Nomination of Member of Government: Motion.

I wish to announce for the information of the Dáil that the Commission constituted as provided in section 2 of Article 14 of the Constitution acting on my advice, have accepted the resignation of Deputy Hugh Coveney as a member of the Government.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approve the nomination by the Taoiseach of Deputy Seán Barrett, Minister of State at the Department of the Taoisech and Minister of State at the Department of Defence, for appointment by the Commission constituted as provided in section 2 of Article 14 of the Constitution to be a member of the Government.

Subject to the motion which I have put to the House being approved, Deputy Barrett will cease to be Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and Minister of State at the Department of Defence on his appointment as a member of the Government. Accordingly, I intend to recommend to the Government that Deputy Jim Higgins be appointed as Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and Minister of State at the Department of Defence. I also propose to recommend to the Govenment that Deputy Hugh Coveney be appointed as Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

In our policy agreement, A Government of Renewal, the Government stated clearly that the relationship between Government and the people it serves had been damaged by a lack of openness. We committed ourselves to renewing the relationship, so that the people of Ireland would have total confidence in Government, and we pledged ourselves to the reform of our institutions at national and local level to provide service, accountability, transparency and freedom of information.

Let me set out the background to this case. On last Saturday morning Deputy Coveney phoned me from Cork to tell me of a report he believed might be published in the following day's Sunday Business Post concerning a conversation between the chairman of Bord Gáis Éireann, Michael Conlon, and himself. Deputy Coveney told me he had spoken to a journalist from that paper the previous day and had responded fully and openly to queries from the journalist about this.

Before continuing, I want to refer here to very misleading statements in today's Irish Independent. The columnist Sam Smyth claimed that I, like many in Cork, had known of Deputy Coveney's phone call to Mr. Conlon since last week. Mr. Smyth did not bother to check the facts. He did not contact me or the Government Press Secretary about this inaccurate assertion. Another report in the paper says I was alerted about the matter late on Friday night. The first time I became aware of Deputy Coveney's phone conversation with Michael Conlon was 10.00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Deputy Coveney told me then that he had telephoned Michael Conlon about five or six weeks previously about an entirely unrelated matter and in the course of the conversation referred to the publicly announced proposal to relocate the headquarters of Bord Gáis Éireann from Little Island to Gasworks Road in the centre of Cork city.

In the event of Bord Gáis Éireann deciding to invite a list of consultants to make proposals and bid for the reconstruction of these premises, Deputy Coveney told me that he had inquired if the quantity surveying firm of PF Coveney Partnership, of which he had previously been the managing partner, could be included on the list. He told me that he emphatically did not ask for the commission for PF Coveney. His conversation related only to an opportunity being given to it to compete with others if a list was being compiled.

Deputy Coveney told me that the chairman of BGE had readily acknowledged that he did not regard this inquiry as an attempt to influence him. This has since been publicly confirmed by Mr. Conlon.

Deputy Coveney's bona fides are underlined by the fact that, when approached by the Sunday Business Post journalist, he was fully satisfied to make a complete and immediate disclosure of what had transpired. He did not attempt to postpone his answers or hide anything from the journalist. I can confirm that he was similarly totally open with me when we discussed what had taken place.

In the event BGE decided to appoint the same group of consultants which had been engaged on the earlier project at BGE's Little Island premises and the project did not go to tender. As evidence of his contention that he saw this as "a very innocuous inquiry" the BGE Chairman, Michael Conlon, said he did not raise it at the board meeting of BGE and did not return to Deputy Coveney about the matter.

Deputy Coveney had resigned as managing partner of the firm PF Coveney on 31 December last, shortly after his appointment to the Government. He no longer has any day to day involvement in the running of the practice, although he retains a significant share in the ownership of the firm. There are no members of his family working in the firm.

The firm of PF Coveney is one of the larger quantity surveying practices in the country and since its establishment in 1930 has undertaken commissions for many Government Departments and State agencies on a regular basis. It has worked intermittently for BGE over the past 20 years.

I told Deputy Coveney when he telephoned me on Saturday morning that I regarded his actions as serious and I invited him to come to see me at my home the following day, Sunday. Following discussions with him on Sunday, Deputy Coveney tendered his resignation as Minister for Defence and the Marine. I accepted his resignation, but decided that I would appoint him to a lesser post as Minister of State at the Department of Finance. This decision was announced on Sunday night.

Some have argued that if Deputy Coveney merited demotion he also merited removal from all ministerial office. I do not accept that. I believe Deputy Coveney will perform effectively and honourably as a Minister of State. I am demoting him, not because I do not believe he is fit for office, but because he made a single mistake for which he must be held accountable in this way. In doing this I am showing that I expect the highest standards both from Ministers and Ministers of State. I am convinced that Deputy Coveney, especially in the light of this experience, will live up to these standards in his new role.

I do not believe it was right, in any circumstances, for Deputy Coveney to have approached the chairman of a State board about a matter that could potentially have benefited the firm in which he had an interest. I fully accept that the approach involved no pressure, but it should not have been made.

This Government, and I as Taoiseach, have made clear our commitment to high standards in political life and accountability in the application of those standards. Standards and accountability operate together in practice, especially since standards without accountability are meaningless.

People may argue that in the case of Deputy Coveney's resignation the penalty was not sufficiently severe. Others could argue the converse. Whatever view is taken, it is abundantly clear that this Government has a practical commitment to high standards and consequent accountability and acted on that commitment in this case. Furthermore, it acted promptly.

The Opposition has a job to do. It always has a right and an obligation to criticise Government decisions and to demand high standards. However, as far as the Government is concerned, it is the Taoiseach's job to make the careful judgment as to exactly how accountability should apply in each case.

This Government, and its Ministers, will make mistakes from time to time. We will not seek to cover those mistakes. We will exercise accountability for those mistakes in an open way, and we are doing that on this occasion. We will also deal with such matters promptly.

I am satisfied that the judgment made in Deputy Coveney's case on Sunday is correct. It would have been too harsh, on balance, to bring to a complete end a ministerial career, that had only just commenced, for this error of judgment. As the option of demotion was available, it was the appropriate way to exercise accountability in this case.

There is no book of mandatory penalties in the matter of ministerial accountability. The Taoiseach of the day must, in the public interest, balance the need for accountability with the need for fair and proportionate treatment of individuals who have made mistakes. I have made the right judgment in this case.

It may be claimed in this debate that Deputy Coveney will have difficulties in dealing with the Office of Public Works given that that office deals with a substantial number of construction contracts.

In making a declaration of interests to me after his appointment as Minister for Defence and the Marine, Deputy Coveney was completely open in saying that the firm of PF Coveney did not hold any commission from the Department of the Marine, but that it did have one commission from the Department of Defence, which it had received several years ago, for the transport facility in Collins Barracks, Cork, and that that project was at an advanced stage of design and planning. He stated in his declaration that "the practice will receive no new commissions from the Department of the Marine or Department of Defence during my tenure as Minister." He has now made a similar declaration that PF Coveney will receive no new commission from the Office of Public Works during his tenure as Minister at that office.

His practice has worked on numerous state projects over many years and this may be expected to continue, with the exception of the Office of Public Works.

I am convinced this Government has faced up to what happened in this case, that Deputy Coveney has acted openly and honourably in dealing with an error of judgment, that the principle of the sanction fitting the transgression was correctly followed here, and that Deputy Coveney will do a good job as Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

Like many people in recent days I have been reminded of Oscar Wilde. To lose one Minister in the space of a few months is a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.

(Interruptions.)

Let us have the same order for the present speaker as we had for the Taoiseach.

I would like to make it clear that I have no objection, indeed I congratulate Deputy Sean Barrett on his appointment to the Cabinet as Minister for Defence and the Marine. He has long and relevant experience at the Government table as Minister of State and Government Chief Whip. He is a respected Member of this House and I wish him well. What we require to discuss today are the circumstances, which led to his appointment and the resignation of his predecessor.

Like most if not all Members of this House, I have a high personal regard for the former Minister for Defence and the Marine, Deputy Coveney. As a leading businessman and politician, he has contributed much over the years to his native Cork. In the few months he has been a Minister he has shown signs of considerable capability and I understand the regrets expressed over his resignation and sympathise with him, his family and friends. His resignation as a Cabinet Minister, after only a few months in office, will be a major loss to Cork, where he was regarded unofficially as the Minister for Cork — Cork always takes special pride in the success of its sons and daughters. As a result, Cork city and county is left once more without a Cabinet Minister, something it has had since the appointment of Deputy Joe Walsh as Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry in February 1992.

It would be difficult to defend the actions revealed by the Sunday Business Post and subsequently confirmed by Deputy Coveney. While he may have resigned his directorship, he still retains a financial stake in his firm of quantity surveyors. He, therefore, stood — and stands — to benefit from any contracts awarded. While it is true that Bord Gáis Éireann was not within the former Minister's direct remit, it is a State company based in Cork, and Cork was the core of his sphere of influence. The fact that the conversation was revealed by the chairman to the chief executive and another director of the company means that it was regarded as important. It was originally planned to build the new headquarters for Bord Gáis at Inisheera in Little Island. I understand a firm of design consultants and quantity surveyors had already been appointed to do the work, but plans for this site fell through.

