquiry that it is the desire of the House that the Inquiry be completed in as economical a manner as possible, and at the earliest date consistent with a fair examination of the matters referred to it, and if possible, within 90 days.

I wish to share time with Deputy Michael McDowell and give one minute to Deputy Callely to facilitate the moving of the Fianna Fáil amendment.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Browne, Carlow-Kilkenny): Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Molloy: My party believes that the public have a right to know. That is why the Progressive Democrats has put this motion before the House. [1183] A judicial inquiry is the only way in which the full facts can be brought out. It is nearly two weeks since we heard of the alleged payments by Dunnes Stores to Deputy Michael Lowry.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the press for bringing these issues into the public domain. I dissociate myself and my party from the attacks made on the professional integrity of some of the journalists reporting this story. Surely we can recognise that a free press is a vital part of any democratic society. Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the story first broke and there has been no satisfactory explanation from Deputy Lowry or the Taoiseach as to what really went on. We have posed a number of simple and straightforward questions both inside and outside this House. It is incumbent on the Taoiseach to provide answers to those questions on behalf of his former Minister and his Government.

First, did Dunnes Stores pay over £200,000 for work done on Deputy Lowry's house? Second, were the full details of this transaction notified to the Revenue Commissioners? Third, did Mr. Ben Dunne, or any company in which he had an interest, benefit financially from any decision made by Deputy Lowry during his period as Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications? Fourth, did any Fine Gael Member of the Oireachtas make representations to the Minister for Finance or his Department on behalf of Dunnes Stores or the Dunne family seeking changes in the tax laws? Fifth, when did Deputy Lowry first become aware of the existence of the Price Waterhouse report and the import of its contents? These are simple and straightforward questions, yet almost two weeks later we are still waiting for the answers. Does anybody on the Government benches think these questions are difficult or complicated? If they do, they should ask any of the ordinary taxpayers of this country where they got the money to buy their house. It would not take them two weeks to give an answer. They would not even need two minutes. We need straight answers to straight questions.

The electorate have a right to expect that political parties will keep their principles intact when moving from Opposition to Government. When in Opposition, Fine Gael, Democratic Left and, above all, the Labour Party took a long-term lease on the high moral ground. For a while, it seemed as if the new morality would survive the transition to Government. The resignation of Deputy Hogan and the demotion of Deputy Coveney led us to believe that the highest standards would be observed. That was not to be the case. Once Labour Party Ministers began to find themselves in the frame, the ground rules were quickly changed. There was no question of resignation when the Minister of State, Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald, was found selling access to the Minister for Finance at £100 a go in the context of the 1996 budget. There was no question of resignation when the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Michael D. Higgins [1184] used the head of a State body to raise funds for his constituency party in Galway West. It was hardly surprising that there was no question of resignation last month when the Minister for Justice singlehandedly rewrote the laws of this country and proclaimed that nobody, least of all the Minister, is responsible for what happens in the Department of Justice. Deputy Hogan must feel hard done by when he sees the cynical way in which other Members of this Government have dodged responsibility for their actions.

The continuing fall in standards is all the more remarkable when the self-righteous way in which this Administration conducts itself is considered. No previous Government in the history of this State has made so much play of its commitment to openness, transparency and accountability, made such opportunistic use of ethics in public office as a political issue or so loudly proclaimed its moral superiority over its opponents. Last week in this House the Tánaiste circulated a script in which he referred to one of the Opposition parties as “chancers”, a remark he was later forced to withdraw. This is the Government that was to carry out its business as if behind a pane of glass. It is time we sent for the window cleaners.

The Government's handling of this affair has left a lot to be desired. It began following the press revelations about the payments to Deputy Lowry, with the Taoiseach's preposterous suggestion that different ethical standards might apply to Opposition front bench Deputies as opposed to when that Deputy became a Minister. Despite his efforts to row back, the Taoiseach attached clear significance to the fact that the events concerned took place before Deputy Lowry became a Minister. The Taoiseach showed himself to be out of touch with the mood of the times when it came to the disclosure of political contributions from Dunnes Stores. At first, his party decided to say nothing. Then, in the small hours of the morning, shamed by the frankness and openness of all the other parties in this House, he finally came clean and admitted Fine Gael had received £180,000 from Dunnes Stores. He said this money was received over a seven year period. Perhaps he might use the opportunity of this debate to be more precise. Is it not the case that the bulk of this money was paid in a short space of time in 1992 and 1993? Is it not the case that these contributions resulted from Deputy Lowry's unorthodox relationship with Dunnes Stores, about which serious questions remain unanswered?

During last week's debate on Minister Lowry's resignation, the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, used his speech to launch a blistering attack on Dunnes Stores and the way in which the company deals with its staff. Apparently Deputy De Rossa has no difficulty sharing Government with a Fine Gael party financed by contributions from the same company. At the heart of the present controversy lies a document listing payments by Dunnes [1185] Stores to various individuals, some private, some public, as alleged in our national newspapers. That document should be published in full and investigated in depth. The people are entitled to no less.

Only a public inquiry can achieve both of these objectives. The public will not be satisfied with the kind of “pass the parcel” arrangement cobbled together by the Government. The secretary to the Government will hand the document to a retired judge. He will select certain names from it and hand it on to the Ceann Comhairle who will then hand it on to the Committee of Procedure and Privileges who will then hand it on to a sub-committee. That sub-committee will have no power to investigate, compel witnesses, request documents or to censure. The whole matter will be a damp squib. Money will be spent, time wasted and at the end of the day the people will be none the wiser as to what went on. So much for openness, transparency and accountability. Does anybody really believe that this ludicrous exercise in paper shuffling is an adequate response to the crisis of public confidence which now threatens the political system? Mr. Buchanan is a fine upright individual and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is an excellent body. It has a distinguished chairman in the person of the Ceann Comhairle. Nobody is questioning their integrity or ability but without proper investigatory powers their efforts will be useless.

Confidence in the political system is at a low ebb and it will not be restored if, in the middle of the biggest scandals in recent years, politicians are not willing to let the truth come out. That simply will not wash. This House has a duty to uphold the integrity of our democratic system, serve the public interest and ensure that all the facts are made available. We have all the powers we need to discharge those duties and the only question is whether we have the political courage to use them to the full and face the truth they may reveal. If so, there is one realistic option available to us: the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry, as provided for under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, 1921.

In the wake of the beef tribunal it became fashionable in political and media circles to ridicule the whole idea of judicial inquiries. The beef tribunal cost too much, it went on too long, it did not really get to the bottom of all the issues and the public interest was not adequately represented. Everybody, it seemed, had their own legal representation at Dublin Castle except the taxpayer. We have all learned from the shortcomings of the beef tribunal and the same mistakes will not be made again.

The judicial inquiry is one of the most valuable tools a democracy has available to it when it comes to discovering the truth. Would anybody question the very valuable work done by the Bantry Bay tribunal or the Stardust tribunal? I do not think so.

