That Dáil Éireann reaffirms its confidence in the Taoiseach and the Government.
I have only been Taoiseach a relatively short time. From the moment I took up office last February, I have been faced with an avalanche of problems. Yet, we have taken the necessary steps, and successfully confronted the difficulties, the Maastricht Referendum, Common Agricultural Policy reform, the problems posed by the X case, the currency crisis, and finding new approaches to solving unemployment. We have been lacking neither courage nor commitment, decisiveness nor determination. The Government have done a good job both in the last eight months and over the past three and a half years. But it is now necessary to bring forward this motion for debate in order to confront the challenge posed by others to the continuation of this Government.
I now want a clear opportunity to transform this country, and to give back at the end of a four to five year period a sense of achievement to a country of which we can all be proud. With the support of our parliamentary party, my own Fianna Fáil team can do it. We have the talent, the energy, the enthusiasm, the freshness and the experience, and a long and proud political tradition behind us.
I also feel I have my own special personal contribution to make. Starting from very little, I built up a substantial business which gave me the experience of creating for individuals and for families much pleasure and happiness. Later, I set up in manufacturing industry, using Irish raw materials, exporting the bulk of production, and employing many people, while I also managed a local newspaper. With a background and experience in both business and politics, I believe I can succeed in communicating the benefits of an enterprise culture here, create more respect for it and convince people of that successful philosophy of self-help and self-reliance.
I believe I can show that my commonsense pragmatic approach has already been of benefit. We all remember the enormous frustration the telephone system used to cause. I was responsible for starting and pushing through the telecommunications revolution, which has allowed us as a nation to build up a whole new financial services and remote data processing industry that employs thousands of people, in urban and rural Ireland.
In place of vast and costly paper schemes, I started the beginnings of a serious public transport policy in Dublin, pushing through bus lanes against bureaucratic opposition, setting up computerised traffic management systems, and reopening the line to Maynooth to commuters for less than £1 million, while getting the DART underway.
As Minister for Industry and Energy in 1982, I launched the construction of the Cork-Dublin gas pipeline at half the original estimate. I successfully negotiated an excellent commercial deal for the supply of Kinsale gas to the North of Ireland, only to see it collapse some time later, when out of office.
Deputies will no doubt recall an unfortunate confrontation with multinational oil companies in 1979 which led to long queues at petrol stations but not to any lowering of prices. Eight years later, I ordered the oil companies to cut their prices by 10p. They were just as annoyed on that occasion, but with no after effects.
The art of governing is not just a matter of mastering the brief or skill in debate and points of procedure or of borrowing the latest fashionable economic idea from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in London or wherever; still less is it a university seminar. It is about making up one's mind, making tough decisions and taking responsibility for them. It is about getting things done and projects off the ground. It is about negotiating good deals that are in the best interests of the Irish people, and that enhance their welfare.
We have seen how difficult the public flotation of even the best companies can sometimes be. I had personal charge of the Irish Life and Greencore flotations. I sought and got the very best deal for the Irish taxpayer at the time, and the price obtained was higher than I was first advised we could get. There were no quick profits made by investors. This period saw some business scandals come to the surface. I was the first Minister to say "find the truth and publish it", and "if heads have to roll, so be it".
Since becoming Taoiseach, I have wanted to do something above all for the small man or woman, who wants to start a business, who all too often are ignored and who can get no help either from banks or State agencies. The county enterprise partnership boards, with wide representation on them, and to which the banks and financial institutions are contributing with the Government, are there to help small businesses get off the ground, to give good ideas a start, to encourage risk, and to lend support where it is most needed. It means job grants with less bureaucracy. This straightforward, practical approach is better value for money than costly complex schemes, which will only be taken up by a few.
The Government have been in office for nearly three and a half years. We were contracted together for four years. The lifetime of a Government is up to five years. A general election now is neither wanted nor needed, and is seriously detrimental to the national interest. The economy is now confronted with such difficult international economic conditions that the people need a firm and single-minded Government. We have a pressing agenda which includes at least six major items: tackling the unemployment problem and the aftermath of the currency crisis; preparation of the Estimates and the budget; the vital negotiations on the future financing of structural and cohesion funds for Ireland; the second Finance Bill in preparation for the Single Market; the critical status of the Northern Ireland talks process and the three referenda due on 3 December. An election will be of no benefit to the country on any count.