When Bord Gáis selected the new location for its headquarters, it was not a matter of the company starting from scratch with selecting firms or requesting tenders. I understand the Executive intended recommending a second ratification of that same company to the board for a new site. It appears, therefore, that there was no new tendering process, no new short list. This was some time ago, and it was well known in Cork that design consultants and quantity surveyors had been appointed for the Bord Gáis headquarters project. This, I understand, was well known in Cork professional circles. Deputy Coveney's phone call was an attempt to influence the process. Unfortunately, the conclusion could be drawn that he wanted the firm of surveyors originally selected to be dropped and replaced by his firm. It does not really matter why Deputy Coveney rang the chairman of Bord Gáis. What matters is what he asked him to do in the course of the conversation. Clearly the Taoiseach does not consider this a trivial and inconsequential matter.

It is my understanding that at a subsequent board meeting the directors of Bord Gáis had to vote to stay with the quantity surveyors appointed originally to do the headquarters' work. I am sure the Taoiseach or the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications can confirm that the board voted by seven to zero to do this and that the chairman abstained. On the face of it there is a clear conflict of interest in a Minister with influence in Government regarding Cork matters, suggesting to the head of a State body based in the Cork area that he should consider his firm when awarding contracts relating to the gas company's new Cork headquarters.

The Taoiseach assured this House on 25 January 1995 that all members of the Government, where applicable, "have resigned their company directorships and withdrawn from other business interests". The behaviour of Deputy Coveney in seeking to have a rival firm set aside in favour of his is hardly a withdrawal. The withdrawal was clearly not complete on Deputy Coveney's part, because he was acting on behalf of other directors of his company, who did not personally know Mr. Conlon. Was his action not a breach of undertakings sought and given on foot of Government procedures? Is this the real reason for his resignation? The House should be aware incidentally that Government procedure instructions apply equally to Ministers and Ministers of State without qualification. Does the Taoiseach consider that a Minister seeking to influence a State company to award his private firm a public contract, from which he will derive a financial gain, is engaged in a form of acceptable behaviour? If we are engaged in the business of ensuring high standards in public life we have to be prepared to answer difficult questions.

I wish to make a few comments on the punishment fitting the crime. There is much confusion in people's minds, compounded by the decision to demote the Minister, as to whether we are dealing with a serious breach of Government ethics or a minor misdemeanour. Is the Government clear in its own mind? The removal from Cabinet suggests it was a serious matter, but the reappointment to a junior post suggests it was just a little error. The argument of some Ministers is that it would take a major breach of ethics to remove Deputy Coveney from office. I do not really understand this halfway house approach; the Taoiseach will have an opportunity later to explain this. A new phrase, "serious demotion", has been coined by the Minister for Health. How serious can one regard a demotion, which puts Deputy Coveney in charge of Government construction worth more than £200 million in 1995, in place of the combined capital budgets for the Departments of Defence and the Marine of some £57 million? The public will surely wonder at a Deputy being punished for seeking one tender by being put in charge of total Government contracts. This leads to the question as to whether the Taoiseach has sincere regard for high public standards or whether he is merely posturing for the sake of appearances and political correctness.

I would be more inclined to accept the Taoiseach's humane approach if I felt that was the standard applied by some of the former Opposition parties last autumn. Everybody accepted that Deputy Cowen did not stand to gain in any significant way from decisions relating to a mining company, in which he had only a token holding, and that his actions were not motivated by prospects of financial gain.

A Deputy

Lies.

I do not recall suggestions from the then Opposition that he ought to be subjected to "serious demotion" to Minister of State. The significant difference between this and other controversies last year was that Deputy Coveney made a personal intervention on behalf of his company, potentially involving large sums of money, whereas the former Minister, Deputy Cowen, did not take any action for his benefit or that of his associates. There was no attempted interference in the management of the project.

Essentially, so far two Fine Gael Ministers in this Government have been caught out by a vigilant press. I note that decisions were not taken until the Taoiseach and the Minister saw what was published in the paper, even though the Taoiseach knew of the matter earlier. Why did he not act on Saturday morning when he said he knew about it? In other words, the determining consideration was not what had been done, but what might have been seen to be done. This is hardly a principled stand. I am sure nobody would argue that the press is less vigilant in regard to Fianna Fáil. The last Government fell because the former Attorney General was deemed to have been insufficiently careful in ensuring that the extradition warrant for Fr. Smyth was dealt with quickly, even though there still appears to be continuing problems regarding the matter in the Attorney General's office. On that basis a Government fell and three weeks later a new one was aborted at the last minute.

The Government has been hoist with its own petard. I will not be surprised if, in the course of the present Administration, further episodes of this type occur, with similar embarrassing results. People will realise that taking up high moral positions involves a price and that, as the two resignations have shown, the claims of some parties to moral superiority, on which the Government is essentially founded, in reality have no basis. It is not a question of how these matters are handled, the real cause for public concern is that they should have happened in the first place. Two Fine Gael Ministers, by their admission, have failed to live up to high standards of conduct in public life. Once again we are holding a debate relating to a Minister's behaviour in a highly charged atmosphere created for many years past by those now on the Government benches. There is a real danger that in this atmosphere there might be a witch-hunt which could result in the downfall of a Minister over quite trivial matters. Perhaps we are seeing that today. My view, at the time of Deputy Hogan's resignation, was that there was no need for his resignation, and I said so in this House. This case is different because of what I have outlined.

The Minister's firm, we have been told, will not be seeking, any Government contracts for the duration. I would like confirmation of that from the Taoiseach. Is this not unfair to a commercial firm in which the Minister or his family are not involved? In normal circumstances, should Deputy Coveney's firm be debarred from applying for contracts using normal procedures? Is it the case that his firm is being ruled out because of Deputy Coveney's conduct and is that what the Taoiseach is really getting at?

There is also the consideration that Deputy Coveney will have been the third Minister of State in this office since last December. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that is totally unsatisfactory, particularly as he will be responsible in the first instance for the control of public expenditure, the level of which has risen out of all proportion in recent months, by an underlying 11 per cent since the Book of Estimates was published last week.

This sums up what is principally wrong with this Government. It has taken its eye off the ball regarding expenditure and many other issues for which we will all pay later. The Government has no clear grasp of the difference between serious and trivial matters. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach has not yet addressed any of the issues today but I acknowledge that we have an opportunity to do that now, having fought for it through our Whips. In this regard I thank Deputy Barrett for his assistance in getting time, in his final act as Chief Whip. We had been refused this for 24 hours.

This whole affair has created much confusion. The ethics and standards which the Taoiseach is trying to set are confused in people's minds. The rules by which his own Ministers must stand are not clear and the rules they have breached are also unclear. It is not clear what the Taoiseach expects of them. It is not clear whether he made sure that they had dissociated themselves from their businesses when he appointed them or that they had subsequently done so. This affair has been handled badly by the Taoiseach and the matter, as he knows, is not over yet.

Ní bhaineann an Páirtí Daonlathach aon sásamh as an ráiteas atá curtha os comhair na Dála tráthnóna ag an Taoiseach ag fógairt go bhfuil sé tar éis moladh don Choimisiún Uachtaránach go n-éireodh an Teachta Coveney as a phostanna mar Aire Cosanta agus mar Aire na Mara. Ó tháinig sé isteach sa Dáil sa bhliain 1981, tá aithne againn sa Teach seo ar an Teachta Coveney. Níl aon dabht ach go bhfuil ardmheas ag chuile dhuine sa Teach ar an Teachta agus ar an obair a bhí á déanamh aige mar Aire sna hAireachtaí Cosanta agus Mara. Déanaim comhbhrón leis agus lena chlann agus a chairde mar gheall ar an méid atá tar éis titim amach.

The circumstances which led to the tendering by Deputy Hugh Coveney of his resignation as Minister for Defence and the Marine give no joy or reason for satisfaction to any Member of this House.

I want to emphasise the high esteem in which Deputy Coveney is held by myself, by my party and by nearly everyone in this House. No one in my party makes the argument that Deputy Coveney is other than an honourable and trustworthy man, the kind of man that most parties in this House would seek to attract into politics and have within their ranks.

Nobody knows precisely how the content of a telephone conversation between him and the chief executive of Bord Gáis entered the public domain. It seems that only a small handful of people were privy to its contents, and that one of them may have divulged the information to those who made it public. Nor are we clear as to what motivated the revelation of the conversation. It may have been politically motivated, and this should be vigorously investigated and exposed, if true.

Members of the Government and Ministers of State are all bound by certain rules, one of which is that a Minister or Minister of State, on appointment to office, must divest himself or herself of any involvement in any private business, and must not use his or her office or position in a way that may be perceived as beneficial to themselves, their families or associates.

Each Minister, on appointment to office, is acquainted with the contents of a green booklet which sets out the correct procedures with which office holders must comply. There is also a written communication sent by the Taoiseach to each of the newly appointed Cabinet members and Ministers of State. It is the Taoiseach's duty to ensure that appropriate action is taken if these procedures are transgressed. These procedures are clear and are along the following lines: "In so far as business interests or membership of other organisations are concerned, the underlying principle is that no Minister or Minister of State should engage in any activities that could reasonably be regarded as interfering, or being incompatible, with the full and proper discharge by him of the duties of his office".

There is no doubt that Deputy Coveney breached these rules in the telephone conversation with the chief executive of Bord Gáis. Nobody has suggested that it was proper for him to act as he did, not even himself. I suggest, however, that the impropriety with which we are dealing now — for that is what it was — while serious, was of far less gravity than other matters which have been revealed in this House in recent years and which led neither to resignation, admission, censure nor apology. The House will know what I am talking about; the record is there to be read. The honourable course was not taken by any of the people concerned.