In recent months, the Government instituted a [1186] tribunal of inquiry into the hepatitis C scandal. That decision was supported by everybody in this House, by the victims involved and the public. It could be said that in setting up a tribunal the Government was belatedly responding to the mounting pressure of public opinion for such an inquiry. That inquiry under Mr. Justice Finlay has made excellent progress to date. Even those who were highly critical of the beef tribunal have been impressed by the efficiency with which the Finlay tribunal is going about its business. Mr. Fintan O'Toole, a journalist with The Irish Times, who has taken a keen interest in the workings of both the beef tribunal and the hepatitis C tribunal has spoken highly of the achievements of the latter. Earlier this week he said the victims of the hepatitis C scandal had learned more in the first hour of evidence before the tribunal than they had in the previous two years. The hepatitis C tribunal may be in a position to present an interim report to the Government very shortly and may complete its work by February or March 1997. I know of no right thinking person who does not believe the tribunal is doing a valuable and important job in an efficient and effective manner. The decision to establish that tribunal shows there is agreement that, in the appropriate circumstances, tribunals of inquiry are good and necessary.

In the hepatitis C scandal the State poisoned thousands of innocent people. In the Ben Dunne-Price Waterhouse-Deputy Lowry affair there is a fear that private money threatens to poison our whole democracy. Are the circumstances serious enough to warrant a public inquiry? I believe they are. There are reports that very senior officials in the local government system, serving Members of the Oireachtas, senior officials in the political parties and a number of former Government Ministers may have received unorthodox payments. In the absence of clarification and explanation the rumour mill is in overdrive. Not only has a shadow of suspicion been cast over every single Member of the Oireachtas, the integrity of our whole system of parliamentary democracy is being called seriously into question. If these strange and exceptional circumstances do not warrant the establishment of a public inquiry, what does? We are told that a tribunal of inquiry would take too long. Our motion takes account of this criticism. It stipulates that the tribunal's work should be carried out as speedily as possible within a target completion date of 90 days. We are told that a tribunal of inquiry will cost too much, yet those people on the Government benches who do not want to spend public money on a tribunal are the people who want to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money funding political parties. They are not prepared to spend public money to find out the truth but they are prepared to give public money to politicians so that they can pay for their election campaign.

Mr. Howlin: The Deputy's party does very well out of them.

[1187] Mr. Molloy: If Dunnes Stores is prepared to put millions of pounds into our political system surely this House should be able to find the money to investigate where that tax went and whether the transactions involved are legitimate and above board. Is it not time the Government reconsidered whether it is getting its priorities right? I clearly assert on behalf of the Progressive Democrats our view that we need a tribunal of inquiry because there is no other means of getting at the truth. Full disclosure of the Price Waterhouse report seems increasingly unlikely. Even if it was published in full, that on its own would not be sufficient to answer all the questions and allay public suspicion. One only has to look at the case of the former Minister, Deputy Lowry. The Irish Independent reported on Friday, 29 November that a bill of £208,000 for the extension and renovation of Deputy Lowry's family home was paid by Dunnes Stores in circumstances which were, to say the least, highly unorthodox. Deputy Lowry said nothing. The Taoiseach said it all happened before Deputy Lowry became a Minister and in any case he was sure there would be a full explanation of the whole matter. Deputy Lowry resigned but no reason was given for his resignation. Apparently he needed so much time to put together his explanation of what had happened that the rest of the Government could not be expected to wait. To the best of my knowledge, Deputy Lowry is the first Minister who resigned, not because he did wrong, but because it would take too long to explain what he did right. This is hardly a satisfactory explanation for the resignation of a senior Cabinet Minister in a modern democracy.

The weeks are going by and we are still awaiting Deputy Lowry's side of the story. The situation with Deputy Lowry shows clearly that disclosure of the names and payments in the Price Waterhouse report will not be enough on its own. We need to know why the payments were made and whether they benefited individuals personally or political parties. We will get nowhere unless there is some forum that has the power to call witnesses, to request documents, ask the hard questions and get answers to them. The only forum provided for under legislation passed by this House, capable of discharging such a role, is a tribunal of inquiry.

What kind of issues should that tribunal address? What kind of questions should it ask? It is important to have a full and comprehensive inquiry and one that merely resulted in the publication of a list of names would be useless. There are indications that some of the payments by Dunnes Stores may have been made to offshore companies or into bank accounts outside this jurisdiction.

Following the money trail is a crucial part of investigations of this kind. Past experience suggests that this will not be a simple and straightforward task. There is simply no way a complex transaction of this kind can be properly investigated through the strange set of [1188] arrangements which have been put in place by the Government. If transactions of this kind cannot be investigated then there is little or no point in having any investigation. Why should one individual be “outed” for receiving £1,000 while somebody else gets away with £1 million because it was paid offshore? Let us have a proper investigation and give it the resources to do the job properly. If certain people were prepared to take pains to cover their wrongdoing surely then the State should be prepared to take pains to uncover it.

The terms of reference of the tribunal of inquiry should be so designed as to enable it to investigate fully the matters in hand. In particular, it should focus on the following key questions. Did Dunnes Stores or any member of the Dunne family make irregular payments to public officials and what benefits, if any, did they receive in return? Did Dunnes Stores or any member of the Dunne family make irregular payments to politicians and what benefits, if any, did they receive in return? Did Dunnes Stores or any member of the Dunne family benefit financially from contracts or licences awarded by Government Departments at any time in the past ten years? Did Dunnes Stores or any member of the Dunne family meet the Department of Finance to discuss legislative changes that would reduce their tax liabilities and were any political representations made on their behalf in this regard? These are all questions of the utmost public importance. Only a properly constituted tribunal has the legal authority to get satisfactory answers to these and other relevant questions. Let us recognise that without adequate answers the integrity of our whole political system will be irreparably damaged.

Mr. M. McDowell: The Progressive Democrats tabled this motion because we are convinced that the loosely connected ramshackle process on offer from the Government by way of alternative, is fated to end in failure. The Government amendment to this motion by the Progressive Democrats acknowledges as much because it is open to the proposition that in the last analysis an inquiry will have to be established. It is not enough, however, to be open to that proposition. Surely now is the time for honest politicians to face up to the inevitable — that what is on offer cannot establish the truth and that something more radical with investigatory powers is required to establish the truth.

From the beginning this party has insisted on a small degree of political accountability in this matter. We have asked only for explanations and facts. We have not called for anyone's resignation, public humiliation or the establishment of blame by lynch mob rule, whether in the form of the body politic, the media or the public at large. All we have asked for is that the public should know the basic facts of a controversy which has shaken the confidence of most voters in the political system of which we all form a part.

[1189] To begin with, this party was extremely careful before issuing any public statement on the Lowry affair. Its spokesman contacted the Minister to allow him an opportunity of giving a personal explanation or offering any reason why no further comment should be offered at that time. In a gesture which is unusual in the adversarial politics which characterise this Assembly, Deputy Molloy ensured that before he acted on the Irish Independent story he gave the then Minister, Deputy Lowry, an opportunity to give some account of what had happened. Few people are ever given the opportunity of a fortnight in consultation with their lawyers and accountants to explain and document a defence when charged with activities which, on the face of them, amount to irregularity. Deputy Lowry, by contrast, has not merely been extended every courtesy but far more than every reasonable facility to explain how £208,000 was spent on rebuilding his house and £50,000 in cash was sent to remunerate him. This facility was offered to him despite the scepticism of the public. We await to this day some explanation from him for these events. We were told by the Taoiseach that we should not ask him questions in this House which he was not ready to answer.