I deeply regret the decision by our partners to create instability and effectively undermine my Government under a poorly disguised pretext of self-righteous moral indignation. Fianna Fáil would be prepared to carry on at least until well into next year as a minority Government in the best interests of the country. Statesmanship on the Opposition benches would allow us to do so.
I would like to analyse how we have arrived at the present situation. In July 1989 Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats entered into a bona fide four year agreement for Government "in the national interest". This agreement was updated for the two later years only last year. Both my predecessor and myself have shown the utmost good faith and willingness to accommodate our partners. Before I go on to express some criticisms, it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to the undoubted contribution that Deputies O'Malley and Molloy have made to the Government. On matters of substance by and large we worked well together, with none of the paralysis in decision-making that afflicted previous Coalitions. But there is no adequate reason we could not have been allowed to go on to finish and complete the work.
However, the attitude of certain elements in that smaller party to the working of Coalition left a lot to be desired. They are a party with six members in the Dáil, with a proportion to Fianna Fáil of one to thirteen. By and large I have had little problem either with my colleagues in Government to the backbench members of the Progressive Democrats Parliamentary Party. The problems we had to contend with came in the main from people outside this House, who expected and demanded an influence in the name of the Progressive Democrats wholly disproportionate to the size of their democratic mandate. As Minister for Finance I had to put up with crude ultimatums about future budgets coupled with arrogant abuse of my loyal, hard-working civil servants. In fact, in their handling of the recent currency crisis, the senior officials of the Department of Finance served this country with a skill and distinction that will forever earn them the gratitude and good opinion of the people of this country. We had the experience of the Government being held to ransom and threatened with a premature election on many occasions, if we did not fall into line with the minority party's demands, while their leaders in the Dáil remained silent. I have always abhorred high pressure tactics from outside, and I have refused to yield to them. The real crises have nearly always been personality issues, not policy-driven ones. Such behaviour has not always made Coalition easy.
We had, for example, the spectacle of a popular and effective Minister for Defence and Tánaiste, who had been seriously ill, being hounded out of office, a man who subsequently was to win 47 per cent of the votes in the final count from the Irish people in the Presidential election, because of a fallible historical account of an event long past. None of us is perfect, and most of us would not claim to be. But some of them think they are, and they are not. There is always a problem in trying to deal with people who claim that they are above the common run of humanity.
Since I took office in February I have been determined that Government decisions would be made in an orderly, businesslike fashion with the proper weight given to different views represented around the Cabinet table.
Let us deal briefly with some alleged grievances. The Government, for instance, decided to proceed with the Maastricht Referendum last June and leave the resolution of the abortion issue till the autumn. The Maastricht Referendum was passed with ease, compared to other countries. My political judgment on this as on many other matters has been totally vindicated. If we had waited till the autumn, it could have been caught up in an election, or delayed into the New Year, with the same embarrassing mess that was created in 1986 by the delay in ratifying the Single European Act.
The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment had no role in the Northern talks. It is a strange way of doing business, that I as Taoiseach should first learn in a Sunday paper that she proposed to stand in for a senior Progressive Democrat Minister. I took special exception to this, as Deputy Harney only two months before made a public attack on Government policy on Northern Ireland, which was carried in the Northern newspapers. On that basis alone, can anyone seriously suggest that someone who could not be trusted to act as a loyal member of a united team was a fit person to take part in very sensitive negotiations?
The Government had strong legal advice that the substantive wording of the Right to Life Amendment should be in the terms now approved by the Oireachtas. Is it being suggested that a small minority in Cabinet had the right to overrule that advice?
Major changes in industrial policy are clearly a matter of interest to the whole Government. Individual Ministers frequently do not succeed in having all their proposals agreed by the Government, and they are told to alter them, or sometimes withdraw them. The substance of the recommendations of Culliton in relation to the industrial agencies was adopted, even if in slightly altered form.
Yet it is now being openly claimed, as part of the shifting and contradictory explanations being given by the Progressive Democrats for their present conduct, that what occurred at the beef tribunal was merely "the last straw". The significance of that phrase illustrates the flimsiness of the initial pretext. I would strongly suggest that what has been wrong all along has been the attitude of the Progressive Democrats Coalition, and their belief that they had the right to dictate terms to the Government. Now that they have found this impossible, they have decided to tear up the Joint Programme for Government in a clear breach of contract and to go to the country in a huff.