Once it was admitted by Deputy Coveney that a serious breach of the rule had occurred, the Taoiseach had a clear duty to decide what action he should appropriately take. The Progressive Democrats believe that the matter must be judged as falling into one of two categories: first, as serious but as capable of being dealt with by a reprimand or censure or, second, as so serious as to require the removal from office of the offender.

Without knowing all the facts and circumstances, it is impossible to come to a conclusion as to whether the first option was reasonably open to the Taoiseach. Perhaps in the course of this debate it will emerge that the Taoiseach had no option but to remove Deputy Coveney from his office as a Cabinet member. On the other hand, perhaps it will appear that it should have been dealt with more leniently. However, it is clear that the rule infringed by Deputy Coveney applied equally to Ministers and Ministers of State, and no legitimate distinction can be drawn in this context between the standards required of either category of office holder.

Members of the Government have repeatedly used the phrase "the punishment must fit the crime" in public to justify the demotion of Deputy Coveney from full Cabinet member to Minister of State. We find the words "punishment" and "crime" objectionable when used to justify an appointment to ministerial office. There are two reasons it should never have been used. First, to say of an office that it is held as a punishment is to demean it in the public eye. Second, to be perceived or said to hold office as a punishment robs any office holder of dignity and moral authority.

People are entitled to expect that every ministerial office holder, senior or junior, holds office wholeheartedly and without any cloud or qualification on their appointment. It has also been suggested that, in some sense, responsibility for the Office of Public Works would not entail involvement in the tendering process for the award of contracts. That proposition is clearly wrong.

We are driven to the conclusion that the Taoiseach's judgment in seeking to temper justice with mercy was well intentioned, but politically flawed. The Taoiseach concluded that Deputy Coveney was either guilty of a serious transgression of Cabinet procedures or he was not. If he was, then his appointment as a Minister of State makes no sense. If not, justice could have been met by a reprimand or censure.

It is for this reason that our immediate reaction to Deputy Coveney's resignation and demotion remains unaffected by subsequent events. The real explanation that this House requires is a justification by the Taoiseach of what appears, on the face of it, to be neither logical nor wise. The route chosen of the halfway house, or the ministerial sin bin, is neither defensible in principle nor in practice and, in the last analysis, may prove less just to Deputy Coveney than a reprimand or simple dismissal. It bears all the hallmarks of a rushed decision, made as a panic reaction to the publication last Sunday of the details of the telephone conversation.

It transpires, having listened to the Taoiseach's earlier remarks, that he had more advance notice of Deputy Coveney's embarrassment than a matter of hours on Sunday last, but it would appear that the matter was only dealt with as a matter of urgency once it became public in the Sunday Business Post. It would be a different matter if it transpired that the Taoiseach had concluded that the matter only needed to be dealt with if and when it became public.

It may indeed transpire in the next few weeks and months that the motivation to disclose Deputy Coveney's conversation to a newspaper was such as to suggest that he was being targeted as part of a wide agenda.

Turning to the motion before us to nominate Deputy Barrett as a member of the Government, let me state on behalf of my party that if a vacancy requires to be filled there are few as well qualified in the Government ranks to fill it as Deputy Barrett. If he is nominated to succeed Deputy Coveney this evening, we wish him the best in his new office and congratulate him on a well merited appointment. However, the Progressive Democrats Party intends to vote against his nomination as a Minister in order to register its unhappiness with the political judgment of the Taoiseach in his handling of this affair.

I have known Deputy Barrett for many years and regard it as my good fortune that I have been able to work with him in two Governments. He is a problem solver and a most accessible politician. I have no hesitation whatever in commending him to this House for appointment as a member of the Government, and I have every confidence that he will fill the difficult role he is undertaking with considerable distinction.

I have known Deputy Coveney for most, if not all, the years he has been in public life. I regard him as a friend, and I very much hope that he can see me in the same light. More than that, he is an honourable and decent man, who in the short time I have worked with him in Government has shown himself to have outstanding qualities.

There have been many debates of this kind in this House in recent years — far too many, some would say. I believe I have participated, in one way or another, in all of them. In some ways, I find this the saddest, an honourable and decent politician has fallen, punished as he has to be for a breach of the rules that are clear to, and willingly accepted by, every member of the Government.

There are points that need to be made about the circumstances in which this debate has occurred. They are important because they ought to transform the nature of this debate from some of the more distasteful confrontations we have had to face in the past. They are factors that deserve not to be overlooked.

The first is the honesty of Deputy Coveney himself, when confronted with his transgression. There was no attempt by him to deny, fudge or cover-up, no need for investigation or pressure. Unlike some recent incidents, both here and elsewhere, Deputy Coveney reacted with immediate and total frankness. He hid behind nobody and enabled his mistake to be brought into the open.

The second factor was the reaction of the Taoiseach. Deputy Bruton informed me about the affair as soon as he found out himself. There was no need whatever, as I knew there would be no need, for me to prompt or encourage him to regard the issue with appropriate seriousness. Without any intervention from anyone else, the Taoiseach knew that a serious response would be necessary, and he initiated that response immediately. Again, that response was in marked contrast to some of the ways in which issues of this kind have been approached in the past.

I have no hesitation whatever in saying that I support unequivocally the way in which the Taoiseach approached this issue and the decisions he took. I know too that it was a painful and difficult course for him, as of course it was for Deputy Coveney and his family. I believe that they both deserve the support of this House for the speed with which action was taken, and for the fact that it was taken without any pressure from any third party.

Questions have been raised about whether demotion, as opposed to dismissal, was the appropriate course of action. Let me say where I stand on this issue. Deputy Coveney has been dealt with fairly by the Taoiseach, and a strong message has been sent about standards in public life. The telephone conversation should not have taken place — it was a clear breach of standards and procedures — and Deputy Coveney has paid a heavy price for it. Deputy Coveney has much to contribute, and that one mistake should not be allowed to wipe out the past contribution and the potential that lies ahead. Of course, had there been material profit from the incident, or had there been the remotest evidence that any untoward pressure had been exerted on behalf of his former business, the Taoiseach would undoubtedly have had to take a different view. I believe he would have taken that view without pressure from anybody.

There are, I believe, lessons to be learned from this incident. In the first place, there is a lesson for all of us in this House in the dignified way in which Deputy Coveney has responded to this situation. There is a lesson in the blend of firmness and fairness that the Taoiseach's response has demonstrated, but there are wider lessons too.

The most crucial lesson is that the rules set for us — rules which, I repeat, are willingly accepted by every Member of this House who aspires to serve in Government — have to be obeyed. The public we serve expect that from us, and they are entitled to nothing less. Public office in this country is not without its challenges and stresses, but neither is it without its rewards and status. No one who willingly embarks on a career in public office can expect to be fully understood if he or she is perceived to use that career, however inadvertently, to further any private material interest of his or her own.

All I will say is that there are basic rules and standards which must be observed, and when they are not, action must be commensurate with the transgression. In this case, I believe justice has been done, and been seen to be done. The public interest has been served and has been seen to be served.

May I conclude, therefore, by commending Deputy Barrett wholeheartedly to this House, and wishing him the best of luck in a difficult and challenging position. I know he would wish that this appointment had not come to him in this way, but I know too that he will rise to the occasion. I look forward to working with Deputy Coveney in his new and equally challenging position. He will, I know, put this incident behind him, and carry on with the grace and style with which we are all familiar.

As Fianna Fáil spokesperson on energy let me express the hope that this political crisis will not in any way damage Bord Gáis Éireann, which has an important developmental role in our economy and in my view does a first-class job. I join other speakers in wishing Deputy Barrett well should his new appointment be ratified this evening. It is well merited and I congratulate him on it.

Today's debate is not a witch hunt and should not become a witch hunt. It is about getting straight answers to straight questions. It is not about whether there was a breach of ministerial rules, for that has been clearly admitted by the person involved. Rather it is about judgment, in particular the Taoiseach's judgment. The key question in this debate is whether the Taoiseach acted properly as befits the head of Government. This House is entitled to hear plainly and unambiguously from the Taoiseach answers to some questions, one or two of which he has answered already.

When precisely did the Taoiseach know about the telephone call? Was it on Saturday when Deputy Coveney told him? Obviously we take the Taoiseach at his word in what he says today. He has denied he knew last week, as suggested by some newspapers and, if the Taoiseach says that, of course, I accept it. What was discussed during the three hours last Sunday in what the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, described as a long and amicable conversation? Did he say anything other than what is on the record already? Did he mention the number of board members who knew about the incident? What precisely was the Taoiseach told? Was he told the call was about getting on a tender list or that there was no tendering procedure and it was about setting aside the existing firm and having another firm appointed?

This House is entitled to know whether the Taoiseach had that information on Sunday from the then Minister Deputy Coveney. Why did the Taoiseach decide to take no action when he was informed about the story? Would he not have taken action if the article did not appear in a newspaper and would he have concealed the matter? We can only speculate. Why did he wait for some time? Would he have taken action if the article had not been published? Would he have concealed the matter? We can only speculate on that. Does the Taoiseach think that, being the jury in this case, he should have either brought in a guilty or a not guilty verdict? If found guilty of breaching Government procedures which apply to Ministers and Ministers of State then the Minister should leave office. If he is not guilty, the Taoiseach should have stood four square behind his Minister. Was it not a clear decision for the head of the Government, if he was convinced that the rules were breached, to act and have the office vacated? If the rules were not breached he should stand courageously behind his Minister.