I would ask a simple question of those who ask us why we would not wait. If any of us were confronted by anybody in authority asking for an explanation of similar events, how would it be if we replied that we wanted two or three weeks to think about it? Deputy Lowry has been extended not merely every courtesy but far more than reasonable facilities to explain why he cannot reply with speed to these charges which have been laid against him. If these transactions were regular and above board one would expect at the very least they would have been accounted for in the books of Deputy Lowry's company or, alternatively, in his own books. If he had been in a position to account for them in that way he would have been able to produce the books last Saturday week to those with whom he negotiated his departure from Government, and to explain to them that all was well. If documentation of an above board transaction was available one would expect it to have been provided to the Taoiseach at Government Buildings last Saturday week, but it was not.

Far from that, the threadbare excuse offered for the first ministerial resignation in the history of the State which was done without explanation, was that the exercise of demonstrating his innocence would have consumed too much ministerial time were he to retain office. That explanation may be acceptable to the Taoiseach and, by definition, if so, it is also acceptable to Democratic Left which accepts everything the Taoiseach says. It may also be acceptable to that most flexible of moral institutions, the conscience of the Labour Party, but it is not acceptable to anybody else. Nobody believes the reason Deputy Lowry had to resign was that if he had retained ministerial office it would have [1190] precluded him from spending enough time to vindicate his innocence.

That the Fine Gael Party is willing to shed a Minister for reasons too embarrassing to mention, is surprising enough for many people, but that it is willing to put in place the most ill-adapted mechanism for gauging the truth of the multitude of allegations that have followed in the train of Deputy Lowry's resignation, is not merely surprising but shocking to many people who expected more of that party. Last week, when this party sought any mechanism — whether the appointment of authorised officers under the Companies Acts or a public inquiry — to bring into the open the full facts concerning suggestions that significant amounts of Dunnes Stores' assets had been diverted to the personal use of senior politicians and public figures, we expected to receive what we sought — some mechanism for establishing the truth. If these suggestions were fantasy or rumour published by notorious scandal sheets it might be suggested that a more cautious approach was necessary. However, senior and respected figures in the media have agreed on this common denominator of allegation which prompts us in the House to call for a serious investigation of such allegations as the least response.

Judge Gerard Buchanan, whom I know and for whom I have the utmost regard, has been asked by the Government to perform not merely an unenviable or improbable task, but an outright impossible one. He has been asked to look at 1,500 transactions in a time frame which, to borrow the Taoiseach's phraseology, would only permit a cursory examination, and to identify which of them is politically or constitutionally suspect. He has been asked to carry out this function without any significant investigatory powers. The most he can do is put before a Committee of this House a list of probable or prima facie infractions of standards of political behaviour. That is after a process which is likely to last several weeks during which he seeks and receives written responses from some or all of the people whom he considers are or could be compromised by what is contained in that report.

There is by repute nothing in the report which will establish categorically whether or not the more significant implications of this controversy are true or false. If, for instance, one of the most commonly carried rumours is correct, that £1.1 million was directed in four instalments into a bank account in England which was established for the beneficial ownership of a senior political figure nothing has been given to Judge Buchanan by way of investigatory or moral power or even administrative structure to enable him to establish whether that rumour is correct. Worse than that, if there is nothing in the report to identify who the beneficial owner of those accounts is, the judge has been given no function to make inquiries of those whom he suspects, on any grounds, may have some interest or connection with the matter. The best we can hope [1191] for from Judge Buchanan is that he will be able to identify manifestly political contributions to the political process and improper contributions to public officials.

That the public should be satisfied with a process which assumes that those who make improper payments are content to leave such transactions transparent and obvious to those who may later stumble on them stretches credulity beyond breaking point. If improper transactions have taken place and payments were made to public officials, officer holders or former office holders, the least this House can expect is the establishment of an investigatory mechanism to consider the impropriety of such events. It defies belief that a mechanism is being put in place which operates on the assumption that improper transactions are not disguised and can be investigated by merely sending a polite letter to those who appear to be involved.

If we are dealing with impropriety, we should adopt measures designed to detect the impropriety we suspect may have been practised. The Garda are not asked to use polite inquiry forms in the detection of criminal offences and company inspectors or the Revenue Commissioners are not asked to investigate likely wrongdoing through the use of polite inquiries; they are given powers of investigation. If it is reasonably suspected that wrongdoing is involved, we must put those empowered to make investigations in possession of the relevant records and material which can reveal such wrongdoing.

The Government suggests that this House should allow those involved in considering this matter to take the equivalent of a feather duster into battle. If public confidence in the political process requires a thorough investigation, Dáil Éireann should not offer the equivalent of a knitting circle as an investigatory arm. If this House is serious about uncovering the truth, it must first put its hands on the means of establishing that truth. If we expect voluntary co-operation or some form of acknowledgement from those who have been engaged in suspect transactions, the least we owe ourselves and the public is to put those charged with investigating this matter in possession of weapons to provide the means to establish the truth and breach the veil of formal denials and bland assertions of innocence. However, we have done nothing of that kind. If the Government is to be believed, we have put in place a process whereby the most on offer in connection with this matter is a dab of the feather duster.

In the final analysis, the Government's proposals amount to a weak minded delaying tactic in the face of the inevitable. In this case, the inevitable is that the people will demand of this generation of politicians a modicum of accountability and the plain unvarnished truth. If the Government ever intended to conduct its [1192] business behind a pane of glass, the people are entitled to take a peek through that pane.

Mr. Lawlor: It is heavily tinted.

Mr. Callely: It is broken.

Mr. M. McDowell: On this issue above all, faced with a rainbow coalition of three parties which came together around a principle of political integrity, the people are entitled to an investigation of these matters which is not merely capable, with good luck, of establishing the truth but which is armed with the authority of the State to establish the truth of these matters beyond contradiction. A Government which cannot explain the departure of one of its members for fear of imperilling the solvency of his personal company is in no position to give the people short rations on the truth when the battle is on to vindicate the integrity of the democratic process.

The Government has stated that if this House acquiesces to the process it has offered to establish, it is possible that there will be a public inquiry in the fullness of time. We are asked to accept that if Judge Buchanan identifies, from a flurry of correspondence with those named in the Price Waterhouse report, some names and facts of interest, these may be passed to the Ceann Comhairle and the Committees on Procedure and Privileges of the Dáil and Seanad. This may result in a sub-committee of either committee sitting in public to deal with these matters. Neither committee or, by definition, a sub-committee can offer the people any investigatory mechanism. If they are confronted with a bland denial, an assertion of innocence or a solicitor's letter stating that an individual does not intend to cooperate for fear that their reputation or the reputations of others will be compromised, those committees will face a blank wall.

The Government is not merely engaging in positive thinking or optimism in asking us to acquiesce in the establishment of that process as the appropriate means to uncover the truth in what is a crisis of confidence in the political system. It is asking us to engage in ludicrous overoptimism and blindness with regard to the realities of the situation. If the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Jim Higgins, the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment, Deputy Rabbitte, who represent the three parties in Government, believe that people who engage in serious wrongdoing will expose their private transactions to public view on receiving first class letters seeking polite responses, they underestimate this House and the people who are entitled to a detailed explanation of these matters. The people are not demanding heads or victims; they are demanding the truth and are entitled to receive it. They are also entitled to [1193] whatever consequences flow from establishing the truth.