The events leading to this motion include matters arising out of the different evidence to the beef tribunal, to which it is therefore necessary to make some reference. However, a Cheann Comhairle, I am mindful of your guidelines on the subject. When the beef tribunal was set up, once more by way of ultimatum, the parties involved were well aware of its potential to destabilise the Government. The clear intention, as we can read from countless political briefings, was to inflict political damage on Fianna Fáil and on my predecessor. When I took office, the focus of attention switched in the most obvious manner to myself.
If I understand it correctly, some of the principal charges laid against my door were political favouritism, misleading the Dáil, telling untruths, and putting large sums of taxpayers' money at risk. Naturally, as these are the subject of ongoing investigation by the Tribunal, I do not propose to comment on the substance of these charges, except to say again that I have vigorously defended myself against them and rebutted them in the appropriate forum.
However, in passing, may I say that in the course of evidence given, a fund-raising letter from the Progressive Democrats to Mr. Larry Goodman and others in 1988 came to light, which carried the heading "An investment opportunity with a proven rate of return". The ambiguously implied promise of political favours, I think, shocked many people in this House and country and was another illustration of the truth that people living in glass houses should not throw stones. This letter was not exactly a shining example of high standards in high places.
Large sums of money are said to have been put at risk by my decisions as a Minister. Again, that is a matter that no doubt the Tribunal will decide upon. As we all know, cattle prices reached their highest level ever in November 1988 — up 15 per cent and agricultural output increased by £215 million in 1987-88 to the benefit not just of farmers but of the whole national economy. I did more than a bit for the farmers of Ireland in 1987-88, and cattle prices did not do nearly as well after I left. These very successful results clearly show that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Total liabilities under the export insurance scheme have to date amounted to some £6 million, which the Department believe is recoverable in law.
In his evidence to the Tribunal last June, the Minister for Industry and Commerce — as he was then — used the strongest language to attack my competence as a Minister and the truthfulness of my statements, and as his Counsel confirmed on 5 May, the accusation of favouritism means allocation or treatment on an improper basis. Placing the Dáil under a misapprehension, making untrue statements, acting improperly are accusations as serious as any that I made in reply. Deputy O'Malley was quite entitled to state the facts, as he saw them, but it is fair comment to say that many of the adjectives he used were chosen more for their political impact than for the purpose of what was strictly necessary to advance the ultimate discovery of the truth. It would be proper and natural that I would take particular exception to exaggerations of a factual nature, leaving the verbal ones to one side. However, despite the intense provocation, I kept my counsel, deciding that the proper place for my case to be heard was at the Tribunal.
Deputy O'Malley claimed last June that the total potential liability of the State was £172 million and provided a precise breakdown of how that figure was arrived at, both by reference to insurance cover given, and by reference to the Goodman claim. But this figure ignored a reduction of Goodman's losses on contracts to Iraq by £53 million, which was formally notified to the Department of Industry and Commerce in 1991. What happened to the £53 million? The Minister claimed at the tribunal that his officials had told him that there was no further notification since October 1989, and based his accusations against me on the payment record of Iraq. I had always maintained that, while the Iraqis were slow to pay, prior to August 1990 they had always paid up. August 1990 saw the start of sanctions against them. Indeed, I would like to point out that, when I had to answer questions here in December 1990 about moneys due from Iraq, I was informed in a background note sent to the Department of Finance under a covering note of 7 December from the Secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce that — and I quote: "If we lost the Goodman case, we could end up with a liability of about £120 million". There was a clear obligation on me to tell the facts as they were, no more and no less. I was not prepared to dilute my truthfulness and integrity to accommodate other people's political agenda. I would suggest that anyone addressing themselves to the subject of the dispute should first examine the facts before criticising the choice of an adjective which is fairly commonplace in parliamentary and political discourse and regularly bandied about in the courts.
I would have had no difficulty in continuing to work with Deputies O'Malley and Molloy as I regard the tribunal as being in a separate compartment. I suggested on a number of occasions over the last few days that everyone should await the report of the tribunal and not attempt to prejudge it.
I find it a little bit rich coming from Deputy Bruton, of all people in this House, to suggest that I have difficulty working with other parties. Would he care to recall the number of times he nearly caused a break-up of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition between 1982 and 1987 over Dublin Gas or the National Development Corporation, for example? Does he not remember the Labour Party walking out of Government over his proposed budget in 1987, after his earlier budget in 1982 had also caused the collapse of the previous coalition Government? Come to think of it, he has been twice Minister for Finance, but never succeeded in bringing in an annual budget.