Why introduce the Bruton scale of political offences for which the punishment is to become a Minister of State? I add to the warning given by my party leader that the Richter scale introduced by the Taoiseach into Irish politics will haunt the Government before it finally leaves office. Is it not double thinking, bungling fudge of which Machiavelli would have been proud? Does the Taoiseach consider that one admitted error of judgment should not be followed by another error of judgment in proposing the junior ministerial Irish solution? The author, Arthur Clarke, wrote that for every problem there is a solution which is simple, attractive and wrong. In this case it is the wrong solution.

Will the Taoiseach tell the House what transpired in the frantic telephone conversations on Saturday between him, the leader of the Labour Party and the leader of Democratic Left.

(Interruptions.)

There are legitimate questions. Was the Taoiseach aware that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates, would give the very strange and ominous commitment yesterday, which was mentioned by the leader of Fianna Fáil, that the firm in question would neither seek nor accept Office of Public Works' contracts? Why was this silly, insulting and transparently childish promise given in this way? Why is there need for such a statement from a Cabinet member? Does the Taoiseach consider it fair to those who work in this very good firm to suggest that the firm will not be able to seek work in the ordinary way on the open market with the Office of Public Works? Does he consider that the Minister, Deputy Yates, should withdraw this statement publicly?

What does the Taoiseach say to the leader of Democratic Left who stated — I trust I quote correctly from this morning's newspaper —"it is unheard of that a Minister should resign over a phone call". Does the Taoiseach think being a Minister of State is a punishment? Does he not realise that the job has changed over the years from that of being an assistant to a Cabinet Minister to one with full legal delegated powers, with direct control over major policy and budgetary matters in designated areas of Government?

What does the Taoiseach know of the lunch-time panic announcement today by the Government hit man, the Minister Deputy Lowry, that he will issue a statement on Bord Gáis in a few days? Why will he not issue that statement today? Why is he threatening to issue a statement in a few days when he hears what the House has to say? Coming hot on the heels of the statement made by Deputy Yates yesterday, surely we are witnessing a concerted Cabinet salvage exercise.

The Deputy would prefer sooner rather than later.

It illbehoves any human being to preach morality or standards to others and that should not happen here. It is an unedifying spectacle. The issue is not about Deputy Coveney's integrity or honour which I do not question. He is one of the most admired and respected Members. This debate is about the Taoiseach's judgment in dealing with an admitted breach of Government rules which apply to Ministers and Ministers of State alike. If the Taoiseach wants to make the punishment fit the crime perhaps he should step down one rung and be a Minister instead of Taoiseach.

The resignation of Deputy Hugh Coveney from the office of Minister for Defence and the Marine is both a tragedy and a watershed in Irish politics. It is a personal tragedy for Deputy Hugh Coveney, a man whose inherent honesty and decency has not been questioned by anyone in any party and whose political career has now received a major setback for what was a serious error of political judgment on his part. It represents a watershed in Irish politics because it demonstrates that we now have — possibly for the first time in our political history — an Administration that demands the highest possible standards of public accountability from office holders right up to the highest level and will impose the appropriate sanction whenever anyone breaches them.

Deputy Hugh Coveney comes from a different background from me and holds views on many political and social issues which would be at odds with mine. Since the new Government was formed he has won my respect and admiration not just for the way in which he carried out his duties as Minister for Defence and the Marine but also for the valuable contribution he has made to the collective work of the Government. Nobody can disguise the fact that the events of the weekend represent an embarrassment for the Government, but whatever short term difficulties we may face are a small price to pay for the strengthening of the principles of democratic accountability which will flow from the Government's handling of this affair and which will be to the long term advantage of political life in this country.

In my years in the Dáil I have stressed that the public interest requires that office holders should place an impenetrable cordon between their political positions and their commercial interests. The public perception of the existence of a small golden circle of political and prominent business people, working hand in glove, which was reinforced by a series of still largely unexplained political and business scandals during the course of various recent Administrations in which Fianna Fáil was the senior partner, did untold damage to the political process. One of the reasons my party agreed to enter into coalition with Fine Gael and the Labour Party was because we believed that such an Administration would set standards of compliance and public accountability and set about restoring the integrity of the political system.

When the members of the Cabinet were appointed all Ministers were required to make a declaration of their commercial interests to the Taoiseach and were issued with guidelines regarding commercial activities. The action of Deputy Coveney in raising with the chairman of Bord Gáis the question of whether his company would be invited to tender for pending business was a clear breach of these principles and ministerial guidelines.

Regardless of whether it was simply a temporary lapse of judgment on the part of Deputy Coveney or an inability to depart from the commercial habits of a lifetime, it represented an error which left the Taoiseach with no alternative but to take action quickly. The question then facing the Taoiseach was: what was the appropriate level of sanction to impose?

In virtually all walks of life there are different degrees of penalty for different levels of offence. The legal system recognises a difference between a misdemeanour and a felony. Careless driving has a lesser penalty than dangerous driving. In sport, offenders can be cautioned or sent off. In the public service, for instance, employees can be dismissed for exceptionally serious offences, but they can also be suspended, transferred to another position or denied a salary increment. The demotion or transfer is the punishment and no-one would suggest it was the position to which the person was transferred.

I do not see any reason this principle should not apply also to the political system. If, as Fianna Fáil and particularly the Progressive Democrats are now saying, banishment from public office is to be the appropriate penalty for an error of judgment from which no financial, commercial or political advantage flowed, what sanction should be imposed where a Minister is found to be manifestly dishonest or corrupt? If Fianna Fáil believes that Deputy Coveney should not now hold any public office, what punishment does it believe should be imposed if a Minister were, for instance, found to be selling passports in return for investment in a family firm?

The sanction imposed on Deputy Coveney struck the right balance between the need to ensure the highest possible standards among office holders and the requirement that offences should be dealt with in a just and humane way. Deputy Coveney has suffered heavily for his transgression. He has lost his place at the Cabinet table and forfeited the prestige which goes with that. He has lost out financially and suffered considerable public embarrassment. He has paid a sufficiently high price and should not be denied the opportunity to make a further contribution to public life through the new position of Minister of State to which he will be appointed.

The Taoiseach discussed the matter with me on a number of occasions during the weekend and I fully endorse the decisions taken with regard to the resignation of Deputy Coveney as Minister for Defence and the Marine and his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Finance. It is to the Taoiseach's credit that he did not wait to test the political waters or to see if there would be a hue and cry about the story before taking action. As soon as his attention was drawn to the matter by Deputy Coveney on Saturday morning he set about dealing with it and set in train the process which led to the Minister's resignation on Sunday evening.

Although a procession of media commentators and Opposition politicians is queuing up to denounce the Government for what it claims is the soft treatment of Deputy Coveney, this is in stark contrast to the initial media and political reaction to the story. The story regarding Deputy Coveney was in the public domain from early on Saturday evening when The Sunday Business Post became available. Yet none of the other Sunday newspapers regarded it as of sufficient importance to follow it up in their later editions, although this is a fairly normal procedure. RTE did not carry the story on any of its bulletins throughout the day on Sunday. It was not an issue at the Progressive Democrat conference in Galway and Deputy Mary Harney did not even mention it during her lengthy interview on the “This Week” programme on Sunday.

We do not get The Sunday Business Post until Sunday; we do not live in Dublin.

Deputy Molloy only felt motivated to comment after the Taoiseach had acted——

That is not true.

——and the Fianna Fáil Leader, Deputy Ahern, only issued a statement on it late on Sunday when it became clear that something was about to happen.

The Minister should get his facts right in regard to us.

We do not engage in gutter politics; we are not negative all the time.

It is hypocritical to criticise the Government for not taking a serious enough attitude when they virtually ignored the story when it first happened.

The decisive way in which the Taoiseach acted and the dignified manner in which Deputy Coveney responded is in stark contrast to similar events in the lifetime of previous Administrations.

Such as?

We know very well that if he had been a Fianna Fáil Minister the approach would have been to put the head down, brazen it out and admit no guilt.

Have you written to the Kremlin lately?

We had it in the passports for sale affair and in the case involving Deputy Cowen who was discovered to have shares in a mining company for which his Department had overall responsibility.

Has anyone checked the Minister's handwriting lately?

He did not print money.

We have had a responsible and orderly debate up to now and let us keep it so.

The Minister is making a very provocative speech. He is suffering from selective amnesia.

We had it in the Brendan Smyth affair when the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, offered her resignation and the Taoiseach did not even accept it. The fact is that Fianna Fáil Ministers have only resigned on issues of ethics when they were forced to do so by their partners in Government.

You are a great man to lecture us.

I can understand the sense of disappointment felt in Cork city at the resignation of Deputy Coveney. He has served the city very well at the Cabinet table and there is understandable concern among members and supporters of all parties that the absence of a senior Minister from Cork will in some way mean that Cork will receive less attention from the Government than heretofore. I can assure the people of Cork this will not be the case——

Will the Minister look after them?

——and that the second city of this State will continue to receive from the Government the attention it merits as a city of that size and with the considerable problem it faces.

They can believe the Minister?

This is a good, reforming and principled Government. During our relatively short period in office we have made considerable progress towards restoring public confidence in the political system which had been so badly damaged and undermined by the conduct of the Fianna Fáil Party during its time in office from 1987 up to last November. The economic outlook is good and the Government has shown a safe pair of hands in dealing with the Northern Ireland peace process. The difficult issue of abortion information has been legislated for in accordance with the will of the people in the 1992 Referendum.