Mr. Callely: I move amendment No. 2:

To delete the second paragraph ii and substitute the following:

“ii. whether, and in what circumstances, Members and former Members of the Oireachtas, or members of their immediate families, and other public officials or members of their immediate families, received payments referred to in the Price Waterhouse Report and related documents (and in particular, payments referred to in the report of Judge Buchanan to the Ceann Comhairle) from, or on the part of, Dunnes Stores Ltd.”

Mr. M. McDowell: That is acceptable to the movers of the motion.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. J. Higgins): I seek the permission of the House to share time with the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa.

Acting Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. J. Higgins: I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and insert the following:

“Dáil Éireann

(1) notes that the Government has negotiated and signed an Agreement with Dunnes Holding Company in relation to the handing-over of the Price Waterhouse Report on Dunnes Stores to an independent person, Mr. John Gerard Buchanan, a former judge of the Circuit Court, who will:

(a) examine it and extract from the report details of any payments made to or transactions entered into in relation to Members or former Members of Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann, or any local authority, health board or other similar body, or employees or board members of public bodies or persons remunerated directly or indirectly out of public funds or to their relatives or to political parties, and

(b) report to the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges and to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges full details of all such payments, transactions and/or references to any such persons or bodies, including in such report full details of any explanations in relation thereto as may be furnished to him by Dunnes Holding Company or such person and any observations or recommendations he may consider appropriate;

(2) awaits the outcome of the consideration by the Dáil and Seanad Committees on [1194] Procedure and Privileges, or a sub-committee thereof, of the report from Judge Buchanan;

(3) considers that this method of establishing the facts in relation to the Price Waterhouse Report is the fastest and most efficient possible, and notes that it does not preclude any further investigation, by whatever means is considered necessary by Dáil and Seanad Éireann or by other relevant authorities after publication of the facts in the report; and

(4) welcomes the commitment of the Government to the early enactment of legislation to provide openness and accountability in the funding of the political system.

There has been ongoing media speculation since 29 November last when Mr. Sam Smith of the Irish Independent wrote about alleged payments by Dunnes Stores to politicians, public servants and others. Specifically, this speculation referred to payments to an officeholder and at least one former officeholder.

Mr. M. McDowell: He cannot be named now.

Mr. J. Higgins: This speculation has led to the resignation of the officeholder, a member of the Government, who allegedly received payments in respect of an extension to his home. Deputy Lowry has indicated that the transaction concerned was legitimate and has asked for time so that he can set the record straight in this regard. In typical Progressive Democrats mode, we had pre-emptive judgment tonight long before the facts will be established. I spoke to Deputy Lowry today and he assured me he will make the facts available to the Dáil in due course. The matter is being worked upon and when the Deputy has the details he will make them available to the House.

Mr. M. McDowell: As the Minister knows well, he cannot be questioned on any of the details.

Mr. J. Higgins: Deputy Molloy set out a list of questions and these will be answered in due course.

Notwithstanding Deputy Lowry's resignation from Government, there have been consistent media reports of alleged payments to other politicians, their spouses and members of their families as well as to members and officials of local authorities. During the Dáil debate on the nomination of a Member of the Government on 3 December last there was cross-party agreement that such continued speculation was damaging to the integrity of all politicians and others in public life.

Mr. D. Ahern: That did not stop members of the Minister's party.

Mr. J. Higgins: There was also agreement that [1195] every effort should be made to seek the publication, in the public interest, of the Price Waterhouse report. On the Order of Business on 4 December the Tánaiste undertook to communicate to Dunnes Stores the views of all parties in the House that some way should be found to publish the report. The Tánaiste subsequently spoke to the chief executive of Dunnes Stores who was positive in her response and offered full co-operation. Arrangements were then made for contact between solicitors representing Dunnes Stores and Government representatives. These contacts led to the signing yesterday of an agreement between Dunnes Holding Company and the Taoiseach on behalf of the Government. Last Friday evening representatives of the Progressive Democrats and a representative of Fianna Fáil were briefed by the Minister for Finance on the Government proposals. Within minutes the Progressive Democrats Party issued a statement indicating its disagreement to these proposals.

Mr. Molloy: We know a whitewash when we see one.

Mr. J. Higgins: The agreement reached between the Government and Dunnes Stores provided for a mechanism whereby Dunnes would deliver the Price Waterhouse report to the Secretary to the Government in a sealed envelope. The Secretary to the Government would, in turn, pass on the sealed envelope, unopened, to the independent person, Mr. John Gerard Buchanan, a former judge of the Circuit Court.

Mr. D. Ahern: It is like open the box.

Mr. Molloy: It is like pass the parcel.

Mr. J. Higgins: These aspects of the agreement were compiled with in full yesterday.

Judge Buchanan is examining the report and will extract from it details of all payments made to or transactions entered into in relation to Members or former Members of Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann or any local authority, health board or other similar body or employees or board members of public bodies or persons remunerated directly or indirectly out of public funds or their relatives or to political parties. One could not have a more comprehensive examination.

Mr. M. McDowell: Will the Minister yield?

An Ceann Comhairle: Has the Minister of State delivered sufficient of his speech to entertain an interjection?

Mr. J. Higgins: Yes, if it is brief.

Mr. M. McDowell: Will the Minister of State outline how Judge Buchanan will be in a position [1196] to deal with payments made either to cash or bank accounts which do not bear the name of politicians or public persons?

Mr. J. Higgins: Judge Buchanan has been asked to investigate the facts — it has been alleged tonight that he has no investigative powers — and to identify the names of politicians or public officials. We should not make any judgment on the matter before the central details are known. We need to know the names, addresses and the amounts and we are seeking to have these put into the public domain as soon as possible.

Given that they are involved in the cleaning business, will Progressive Democrats Deputies put their hand on their heart and say they received no contributions? Are the prizes in draws such as cars and holidays sponsored and, if so, by whom and are any conditions attached?

Ms O'Donnell: This is pathetic.

Mr. J. Higgins: Are they prepared to divulge their sources? They should not point the finger at others unless they are in position to open their books and make details of their contributions known.

Mr. D. Ahern: This is like the use of the word “chancers” by the Tánaiste.

Mr. J. Higgins: Judge Buchanan is examining the report and will extract from it the details of all payments made to or transactions entered into in relation to Members or former Members of Dáil Éireann.

Mr. Molloy: On a point of information, is the Minister correct to refer to Mr. Buchanan as Judge Buchanan?

Mr. J. Higgins: To follow the usual Progressive Democrats line of prissiness, I will call him the former Judge Buchanan.

Mr. Molloy: There is a difference.

Mr. J. Higgins: Following that examination the former Judge Buchanan will report to the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges and to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges full details of all such payments, transactions and/or references to any such persons or bodies. He will include in his report full details of any explanations in relation to such payments or transactions as may be furnished to him by Dunnes Holding Company or the persons named and any observations or recommendations as he may consider appropriate.

The Government has been concerned at all stages to achieve the early publication of the names of any politicians, public servants or political parties that might be contained in the Price Waterhouse report. It has also been concerned to ensure that this is achieved on the most cost effective basis possible. We believe that [1197] these twin objectives can best be achieved through the agreement made with Dunnes Holding Company.