The Government has not heard the end of that.

We are preparing an amendment providing for the removal of the constitutional ban on divorce to place before the people. Tens of thousands of women who were discriminated against by successive Fianna Fáil Governments will shortly begin to receive the arrears of social welfare to which they are entitled——

This is because the courts gave it to them.

This unfortunate affair may be regarded as a god-send by the Fianna Fáil Party which has been floundering in Opposition but we will not allow it to deflect us from the job to be done.

This is like an Árd Fheis speech.

I congratulate Deputy Barrett on his nomination as a member of the Government and as Minister for Defence and the Marine. He has considerable experience in office and has served the Government and the House particularly well as Government Chief Whip.

The Minister completely missed the tone of the debate. He got it wrong again.

It was more like a party conference speech.

I concur with the words of praise about Deputy Seán Barrett. I worked with him for many years and always found him to be open, approachable and able. I wish him well in his onerous task as Minister for Defence and the Marine. As someone from Athlone, the home of the Western Command, I will be particularly interested in how he carries out his Defence portfolio.

It is proposed to appoint Deputy Jim Higgins as Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach. I wish him every success. He is an old adversary of mine and our jousts were enhanced by the acumen both of us applied to the business in hand.

It must be odd to hear Members of the Opposition praise Deputy Hugh Coveney. As Shakespeare said "I come to bury Caesar, not praise him", or words to that effect. I congratulate Deputy Coveney on his work in his Defence portfolio. On all occasions I found him practical and sensible, attributes not often found among senior political figures. He brought his wider business experience to bear on his ministerial responsibilities. I genuinely regret that his career at top ministerial level has been brought to a halt in this way. Like all politicians, I have lived through difficult political times. All of us who have fallen in one way or another have learned to live with it, cope with it and come out better at the other end, and I am sure Deputy Coveney will do the same. He has the strength of character and purpose to do this.

The Taoiseach's handling of this matter was both ham-fisted and inept in the extreme. When I was appointed a Minister of State, having previously been a Minister — I was not demoted for any misdemeanour——

It was because the then Taoiseach did not like you.

The Minister of State has put his finger on it.

The Taoiseach likes the Minister of State.

He did not like the way I voted.

The Deputy did not win any brownie points.

I know what it is like to be demoted, albeit for a different reason. When I became a Minister of State I received from the then Taoiseach the customary letter and famous green book which clearly stated that Ministers and Ministers of State have the same obligations in terms of probity and accountability. There is no differentiation in the rules laid down as to how business is done at whatever level one is appointed. The conclusion arrived at by the Taoiseach —"demotion" of Deputy Coveney from a senior to a junior position — is odd in the extreme bearing in mind his Mary Whitehouse approach to politics that he is to be the rock of probity to which we must all cling and under which we must all take shelter. He is to epitomise all that is right and proper. As you live by the sword so too you die by the sword. It is very difficult, for anyone in this House — or in any area of life — to say with hand on heart and forever and a day that we will be good and proper and always right. Neither is it possible for any one political party to put hand on heart and say it will always be good, better, proper and more accountable than any other party. That is the road the Taoiseach took——

——and the road on which he set his party when, a mere six months ago, he took our Government out of those benches on to the Opposition benches.

That is a peculiar version of history.

We gave him a full hearing when he spoke today. I would thank him if he did not give his silly laugh when people on this side of the House are trying to put forward a case. I am entitled to be heard. The Taoiseach spoke and he was heard.

Earlier today Deputy O'Donnell asked a very serious question about the Office of the Attorney General. In reply the Taoiseach ducked and weaved but did not answer. In regard to that issue I checked the Official Report of 15 November 1994 in which the former Taoiseach Deputy Reynolds, said: "Give us an adjournment for one hour and in that hour we will come back with some information which will be relevant to the case in hand". The Taoiseach, acting on behalf of his party in Opposition, as he saw fit, said he would not give one hour but would call a vote.

How quickly he changed his mind, how quickly he altered his persona, how quickly he denies us legitimate answers to legitimate questions which the Opposition has a right to put forward? The Taoiseach does not answer questions: they are transferred to alternative Ministers, he gives brusque one liners or convoluted 40 liners in which there is neither rhyme nor reason. Today was a proven case in the way in which he did not answer any question relating to the Attorney General's Office but sought——

The Deputy is deviating from the subject matter before the House.

——to hide behind a facade on what was a major issue when he was in Opposition and has re-emerged as a major issue.

Perhaps in the questions and answer session we will elucidate more information from the Taoiseach which we have been unable to obtain in this debate. I have found the Taoiseach's handling of this debate inept, hamfisted and entirely inappropriate.

I thank the House for its kind remarks which I very much appreciate. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to attempt to set the record straight.

I propose in the course of my statement to outline my relationship with the professional practice which I formerly managed in the context of the relevant Government guidelines. I will deal comprehensively with the telephone conversation which I had with Mr. Michael Conlon, the Chairperson of Bord Gáis Éireann. I will then deal with the events leading to my resignation. I will also make it clear that I intend to continue to serve in public office as long as the Taoiseach, whose judgment in this affair I fully support and endorse, wishes me to do so.

Shortly after taking up office last December I submitted a comprehensive written statement of all my business interests and family assets to the Taoiseach, at his request, just as every other Minister had done. In relation to the quantity surveying firm which I had previously managed I submitted the following statement:

Patrick F. Coveney Partnership, Chartered Quantity Surveyors. Hugh Coveney has been the majority partner and managing partner for many years. He retired as managing partner on the 31st of December, 1994 and will have no day to day involvement in the practice while remaining a member of the Government. He retains his stake in the partnership but receives no salary.

The practice does not hold any commissions from the Department of the Marine. It has one commission from the Department of Defence which it received several years ago (Transport facility, Collins Barracks, Cork). The project is at an advanced stage of design and planning and construction may commence in 1995. The practice will receive no new commissions from the Department of the Marine or Department of Defence during my tenure as Minister.

The practice has worked on numerous state projects over many years and this may be expected to continue (with the exception of Marine and Defence).

In formulating these statements of interest I was conscious in particular of the contents of paragraphs 28 and 26 of the Government Procedure Instructions which state:

28. A Minister or Minister of State should not carry on a professional practice while holding office but there would be no objection to making arrangements for the maintenance of a practice while holding public office and for return to the practice on ceasing to hold office.

26. In so far as business interests or membership of other organisations are concerned, the underlying principle is that no Minister or Minister of State should engage in any activities that could reasonably be regarded as interfering, or being incompatible, with the full and proper discharge by him of the duties of his Office.

I have tried, to the best of my ability, to work by these demanding, and rightly demanding, principles and I honestly believe that I have lived up to them in spirit and intent.

I have not carried on with my professional practice since taking office. I resigned as my firm's managing partner last December and I have not used my office as Minister for Defence and Minister for the Marine, or my position as a member of the Government, to in any way seek advantage for the practice which I previously managed. I no longer have any day to day involvement in the running of the practice, although I retain a significant share in the ownership of the firm. There are no members of my family working in the firm or studying the profession of quantity surveying. I regret the latter. For the information of the House the firm of P.F. Coveney is one of the larger quantity surveying practices in the country and since its establishment in 1930 has undertaken commissions for many Government departments and State agencies on a regular basis. It has worked intermittently for Bord Gáis Éireann over the past 20 years.

I wish to refer to the telephone conversation I had with the Chairman of Bord Gáis Éireann, Michael Conlon, approximately five or six weeks ago. I have no written record either of the date or content of that conversation. It was a casual contact ranging over a number of matters, only one of which had any bearing on the events leading to my resignation. The phone call was not made from any office of the State or during normal working hours, but late in the evening from my rented apartment in Dublin to Mr. Conlon's home in Cork. I only mention this to emphasise the personal and casual background to the conversation.

Towards the end of our conversation I referred to the publicly-announced proposal to relocate the BGE offices from Little Island to Gasworks Road in Cork. I inquired if it was intended to invite proposals and tenders from a list of architectural, engineering and quantity surveying firms for any renovations to the Gasworks Road premises. Michael Conlon said he thought that would be the case. I then inquired if the quantity surveying firm, of which I had previously been the managing partner, could be included on the list, from which competitive proposals would be sought and evaluated by BGE. In truth it was probably a superfluous inquiry as having worked intermittently for BGE over the past 20 years the practice would almost certainly have been included on any such list. Here I emphasise again that the telephone conversation was personal and casual in tone and content.

I emphatically did not ask for the commission for P.F. Coveney. There was no question whatsoever of that. I simply inquired if it was intended to invite proposals from a list of suitable firms who would then compete for the commission in accordance with the normal procedures and regulations governing public contracts.

Michael Conlon said he would inquire and revert directly to the firm. He did not contact me nor the firm again about the matter and I did not subsequently contact him seeking any further information about it. Indeed I had forgotten the conversation until some weeks later I heard a rumour that a journalist from a Sunday newspaper was inquiring about a contact I had with the chairman of BGE allegedly seeking to have my former firm appointed for a project in Cork. Naturally I was very surprised and concerned and telephoned Michael Conlon to ask if he had any knowledge of this rumour. He said he had also heard such a rumour and was extremely annoyed about it. He confirmed then and has done so publicly on several occasions since that he did not regard my original telephone call to him as anything more than a simple inquiry made in the course of a personal telephone call.

He has reiterated again and again that he did not regard that inquiry as an attempt to influence him in any way; nor was it. At the conclusion of this second conversation he proffered the information to me that BGE had decided to entrust the consultancy work on the Gasworks Road project to the group of consultants who had been appointed some years ago for an extension to BGE's previous headquarters at Little Island. That project had subsequently been abandoned and the building sold. As far as I was concerned that was the end of the matter and I heard no further rumours or mention of the project until Mr. Ted Harding of the Sunday Business Post telephoned me last Friday afternoon.

I answered all of Mr. Harding's questions in a straightforward and accurate manner. When he asked me if I had discussed this matter with Michael Conlon I replied that I had and gave him my best recollection of the conversation just as I have now given this House.

I informed the Taoiseach of Mr. Harding's inquiries early on Saturday morning and provided him with a full account of the whole matter.

At this point I have to emphasise that I stand over my good name and reputation. I am satisfied in conscience that I did not deliberately do anything wrong nor betray the high public trust placed in me. Nevertheless if we set high standards in public life, then we must live by them. If what I did is capable of being perceived as transgressing those standards, inevitable consequences follow.

I fully accept that I should not have made any mention in my telephone conversation with Michael Conlon of the firm's possible inclusion in the list of consultants for BGE's offices and that in doing so I inadvertently transgressed the high standards which this Government has set for itself.

I stand fully behind the Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton. I fully accept his advice and judgment in this matter. He has decided that a price has to be paid in the interests of public accountability. It is a heavy price but I accept it without reservation.

I greatly regret any concern or embarrassment occasioned to the Taoiseach, to my colleagues in Government, to the Members of the Oireachtas, to the Fine Gael Party, to the electorate at large and to my family, and I apologise to all of them.

I discussed this matter with the Taoiseach last Sunday afternoon. He and I agree on the necessity for the highest possible standards in public life and the need to pay and be seen to pay some price for any lapse in that regard. Accordingly, I tendered my resignation as Minister for Defence and Minister for the Marine and accepted the Taoiseach's offer of nomination for the position of Minister of State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for public expenditure and the Office of Public Works.

The practice which I formerly managed will receive no commissions from the Office of Public Works during my tenure as Minister there, just as it has received no commissions from the Department of the Marine or the Department of Defence during my tenure in those Departments. Furthermore, the practice is not currently or recently engaged on any work for the Office of Public Works.

In conclusion, I repeat that I stand over my good name and reputation. I have dedicated a large part of my life to public service and I intend to continue to do so.

I join my colleagues in the House in warmly congratulating Deputy Barrett on his forthcoming appointment to the Departments of Defence and the Marine and wish him well in that office. I have known Deputy Barrett for many years. He was Opposition spokesperson on the Environment for at least two years when I was Minister and we had a number of debating bouts. Occasionally he might lose his cool but, apart from that, he is a very fine fellow. It is unusual, however, that the Minister for the Departments of the Marine and Defence should be from the same constituency as the junior Minister. I hope the tensions and developments in that constituency will not widen the rift in this already shaky Government.

A Deputy

That is wishful thinking.

The decision had to be taken quickly and, perhaps, considerations of that kind were not fully taken into account. I also congratulate Deputy Jim Higgins on his promotion and wish him well in the difficult task of Chief Whip.

The second matter under discussion today is one in which no Member takes any pleasure. I have known Deputy Coveney for many years. He is extremely popular and has few political enemies. He took over at the Department of the Marine from a high profile Minister, Deputy Andrews and readily admitted that he found the Department in good shape. He quickly built on the achievements of Deputy Andrews and was always courteous and co-operative in the House. I am very sad for him and for his family that these circumstances have arisen. I wish him well in his political future. As Deputy O'Rourke said, many Members suffer setbacks from time to time, but they must take them on the chin. It is difficult when it happens but, in the course of time, one can come through and pick up the pieces.

Knights in shining armour on the high moral ground are in an extremely dangerous position.

The Deputy should write a song.

The Government has just had a five or six month honeymoon and during that time two Ministers have had to resign. The plot might even be thickening and the intricate web of interdependence between three parties trying to survive might be made more difficult as another Minister desperately tries to cover his tracks and at least two Ministers of State make frantic telephone calls. We may not have reached the end of this story.

Earlier today the Taoiseach replied to questions in a way that reminded me of the note, "if pursued on this question keep repeating the above". On at least seven different occasions the Taoiseach chose to give the same answer.

The Fine Gael Party has tried to make a virtue out of this resignation which took place following a book of revelations, and that book of revelations is filling up. In the context of consistency. Deputy Phil Hogan time be asking himself serious questions. When he was Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works he leaked information about the budget although he had nothing to gain from it. He was considered unsuitable to hold that office. While he had to leave that office the Taoiseach considers that Deputy Coveney should assume responsibility for the Office of Public Works.

In the space of five or six months a third Minister of State is being asked to assume responsibility for the Office of Public Works which has a huge budget. The Taoiseach will have to accept that this will make it extremely difficult, given the range of activities there, to manage the office efficiently and coherently, not to mention the question of management of the public finances. Only this week it has been disclosed that public expenditure will increase by 11 per cent this year, 5 per cent above the figure provided for in the budget. This is an extremely serious matter. It is essential that there be continuity in the Office of Public Works to ensure that the right decisions are made.

When did the Taoiseach first know about this matter? It has been suggested that he could have known about it for considerably longer than has been claimed in this House. It is ironic that many members of the Fine Gael Party want an inquiry to discover who leaked the information. It seems that many people in Cork knew about it for at least three weeks. It is unbelievable therefore that the Taoiseach did not know about it. When did he discuss the matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, and the High Priest, Deputy Pat "Rocking the Country to its Foundations, Quiet as a Mouse" Rabbitte who admitted on radio on Sunday last what he would do if a Fianna Fáil Minister was involved in trying to obtain special concessions for a private company with which he was associated from a State company?

These are the questions which the Taoiseach must answer when replying. What criteria were used in deciding that Deputy Hogan should be sent to the back benches in circumstances in which he had nothing to gain and that Deputy Coveney should be appointed to the position held by Deputy Hogan?

I am sure that is acceptable. Agreed.

Although I knew about Deputy Coveney's political and business reputation I did not meet him until the evening of the by-election count in Cork last November. For the past five months I have worked as his Minister of State at the Department of the Marine. In that time I have come to regard him as a man of the strongest commitment and highest integrity, a good colleague, always open and honest in his approach and a man with whom I enjoyed a particularly good working relationship.

The unfortunate events of the past couple of days have not diminished the high regard I have for Deputy Coveney. I regret his resignation; this is a loss to his Department and his colleagues. I wish him well in his new appointment.

Deputy Coveney and I share a conviction about the enormous potential of the sea. To give effect to this we embarked on a programme of work to revitalise the marine sector. I pay tribute to him for his energetic contribution and leadership in that effort. Deputy Coveney had announced an overhaul of national marine policy, something which was widely welcomed throughout the fishing industry. He had announced a review of the services provided to the industry and recently appointed a firm of consultants to carry it out. He published the Harbours Bill and approved an investment of £140 million in commercial harbours. He launched a £134 million investment in the fishing industry through the operational programme, strengthened the country's marine research network and had begun drafting new legislation on aquaculture.

Deputy Coveney has already left his mark on sea fisheries in particular. During his first week in office last December he took on the challenging brief at the Fisheries Council in Brussels. The agreements he reached on a package of control measures for the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets were rightly hailed by the industry at home. He also secured recognition from the Council of the heavy financial burden which fisheries surveillance places on Ireland. Deputy Coveney was to present in Brussels next month the package of measures finalised between the Departments of the Defence and the Marine. I am sure this House will join me in thanking him for his determined pursuit of this important issue and his success which will stand as his landmark in the Department of the Marine for many a year to come.

Despite his busy schedule Deputy Coveney took the time to learn at first hand about the concerns of the fishing industry during his visits to the ports of Killybegs, Burtonport, Castletownbere, Crosshaven, Kilmore Quay, Duncannon, Howth, Dingle which he visited last Saturday and many smaller ports. The people in those ports and those engaged in the fishing industry will want this House to thank Deputy Coveney for the enormous contribution he made to the industry, the work he has done over a short period and the many initiatives he has taken which I expect to be continued.

I warmly congratulate my constituency colleague, Deputy Barrett, on his appointment as Minister for Defence and the Marine. I look forward to working with him in the Department of the Marine.

The Minister of State, Deputy Gilmore, and the former Minister, Deputy Coveney, formed the best partnership in fisheries in any Government since the foundation of the State although they worked together for as little as five months. This is widely acknowledged throughout the fishing industry and the Defence Forces.

Between the Dáil and Seanad I have been a Member of the Oireachtas for 22 years during wich time we have had in fisheries a succession of mediocre primarily midland county individuals who did not have a knowledge of the sea. This does not necessarily mean that they were not good Ministers but in this instance we had an exceptional individual in charge of one of our most important indigenous industries. It is a tragedy that he had to leave this post before achieving all he could for the fishing industry. He will be sadly missed. This has been the reaction among fishermen around the coast.