Deputy McDowell said the companies legislation might be an appropriate vehicle. Deputies will be aware that the Government and, in particular, the Minister for Enterprise and Employment and the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, carefully considered whether the powers under the Companies Act, 1990, could be invoked to secure the publication of the Price Waterhouse report. This was suggested at an early stage by the Progressive Democrats and others. While the powers under that Act may be relevant to some aspects of the report they would not ensure its publication. The Progressive Democrats' motion which seeks the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry is premature. The Government acknowledges that there is widespread public concern arising from media reports on the alleged contents of the Price Waterhouse report and we have acted to alleviate this.

Members of the Progressive Democrats, having regard to their concern for restrictions on public expenditure, will acknowledge that the establishment of a tribunal on this matter would be very expensive. We are led to believe from media reports that 1,500 names are listed in the report in respect of which payments were made by Dunnes Stores. Are the Progressive Democrats seriously suggesting that a tribunal of inquiry would be in a position to quickly, or even within 90 days, secure the publication of the names of Members of the Oireachtas and other public officials as well as clarify the motives for and circumstances of any payments made to them by Dunnes Stores and the truthfulness or otherwise of the media reports? If the details of 1,500 names and cheques had to be trawled through we would not see the results until the next election, let alone next Easter.

Mr. M. McDowell: Rubbish.

Mr. D. Ahern: Which comes first?

Mr. M. McDowell: No wonder the Government is in such a mess.

Mr. J. Higgins: The Government wishes to put on record our appreciation of the assistance received to date from the representatives of Dunnes Holding Company who have assured us of their continuing co-operation.

Mr. M. McDowell: How long will it take Judge Budchanan to do a report?

Mr. J. Higgins: We also wish to put on record that nothing in the agreement negotiated with the company will prejudice the power of the State authorities to take any criminal prosecutions that might be deemed appropriate arising from the contents of the report. The company has agreed to give reasonable consideration to any request [1198] from the Government to any of the procedures contained in the agreement in so far as any such modification might be necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the agreement.

The Government is confident that the mechanism now in place will enable Judge Buchanan to quickly identify any Member or former Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas who may have benefited from payments. Judge Buchanan can submit an interim report to the Dáil and Seanad Committees on Procedure and Privileges and it is open to those committees to take any necessary action.

Mr. M. McDowell: It is not.

Mr. J. Higgins: Fianna Fáil is the largest single group on that body and Deputy Michael McDowell is represented by Deputy O'Donnell.

Ms O'Donnell: The Government has a majority.

Mr. J. Higgins: This Government does not preclude the possibility of further investigation if required when Judge Buchanan has reported to the Dáil and Seanad Committees on Procedure and Privileges.

Deputies on all sides of the House will welcome the Government's commitment to the early enactment of legislation to provide openness and accountability in the funding of the political system. Consideration of the findings of the McKenna judgement has led to some delay in finalising this matter.

The Government acknowledges the co-operation of Judge Buchanan in taking on the task of the independent person. He is well suited for that task and we wish him well in his endeavours.

Tonight we once again see the Progressive Democrats on their high moral penny farthing.

Ms O'Donnell: It is a good job someone is.

Minister for the Environment (Mr. Howlin): All of us involved in politics regard the past couple of weeks as a bad time for politics and all political parties. Media speculation surrounding the discovery of the Price Waterhouse report has cast a shadow of suspicion over everyone involved in politics and in public administration. For the overwhelming majority, that situation is unacceptable and untenable. Two urgent and equally important tasks must be carried out, not simply by Government but by all of us charged with upholding the good name of politics and public administration to address that situation.

The issue which affects public life is not simply a matter which can be resolved by Government because the erosion of public confidence in administration systems affects us all. All the major political parties in this House have been in office in recent years and share responsibility to ensure there is public confidence in the way we do our business. As a member of the Government [1199] and as the Minister charged with responsibility for local government, I know that Ireland has been extraordinarily well served by generations of people of high calibre and integrity working in public administration since the foundation of the State. That is not to say we can now be complacent or less vigorous in terms of our scrutiny of the workings of Government.

Our first task is to address the immediate suspicion that surrounds the much vaunted Price Waterhouse report. It is the Government's intent and the House's wish to have the list of names of people in public life contained in that report — if such names are contained in it — published as soon as possible, but in a manner that is consistent with the tenets of natural justice and fair play. On the “Six One News” this evening the leader of the Progressive Democrats unfairly suggested that this Government was not determined to publish the full facts. Immediately after this issue arose last week, I discussed it with the leader of the Progressive Democrats. She understood and accepted that the vast majority of people in this House wanted the same thing. It is mean opportunism to make such a charge against the Government. It is groundless and false and unworthy of a Member of this House for whom I have respect.

The second task we are charged with collectively and for which I have responsibility is to change the way politics is funded. We want to ensure open disclosure of all significant financial contributions to political parties, to provide for open disclosure of election expenses and the capping of such expenditure and to provide for a system of State funding for the political system in line with the practice in most European countries. The Supreme Court judgement has necessitated a different approach being taken to the matter of funding from that initially supported in the Electoral Bill. The Government's advice is that all candidates and political parties must be treated equally when it comes to State funding of the political system. I have worked over recent months to be mindful of the views of the Supreme Court and to revise the provisions of the Bill to give effect to that good advice. I will bring specific proposals to Government tomorrow. I have already received the Government's approval to proceed quickly to Committee Stage of this milestone legislation.

There are three interrelated and equally important legislative measures which will in future be recognised as the bedrock of open Government. The Ethics in Public Office Act is now the law of the land and each Member of this House and senior officials in Departments have already made declarations under it. We all regard it as a safeguard to have our interests placed on the public record. The Government will shortly publish the Freedom of Information Bill, which will be a substantial legislative measure to enable every citizen to overview the work of public administration at all levels. The Electoral Bill, [1200] which deals with the conduct of politicians and political parties, will bring transparency to the system and help to restore public confidence which has been badly damaged in recent days and weeks.

The motion puts forward different proposals to achieve the same objective. It has been said in the House and outside it, particularly by the spokespersons for the Progressive Democrats, that there is a different agenda or objective for the people on this side of the House from those in Opposition in relation to getting all the facts into the open. That is wrong and the members of the Progressive Democrats who said it know that. The Government has sought to build an all-party consensus on any good proposal. We are convinced that the proposal contained in the Government amendment is the most efficient route. Even if it proves to be unsatisfactory, there is scope to take whatever further action is required. We want to do it efficiently and effectively. The only objective of Government is to get to the bottom of this matter. That is what we are determined to do and that is what will be done.

Minister for Social Welfare (Proinsias De Rossa): The circumstances which have faced the Government during the past ten days are unique in Irish politics and require a unique response. We know that copies of documents were produced by the Irish Independent concerning financial transactions involving the former Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Michael Lowry, and Dunnes Stores.

We know that as a result of voluntary disclosures by the recipients, the Fine Gael party received contributions from Dunnes Stores, the Labour Party received a contribution from the same source during the last Presidential election and a number of individual politicians in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael also received financial support. This is not improper or illegal, it has been part and parcel of the political-business relationship for generations. How many journalists or citizens remember the famous Fianna Fáil TACA row 30 years ago, when there was much public foray and attempts by the Fianna Fáil Party to get the support of the business community?

Mr. Molloy: It was an internal foray.

Mr. D. Ahern: At least we did not print our own money.