Deputy Coveney should not have resigned. As he pointed out, the comments were made in a casual way during a casual conversation. In my view, they did not constitute a breach of senior ministerial rules. I do not believe it was a resigning matter. I predict we will live to regret the day it happened because his departure from the ministries of Defence and the Marine is a tremendous loss to the Government and the country. He is a man with a nice, easy, relaxed style, with poise; certainly he is not a "poser". He has a very definite personality, is intelligent and a very strong character. His likes are needed in Irish politics. One need only think of all the successful businessmen mentioned as potential Members of Dáil Éireann and or Cabinet Ministers. We are being told constantly we need a higher calibre of Member in this House, yet look what happens when we get a person of that calibre.

In my estimation, Deputy Coveney stands way above most Members I have seen elected to this House. He is a very successful businessman, has given it everything but, at the end of the day, has suffered. It is not fair, I do not think it was a resigning matter. I wish him every good fortune in the future and congratulate his successor, Deputy Barrett.

Mr. Barry rose.

Is Deputy Barry sharing the same time slot?

No, I do not think there is any time left to us on this side of the House.

There will be some four minutes remaining if there is a Deputy offering. I must call the Taoiseach to reply at 6.15 p.m.

We will allow Deputy Barry the four minutes.

I thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Opposition parties for allowing me to make a brief contribution.

I wish I could claim the credit the press has been heaping on me recently of being the person responsible for encouraging Deputy Coveney to enter politics. That is not so; he entered politics through a sense of public service. I do not think anybody in this party, indeed in this House or in Cork who has had occasion to deal with him over the almost 14 years of his intermittent membership of this House will have any doubt about the sense of public service he feels and was determined to make available to the people of Cork and the electorate generally.

Deputy Coveney is an extremely competent, able businessman. I do not consider there are nearly sufficient competent, able businessmen Members of this House. There never have been. Those who were elected were treated with suspicion by other Members, as though they were here merely to line their pockets which was very seldom the case. Indeed, the whole atmosphere of Dáil Éireann is not conducive to encouraging business people to put themselves forward as candidates, to place their experience before the electorate and so participate in debates here. I very much regret that. I also regret very much that, when one of them does, and makes great sacrifice in doing so, an unfortunate set of circumstances should mean that he has to resign from the Cabinet, which position has been the fulfilment of an ambition I knew he held for a long time and which I encouraged him to keep alive. Indeed I was very pleased when the Taoiseach offered him the post of Minister for Defence and the Marine.

Deputy Coveney will be missed in the Department of the Marine. He will be missed by coastal communities from the tip of County Donegal to Dunmore East. We should not lose sight of the fact that he will also be missed by the Army. A very difficult task faces any Minister for Defence in redesigning our Army, almost from scratch, reinterpreting its role in Ireland and the Europe of the future and deciding on its future role and what resources should be put at its disposal by the taxpayer to adequately fulfil it. Deputy Coveney tackled both difficult, demanding roles, with their huge attendant problems, with flair, intelligence, dedication, energy and commitment which certainly would have brought renown to him, the Government and country generally had he been allowed to retain that post. That is not to be. He is handing on both batons to another very able Member, Deputy Séan Barrett, with whom I have been friendly since he was first elected to this House; in fact I think both he and Deputy Coveney were elected in the same election. It is no secret that I would have hoped to have seen Deputy Séan Barrett a full Cabinet Minister before now. However belated and unfortunate the circumstances in which he now attains that position, I congratulate him. I have every confidence, and the Taoiseach can also feel likewise, that Deputy Barrett will do an extremely good job in the post to which he is being assigned.

It is ironic that the telephone call that Deputy Coveney made was to the chairman of Bord Gáis Éireann, the only semi-State company with its headquarters outside Dublin. A further irony is that I was the Minister who established that board. Therefore, it is my regret that it should be the cause, some 20 years later, of a friend, coming to a halfway house in his political career who for the moment must step down from the post he deserves to hold.

It is unfortunate that that telephone call was made, it should not have been made, Deputy Coveney realises that. His forthrightness in going immediately to the Taoiseach, acquainting him of the circumstances in which it was made and offering his resignation — I do not want to retrace the history of similar misdemeanours which were more grave than that committed by Deputy Coveney and the action taken by those responsible for them — is testimony to that fact. He has paid a very heavy, personal price, as have his family. Naturally, the Taoiseach must wish this was a decision he did not have to take. That said, I have no doubt that the integrity, an integral part of this Government, which prompted Deputy Coveney's resignation, and which prompted the Taoiseach, without hesitation, to accept it, remains intact. Equally I am certain that Deputy Coveney will do as good a job in his new post as he has done for the past six months in his two former senior ones.

I wish to share my time with Deputies O'Dea and Cullen.

I am sure that is satisfactory. Some seven minutes remain before I must call on the Taoiseach to reply.

First, may I express my warmest congratulations to Deputy Seán Barrett on his elevation to membership of the Cabinet. There are few more popular Members than he. I sincerely wish him a very successful term of office. I also warmly congratulate the new Government Chief Whip, Deputy Jim Higgins, who I have no doubt will perform his duties with great efficiency.

I should like to express my personal regret to the outgoing Cabinet Minister, Deputy Coveney. It goes without saying that he is one of the finest Members to have been elected, respected on all sides for his honour and integrity. Unfortunately, on this occasion it would appear the Taoiseach was left with no alternative but to take the action he did and which Deputy Coveney has accepted.

Bearing in mind the way in which Irish politics has been going in recent years I am not in the least surprised that it should have come to this because, it became obvious that, as the bar was set even higher, it would become ever more difficult for even decent, honest people to clear it. In recent years Members have thrown allegations around like snuff at a wake, or confetti at a wedding. They did not withstand examination by tribunals or High Court judges. At the time they were made the Members responsible may have known them to be untrue. When one starts down that road in any democracy, irrespective of the individuals with whom one is dealing, one does not serve democracy and ends up in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

The Taoiseach has had a large part to play in all of that. I recall last November that he came into this House as Leader of the main Opposition party, waving his arms around about the Office of the Attorney General, accountability, openness and transparency. That openness, accountability and transparency was not evident in answers to questions on the Attorney General's office this afternoon. It suddenly seems to have disappeared. It appears the trappings of power put a new perspective on the Taoiseach's view of political correctness. If Deputy Coveney was sacrificed on the altar of political correctness, those in this House who erected that altar would do well to look into their own hearts and question whether that was the right thing to do.

The position is quite clear. Mr. Conlon unfortunately told Deputy Coveney he would inquire about the matter and revert directly to the firm. As Deputy Barry stated, that phone call should not have been made. Mr. Conlon should not have become involved in that kind of activity. The crunch issue is whether the Taoiseach, having decided that Deputy Coveney should not be Minister for the Defence and the Marine, is correct in appointing him Minister of State at the Department of Finance. Is there an inconsistency there?

A number of speakers suggested today that if it was a Fianna Fáil Minister who was involved, the Minister would not have resigned, but some people have very short memories. I recall Deputy McDaid, who ironically was also appointed Minister for Defence, resigning in this House after a barrage of insulting and personal attacks because he was seen in a photograph outside the Four Courts in this city.

Hear, hear.

The justice that is sometimes meted out in this House may seem extremely rough and certainly on a personal level can be extremely difficult — for example, the former Tánaiste, Deputy Lenihan, was hounded and harried not only in this House but throughout the country. What kind of standards do we want to apply? This is a fundamental question that must be addressed by every politician. When Fianna Fáil was in power it did not matter who was the target. On the Opposition side of the House there were people who had very little interest in integrity and in people's reputations but who destroyed them on the basis that it would assist them in getting into power. That is no way to run your business and it certainly does not serve democracy.

The people of Cork will be greatly disappointed because they have lost a Minister of the highest calibre. In his brief period in office Deputy Coveney served his people extraordinarily well. They will be genuinely disappointed the Taoiseach did not take the opportunity of appointing somebody in his place from the city of Cork, and they will express that disappointment. In the final analysis the question the Taoiseach must answer is whether he is trying to make a virtue of what he did to Deputy Coveney. Is he saying Deputy Coveney was wrong or is he saying he was half wrong? The people deserve an answer to those questions and certainly the people of Cork will insist on one.

I wish to express thanks to the House for the very responsible and compassionate tone in which this matter was discussed on all sides of the House. There was in this debate a desire to tease out the real and substantial issues in a way that respects the dignity and feelings of the people involved.

We were not shown the same dignity.

It is the balance between the maintenance of firm principle and the application of the principle in a compassionate and humane way that must be struck by a Taoiseach in deciding how to exercise the responsibility of accountability where a transgression has occurred. I am absolutely at ease with the judgment I made in this case.

The Taoiseach is not always right.

I had choices as to how I would approach this matter. As some people have implied, I could have asked for Deputy Coveney's resignation and not reappointed him to a Government office, but that would have constituted the end of his political career. It would have deprived Irish public life of an outstanding public servant, a person who has a lot to contribute to public life, and that would be done for an admitted error of judgment but one which I am convinced was not in any way illintended. It was the lack of any ill-intent rather than the form of what happened that gave me the ability to come to the conclusion that the penalty of resignation from Government without any continued role in Government was not the right approach to the problem.

Equally, I had the choice of deciding that no action would be taken other than inviting Deputy Coveney to make an apology to the House and allowing him to continue in office as if nothing had happened, but I did not take that course of action because something had happened. A phone call had been made that should not have been made. While there was no intention to exercise undue or improper pressure, the call was open to the construction that pressure was being exercised, even though it was not, and in any event a Minister should in no circumstances discuss with the chairman of a State board the affairs of a business in which he has an interest.