Proinsias De Rossa: Virtually everything else we have heard in the past ten days has been based on rumour, speculation, gossip and innuendo, which may or may not be true. Veiled allegations were made in certain newspapers against unnamed but clearly — in some circumstances anyway — identifiable political figures. These [1201] claims were subsequently contradicted by other newspapers and in some cases qualified by those originally making the allegations. Suggestions were made that there would be further sensational disclosures in the newspapers over the weekend but acres of newsprint failed to produce further significant facts.

It was obvious from the beginning that it was necessary to establish the facts about a financial relationship between Dunnes Stores and politicians or other public figures as early as possible, as the continuing speculation and gossip had the potential to inflict enormous damage on the entire political process. It was claimed in a succession of articles in different newspapers, that the allegations were based on a report from accountants, Price Waterhouse, apparently commissioned as part of an internal struggle within the Dunne family for control of the company. It became clear that the publication of the relevant portions of this document was required to throw public light on the affair. It also became clear that to publish a private report, made to a private business, in a way which protected private citizens and was seen to be fairly dealt with, required a series of safety precautions.

During the past week the Government has put enormous effort, time and commitment into devising a mechanism that would facilitate the earliest possible publication of the relevant passages of the report. There was no easy way to achieve this objective and anyone who suggests there was is seeking to fool the public. There was no precedent for the Government's efforts. This was a private report, commissioned into the internal affairs of a private company, and it was the private property of those on whose behalf it was commissioned. Every potential course of action was fraught with legal and constitutional difficulties. There were, by all accounts, politicians and other public figures referred to in the report, but there were also many private citizens who had a right not to have their good names impugned without evidence of impropriety. There was clearly an obligation on the Government to ensure that nothing was done to compromise the public reputations of those people and that public representatives and their families were also ensured of at least a fair hearing. A recent editorial referred to politicians as “thieves”.

Without the co-operation of Dunnes Stores, securing the publication of the relevant portions of the report would have proved enormously difficult and might never have been possible. In the past, I have been critical of the business and labour relations practices of Dunnes Stores and I remain so. Such practices have cost the taxpayer £1 million in the past 12 months. However, when approached by the Government about the possibility of publication, they responded in a positive and constructive spirit.

Following the agreement in principle with Dunnes Stores that the relevant portions of the [1202] report could be published, the Government, after considering all the options, decided the procedures set out in the amendment to the Progressive Democrats motion were the most appropriate, effective and speedy way to have the relevant names brought into the public domain. To have had the full report handed over to the Government to allow it to extract the relevant names would have left this Administration open to charges of selectivity or political favouritism. It was to avoid this that the Government sought an independent person of integrity and standing to discharge this task. I have every confidence in the ability of the former Circuit Court Judge, Mr. John Gerard Buchanan, to promptly and effectively discharge the task given to him.

What we are doing has a far better chance of achieving the desired result than any alternative approach suggested. In addition, it must be emphasised that the agreement with Dunnes Stores does not preclude the Government from exercising a power or performing a duty or function conferred on it by or under statue. Neither does the course proposed by the Government preclude further investigation by whatever means are considered necessary by it and the Dáil or by any other relevant authorities after the publication of the facts in the Price Waterhouse report. It is entirely reasonable that we should give this process an opportunity to work before we commit the State to embarking on possible courses that may prove legally dangerous, extremely costly and have no guarantee of success.

Part of the negative response to the Government's proposal from some commentators and newspapers may arise because many of them are shifting their ground. The universal demand last week from the media was for publication of the relevant sections of the Price Waterhouse report but, having quoted the report as the source of virtually all the allegations made last week, they seem to be suggesting that these claims may not be backed up by the document.

I will deal now in more detail with the Progressive Democrats motion. A week ago tonight, Deputy Harney demanded that the Government should invoke the Companies Act to send an inspector into Dunnes Stores to seize the Price Waterhouse report. Presumably the highly paid senior counsel who shares the front bench with her has, in the interim, pointed out the difficulties involved in that course of action and Deputy Harney has now quietly dropped that demand in favour of a full blown tribunal of inquiry.

Mr. M. McDowell: At least I did not print my own money.

Proinsias De Rossa: I am surprised the eminent senior counsel and part-time Sunday Independent columnist has not warned her of the potential disasters lurking in her motion to establish a tribunal of inquiry. A tribunal of inquiry along [1203] the lines proposed by the Progressive Democrats would be a potential disaster. It is a recipe for prolonged hearings, with huge legal bills, and the real prospect of journalists ending up in jail, with no guarantee of satisfactory or complete answers at the end of the process.

Some commentators have expressed concern that under the procedures proposed by the Government it may take a few weeks to get the relevant names from the Price Waterhouse report into the public domain. A tribunal, as proposed by Deputy Molloy, is likely to be a far longer process. I remind the House that while the motion to establish the tribunal of inquiry into the beef industry was passed by the Dáil on 31 May 1991, it was more than five months later, on 7 November, before it could begin hearing evidence and it did not report until three years later. The financial cost of that tribunal has still to be determined.

Furthermore, under the terms proposed by the Progressive Democrats and the precedents established by the Chief Justice when he was chairman of the tribunal into the beef industry, it appears that not only would anyone mentioned in the Price Waterhouse report — the number is believed to be approximately 1,500 — be entitled to legal representation at the tribunal but so also would every political party, newspaper and journalist who has written on this story in the past ten days. The inevitable result would be an enormously costly and cumbersome tribunal. Irrespective of that, the Government is determined to establish the truth. Our amendment does not preclude further investigation by whatever means considered necessary by the Dáil and Seanad or by other relevant authorities after publication of the facts in the report.

Under the terms proposed by the Progressive Democrats, there is a danger that the tribunal would become an inquiry into the newspaper coverage of these events. The terms specifically require the tribunal to establish “whether newspaper reports...concerning alleged payments by Dunnes Stores Ltd. to, or for, the benefit of Members and former Members of the Oireachtas or members of their families, are true in substance”. To establish whether newspaper articles were true in substance, it would be necessary to call the journalists who wrote them to give evidence and be cross-examined. Issues would certainly arise about confidentiality of sources, privilege and so on, and conflict between the tribunal and the journalists concerned would be inevitable. Is this what the Progressive Democrats want?

Mr. M. McDowell: We did not say anything about that.

Proinsias De Rossa: The decision of the Government to appoint former Judge Buchanan to examine the Price Waterhouse document and [1204] report to the Committee on Procedures and Privileges on his findings was merely one part of the Government's response to the public concern regarding the reports of financial contributions from the business sector to political parties. The Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, has already dealt with the electoral Bill.

The Progressive Democrats were quick to point the finger at other parties in respect of contributions by Dunnes Stores to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, but it remained remarkably quiet about its successes in respect of funding from the business sector. If they are as enthusiastic as they claim about openness and accountability in this area, why do they not set a headline for other parties by making a voluntary disclosure of all contributions they have received over the past 12 months which would have required disclosure had the electoral Bill been enacted?

Mr. M. McDowell: We have not resorted to the printing press and Moscow letters.

Proinsias De Rossa: The position of the Progressive Democrats on this issue has been characterised by the sort of hypocrisy and cant that they have made their political trade mark. In the first instance, we had Deputy Harney weeping crocodile tears for the plight of Dunnes Stores workers — the same Deputy Harney who is an apostle for the Hong Kong economic model, that is, low pay and low social protection — but nothing illustrates the hypocrisy of the Progressive Democrats more than their approach to the electoral Bill. The public position of the Progressive Democrats on State-funding of political parties is totally at variance with the position they adopt in private. During the Second Stage debate on the electoral Bill the Progressive Democrats indicated that they were opposed to the principle of public funds for political parties.

Mr. M. McDowell: We are.

Proinsias De Rossa: Of course, they are quite happy to avail——

An Ceann Comhairle: The time has come to call another speaker.

Proinsias De Rossa: ——of the existing system of public funding of political parties, the party Leader's allowance. That system, which is illogical and bizarre in its current manifestation, gives Fianna Fáil, with nearly 70 Deputies, £292,000 annually, while Deputy Harney with just eight Deputies gets £145,000 and Democratic Left with six Deputies gets nothing.

Mr. Molloy: It was set up by the Labour Party.

Mr. D. Ahern: The Minister did not complain when he had ten Deputies.

[1205] An Ceann Comhairle: The time available to the Minister is quite exhausted. A concluding remark.

Proinsias De Rossa: Furthermore, I want to place it on the record of this House that when efforts were being made to put this Government together and into the early days of this Administration, at a time when they were maintaining their public stance of opposition to public funding of political parties, representations were made to members of my party from the highest levels within the Progressive Democrats to try to get our agreement to review the system of funding proposed in the electoral Bill with a view to increasing the amount payable to the Progressive Democrats by reducing the sum payable to Fianna Fáil.

Mr. M. McDowell: When he cannot print his own, it gets tough.

Proinsias De Rossa: That is the reality behind the self righteous humbug of the Progressive Democrats.

An Ceann Comhairle: I must now call another speaker, Deputy Bertie Ahern.

Proinsias De Rossa: Deputy Ahern might wait until I finish this last sentence. In conclusion, the Price Waterhouse report has highlighted public unease about the lack of openness and accountability in the way the political system is funded. The issues raised by the report must be addressed, initially by Judge Buchanan and afterwards by whatever means may be appropriate in individual cases. However, above and beyond that report, the case has been established for a root and branch reform of how we fund the operation of our democracy. This Government, and Democratic Left within this Government, is committed to tackling both the symptom — the Price Waterhouse report — and the cause — the current system of party funding of our present malaise.


Proinsias De Rossa: There is more. Do Deputies want to hear the rest?

Mr. M. McDowell: We need a printing press now.

Mr. J. Higgins: Deputy McDowell knows we do not sink to that here. Brave man. Say it outside.

Mr. Molloy: We will repeat what the Minister for Finance said on many occasions.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Molloy, please restrain yourself.

There is a time limit on this debate. Interventions of this kind are not welcome and, [1206] indeed, disorderly. Let us utilise our precious time as effectively as possible.

Mr. B. Ahern: I want to share my time with Deputy Dermot Ahern.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am sure that is quite satisfactory and agreed.

Mr. B. Ahern: The last ten days have raised serious question marks over the integrity of our public life. It is our job as politicians to protect and vindicate our democratic system, and to revive public confidence which is at a low ebb. Nothing produces more public cynicism than a failure to live up to promises of greater openness, accountability and high standards in public life.

It is as well to remind ourselves of the immediate cause of the present disquiet. A report, which has not been contradicted to this day, was published in the newspapers that a Minister, who at the time was chairman of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and the party's chief fund-raiser, had received £208,000 for the extension and renovation of his home in a manner that was falsely accounted for. The Minister resigned 48 hours later.

I regard as a grave public scandal the fact that this House has still not been given any satisfactory explanation of this matter, and that the Fine Gael Party has not demanded one. The public simply does not understand how anyone, least of all a Minister, is unable to explain credibly, within a very short space of time, how he financed improvements to his house. An incomplete, complex, convoluted explanation constructed long after the event will have less and less credibility as time goes by. It is clear that he did not furnish a declaration of interest to the Taoiseach on his appointment. The longer a satisfactory explanation is outstanding, the more the question arises as to whether Deputy Lowry, former chairman of Fine Gael, is a fit person to be a Member of this House.

After the Deputy Lowry affair, the wider ramifications of the report captured public attention. It was legitimate to ask whether anyone else in public life benefited in similar manner from Ben Dunne's largesse, especially as others were named in the Price Waterhouse report but it was very wrong to engage in rumour and innuendo in an attempt to deflect attention from a highly embarrassing situation.

In one instance, at least, an abject apology has been made. It was incumbent on all parties to ask questions of their Oireachtas members. Assuming that every Member of the Oireachtas has answered truthfully, we may have many of the answers at this stage. The Fine Gael Party and its individual members appear to have received over £400,000, whereas Fianna Fáil and Labour, as far as I can ascertain, each received between £15,000 and £20,000. Publication of the report, or relevant sections of it, may provide further clarification of that discrepancy. A complicating factor may be [1207] that some of the payments acknowledged by different parties are not, in fact, contained in the Price Waterhouse report.

The payment of £208,000 for the prima facie personal benefit of Deputy Lowry — we are still awaiting explanations — led to his resignation. It is important to clarify urgently whether any other Member of the Oireachtas, past or present, or, indeed, any member of the wider public service was in receipt of similar payments not clearly and exclusively linked to legitimate political expenses. It was for that reason that I called last week for publication of the Price Waterhouse report. At my request, the Tánaiste contacted the Dunne family, who have agreed, in principle, to release such details as are relevant to our public life, with the relevance being determined by a retired High Court Judge.

The Revenue Commissioners, on the other hand, will, I presume, be making full use of the entire report, or at least those parts listing the 1,500 transactions, to ensure that the transactions conform fully with the tax code, if necessary, retrospectively.

The procedure announced by the Government is not satisfactory. The judge will sift through the report and quickly identify the names of any Members of the Oireachtas. He then proposes to write to them seeking a written explanation. I hope this will be done promptly.

I will be urging any member of my party who receives such a letter to reply promptly to it. I would like to see the names and any correspondence before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges as soon as possible. A committee or subcommittee of the House can obviously summon before it Members of the Oireachtas and question them on payments received either individually or on behalf of their party. This work should be carried out and completed promptly. We need to have as much of this as possible clarified quickly. I would expect Members to be upfront and comprehensive in their explanations. I do not want to hear the excuses for not giving information and the prevarication that we had following the resignation of Deputy Lowry.

The public interest comes before the private interest, and that is an obligation accepted by anyone who comes into this House. It is right that all the names should be known to the public, irrespective of whether this is convenient for the persons concerned. All the information should be given, whether or not it is explicitly contained in the Price Waterhouse report. Such an approach is necessary to restore confidence in the integrity of our public life.

However, the ramifications go beyond current Members of this House. There may be others involved. Public officials may be named. The reality is that they are not answerable to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges or a subcommittee, and most probably they would be strongly advised by lawyers not to accept its [1208] jurisdiction in the absence of proper legal procedures and safeguards. There are no lawyers, no compellability of witnesses or no immunities such as would be enjoyed by someone appearing before a tribunal. Furthermore, while a committee of the House can seek information and ask questions, it cannot make findings. Indeed, it would be wrong for any committee run by a political majority to seek to act in a quasi-judicial manner.

Mr. Molloy: Hear, hear.

Mr. B. Ahern: I can understand the hesitation about establishing a public tribunal. The beef tribunal, in particular, was a hugely expensive exercise and it is doubtful if its findings justified the inordinate cost and length of time involved. On the other hand, the Hepatitis C tribunal is clearly doing an essential and thorough job investigating a grievous wrong done by an agency of the State to private citizens.

Unless there was very full voluntary co-operation by everyone involved, beginning with Deputy Lowry, it is difficult to see how a tribunal can be avoided. The people who could be called before it include present and former public representatives and officials. Inquiries cannot be limited to named individuals and amounts in the relevant categories in the Price Waterhouse report. Efforts should be made to determine whether any cash or under the counter payments were made to them, to others on the list or to people who were not on it. Now that questions have been raised because of the dubious nature of a large under the counter payment to Deputy Lowry we need a full and comprehensive account of the transactions.

Mr. Ben Dunne would be a key witness at any tribunal. While there has been heavy media concentration on the political aspects of the report, it is important to ascertain that no public officials, whether engaged in the planning process or otherwise, have received ex gratia payments from one of our largest retailers.

We must look at the issues dispassionately and objectively relating to party funding. At an instinctive level I have some sympathy with the position of Mr. Kevin Boland who, writing in the early 1980s, regretted Fianna Fáil's change from being “the small man's party”, totally dependent on the small subscriptions from each parish in the national collection, to being as he put it “financially patronised by the bosses”. He recalled that for years it had been “a proud Fianna Fáil boast that they won elections at a fraction of the cost at which Fine Gael and Labour lost them”. It is certainly healthier to have many smaller contributions rather than a few large ones. At the same time, our society and political system has become more complex, elaborate and more ambitious. One of our successes is that the standard of living of so many people has been raised and most of the large group of respectable men and women who did [1209] not previously own property now own some, even if it is only their homes.

People expect a higher quality in their democratic life. Undoubtedly, this costs money. There is nothing wrong with seeking a greater contribution from those who have rather than from those who have not. The business community has benefited from greater prosperity. Inevitably, it is asked to contribute more, not only to political life but to cultural and sporting life and to many other public causes. People contribute money to churches, clubs and charities and also to political parties. As a general rule, there is no expectation of any specific return other than, perhaps, general goodwill.

Much has been made of supposed privileged access but, as the Chair knows from his long experience of public life, Irish politicians are among the most accessible in the world to people of all classes and backgrounds. That applies to members of all political parties and to those who are not members of a party. It is certainly not necessary to pay anything to come into contact with a politician or get a fair hearing. Ministers could not afford politically to support a poor case just because of where funding comes from. Any exceptions to this, such as acceptance of a payment linked to particular contracts, budgetary or planning decisions or the suggestion that arose in the past that large sums of money could be made available to change the leader of a party, would constitute serious political corruption. I also include in that any insider dealings, for example, in the case of a competitive contract where a favoured firm might be tipped off about the tender proposed by a competitor. There has been recent controversy about certain public contracts. It is an area where the greatest care and most rigorous precautions are required because it has been a source of corruption in many European countries not to mention the rest of the world.

In a well-ordered democracy the only gifts a politician should legitimately receive are public tokens of appreciation or mementoes of insignificant financial value at meetings with foreign visitors or at public functions. The reason we have ethics in Government legislation is to ensure we outlaw what we regard as unethical. The public want the funding of political parties to be open and transparent, especially any large financial contributions. A ceiling of £4,000 for a contribution to a party and £500 to an individual was included in the draft legislation and amounts beyond that would have to be declared. When the former Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, was preparing that legislation, I said I believed that was about right. On the other hand, it was proposed that in regard to amounts over the allowances given to party leaders, essentially for back-up services and research, the taxpayer should step in and fill the gap. Apart from the complications of the McKenna judgment, I agree with the point of view that political parties are voluntary organisations and, broadly speaking, [1210] should not be funded by the taxpayer, but there is a choice to be made. If we want to reduce the level of dependence on private contributions and do not want our political parties to be heavily in debt, the element of State funding has to be reviewed. There is a huge imbalance in resources between the Government and the Opposition. The parties in Government de facto receive heavy, unquantifiable levels of State funding already. Programme managers and advisers are already costing up to £15 million per year. Therefore, it is right that State funding should be weighted towards the Opposition, as happens at present. It is important to have a level political playing pitch. The existence of an Opposition is what distinguishes democracy from other forms of Government. Its duty is to act as a watchdog for the public interest and keep the Government on its toes.

We should not give any impression in this House that we are afraid of the truth or that we want to bury the whole affair. We, on this side of the House, want the whole truth to come out, regardless of what may be revealed. We need to establish quickly that Deputy Lowry's affair was an aberration and not the norm. We also need to tighten up our safeguards, proceed with the electoral funding Bill and conduct a review of the ethics in Government legislation. We need a good deal less of the rhetoric of the high moral ground in the future and more in the way of efficient and comprehensive safeguards which are a normal part of the political landscape.

Ministers and politicians also need to look very carefully at any aspect of their activities that could undermine public confidence in our democratic system and bring in whatever reforms may be necessary. Tomorrow night we will support our amendment and that in the name of the Progressive Democrats but, needless to say, that will not be the end of it. I appreciated the briefing given to our party the other night, but I look forward to members of the Government spelling out precisely how this matter will be dealt with. That has not been done yet.

Mr. M. McDowell: They keep changing the script.

Mr. D. Ahern: I am delighted to participate in this debate. Like my party leader, I thank the Progressive Democrats for accepting the amendment tabled by our party. They were accused by the Government over the weekend of making a quick judgement on its proposal. We decided to take our time over it to see exactly what the Government was proposing. The word “bewildered” was used in our press briefings and bewildered we were, but the position has become a little clearer during the past few days. The last sentence spoken by the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, that the only objective of the Government is to get to the bottom of this matter and that is what it is determined to do, stands out in the contributions [1211] of Government speakers tonight. With all due respect to him, I believe he was saying that with his tongue firmly in his cheek. I recall it is only about a fortnight since the Tánaiste said more or less the same about the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, in regard to the paper shuffling exercise that went on between the Cabinet and her Department, yet we still do not have any accountability in that regard.

This is the Government that came into office with a spirit of openness, transparency and accountability and compared itself to a pane of glass. We, on this side of the House, are somewhat tired of listing all the great promises it made in its Programme for Government. One promise that has not been acted upon, despite a number of issues arising during the past two years which could have been addressed by it, was the setting up of a committee of investigation. We need only refer to the travails of the former Minister, Deputy Lowry, about surveillance. Why did the Government not set up such a committee to deal with all the other incidents that happened during the past two years and, particularly, this one? No Minister has mentioned what I consider to be the most important legislation required to get at the truth of this matter, the privilege and compellability of witnesses Bill which the Government brought forward under pressure. I tabled 11 amendments to that Bill but I am still waiting for it to come before the House. Without it, no committee of the House will have the teeth needed to investigate matters and neither will the type of committee being proposed by the Government in this instance. One often hears the question “who guards the guard?” The Government is proposing, in effect, that Deputies should investigate Deputies, former Deputies and Senators and members of their families. We cannot accept this because it would send all the wrong signals and leave us open to the jibe from the general public that we have something to hide. As somebody said, this is a whitewash.

Debate adjourned.