It would only make sense to speak in terms of the standards to which I have just referred if, when they are transgressed, some penalty is sought, and a mere apology would not have represented in this circumstance a sufficient measure of accountability. I therefore chose the third option, not dismissal and not brazening it out but demotion to an important but lesser position. I believe that is the fair and appropriate approach to this matter.

It is interesting that virtually every speaker in this debate was unwilling, even when they are in possession of all the facts, to say what they would have done. They said that I must answer this question and that question, that maybe the matter should have been dealt with this way but maybe on the other hand it should have been dealt with the other way. That is the luxury those on the Opposition are entitled to enjoy because they do not have to make the decision. I made it and I did so quickly. I could see no merit whatever in allowing this matter to drag on until the Dáil met today. I could see no benefit for anybody in postponing a decision, and the decision was therefore taken quickly.

The way in which Deputy Coveney dealt with this matter from the time he received the call from the journalist with the Sunday Business Post shows what an honourable person he is. It is fair to say that the temptation that would occur to most of us if we were asked about something awkward would be to say, “I will get back to you”, “Let me think about that” or “I want to check something”. We would find some way to avoid answering the question fully and frankly. Quite unusually in this House. Deputy Coveney chose to answer the questions fully and frankly to the best of his recollection immediately the journalist put them to him. That, more than anything else, convinced me that Deputy Coveney had acted honourably throughout in this matter. He made a mistake, but he had acted with exemplary honour as he did in the way he spoke in this House. For those reasons I chose the approach I outlined in dealing with the issue.

Deputy Michael Smith questioned my truthfulness in suggesting that perhaps I did know about this matter before 10 a.m. on Saturday. Let me reiterate, for the benefit of Deputy Smith, that I did not know anything about this matter before then. Some other Members questioned why I did not deal with the matter on Saturday but waited until Sunday and sought to imply that I was waiting to see what was in the newspaper. When Deputy Coveney telephoned me about this matter at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning he had to leave his home to undertake a programme of official and political engagements in Kerry which lasted until 10 p.m. that night.

Those were publicised engagements and it would have been impractical for him to come to talk to me about the matter without breaking those engagements in a fashion that would have caused problems for those involved which would not have been proper. He rightly proceeded with the engagements and I agreed that he should come to see me at my home at 11 a.m. the following day, Sunday. He did so and that was the first occasion I had an opportunity to have a face to face discussion with him about the matter. I heard what he had to say. He undertook to prepare a more detailed written statement about the matter during that afternoon and I arranged to see him again at 6 p.m. in my home. We reached the decisions we made quite quickly after that second meeting. There was no long or agonised discussion about the matter. It was clear what had to be done and it was done. There were some logistical problems in arranging the final issue and wording of the statement announcing the decision which prevented Deputy Coveney being in a position to leave my home until shortly after 9 o'clock but that is the only reason for the duration in question.

As I said already, I believe this matter was dealt with in a fair, compassionate — and yet firm — way. I know comparisons have been made in this debate and that matter caused me some concern and worry over the weekend. Comparisons have been made between Deputy Coveney's position and that of the former Minister of State, Deputy Hogan. Deputy Hogan decided voluntarily that in the interests of the Government as much as on the merits of the case, because of the nature of the timing of the controversy, he would stand down as Minister of State. The option of moving him to a lesser post did not exist at that level, but it applies at Deputy Coveney's level.

Questions may now be put to the Taoiseach.

I will facilitate the Taoiseach by asking him a question about the matter on which he concluded. Will he explain to the House why Deputy Coveney's recent conduct was regarded less seriously than that of Deputy Hogan in January? At that time the Government met late into the night, stated it was putting pressure on the Deputy and the Taoiseach got kudos in the newspapers for not accepting low standards. How does he differentiate between the two?

What difference?

Between the people the Taoiseach fired, the last person and this person.

I did not fire Deputy Hogan or Deputy Coveney, both resigned. That term should not be used in either case. It has been accepted in Deputy Hogan's case that no persuasion was necessary, it was a decision he made that should be respected. In Deputy Hogan's case the option of demotion did not exist. There is no office to which a person in that position can be moved that is not at the same level. As the option did not exist I could not use it. I am not in a position — and I do not think it is appropriate — to set up some type of measure, statistical or mathematical system outlining the degrees of culpability in cases. That is impossible. There are too many complex and varied factors to be taken into account in a decision of this nature for it to be susceptible to that sort of simplistic measurement. The Taoiseach of the day must make the judgment taking into account the circumstances of a particular case in terms of what happened, the intention or lack of it of the person in question to create a situation open to criticism and the need to exercise justice, fairness and compassion in dealing with any individual whether he or she be a Minister or a person holding any other office in the public service. The three requirements, what happened, the motive and the circumstances of the individual must be taken into account. Only one person has responsibility for doing that and that person is elected by the Dáil as Taoiseach. Those who criticise the judgment I made can do so, but I made it and it is my job to do so. There is no mathematical system under which I can make it. I made it in a balanced way and I am entirely at ease with my judgment.

We listened carefully to Deputy Coveney's statement. If he believes that what he did was a minor matter and given that the Taoiseach removed him from office he must consider it a major one, there is a long distance between those two viewpoints. In fairness to his colleague if the Taoiseach is trying to set a higher standard which he said he would do six months ago, he must work to some set of guidelines. Does he intend to publish a scale of penalties for people who transgress? Otherwise there is not much logic behind what he said.

That is very weak.

Let us hear the Deputy in possession.

Is the Taoiseach prepared to accept, which people outside this House are asking, a lower standard from Ministers of State than from Ministers? The book says that both must be dealt with equally. In five months the Taoiseach has applied different standards to the former Minister of State, Deputy Hogan, and Deputy Coveney. Is the Taoiseach prepared to make a ruling in this regard? He has not done so yet.

The judgment I made is that Deputy Coveney is suitable to be a Minister of State at the Department of Finance, but Deputy Ahern may not agree with that conclusion. I invite him to state whether he believes Deputy Coveney is suitable to be Minister of State.

I am referring to the logic of the Taoiseach's decision.

Deputy Bruton is the Taoiseach.

I invite Deputy Ahern to state his view. My view is that Deputy Coveney is suitable to be Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

Why is he not suitable to be a Minister?

Is Deputy Hogan not suitable to be a Minister of State?

Furthermore, I believe he will make an excellent Minister of State at the Department of Finance. He did something he should not have done and should have known not to do and for that misjudgment, in order that there be accountability, a penalty should be paid and that penalty is being paid. It is strange that Deputy Ahern should come into the House today and urge me to publish a detailed outline of appropriate penalties for ministerial activities.

The Taoiseach said that is his policy.

What standards applied when Deputy Ahern's party was in office? They were not very high. There was no such clarity at that time.

A nod and wink approach.

How much were the passports?

(Interruptions.)

On a point of order, it is obvious that in the 12 minutes since we started the question and answer session, the Taoiseach has filibustered. He has not answered any question.

The Deputy is waffling.

We want to ask questions and to receive answers.

(Interruptions.)

If Deputy Ahern and others want high standards in this House and from Ministers, they will not achieve them by simply writing them in legislation.

I am not talking about legislation.

The way to achieve high standards is to show, first, that if something wrong is done it is openly admitted — as Deputy Coveney did — and, second that an appropriate penalty should apply. The Government has shown that where errors are made we will not cover them up or ignore them, rather we will apply——

Double standards.

——an appropriate and compassionate standard of accountability or penalty.

Based on the two decisions the Taoiseach made regarding his colleagues, is it not clear that he applies different standards to Ministers than to Ministers of State? Even though the rules of procedure apply equally to Ministers and Ministers of State, he is prepared to accept different standards of public behaviour from a Minister of State than from a Minister. Will he accept that distinction exists?

The same high standards should apply to Ministers and Ministers of State. No Minister or Minister of State should do anything in office to directly assist a business in which he or she has a financial interest. If either a Minister or Minister of State does that, he or she should pay a penalty. Deputy Coveney is paying a penalty for an error of judgment and in that regard the need for accountability is being satisfied. As no ill intent was involved in this case I do not believe the penalty of total removal from office should apply. I have absolute confidence in Deputy Coveney's ability to do an excellent job as Minister of State at the Department of Finance where his general business experience will be useful to the Government, not only in regard to the operations of the Office of Public Works, but also in regard to his functions on public expenditure control into which he will be able to provide a practical insight.

Does the Taoiseach propose carrying out an inquiry or investigation into the way in which the information about the telephone conversation between the chairman of Bord Gáis Éireann and the former Minister for the Marine and Defence got into the public arena? Does he believe there was a transgression of telecommunications legislation? Was there improper interference with the telephone system? Is the Taoiseach satisfied the information was made available to only three people? Is he satisfied that none of those people made the information available to a third party?

The question of how the information became known to the public is not relevant to my decision on the facts as I know them. The question of how information known to the chairman of Bord Gáis Éireann became known to others is more appropriate for Mr. Conlon to deal with. It would not be proper for me, particularly in this debate, to deal with that question.

From the Taoiseach's reply it appears he is satisfied there was not a wider agenda or ulterior political motive behind the disclosure of the information. He has indicated he is satisfied that is the position and does not intend carrying out an inquiry to ascertain if there is a wider significance to the events.

I do not know the answer to the Deputy's first question. Even if I did and when if one could put the most adverse possible construction on the motives for the release of this information, it would not alter the decision I had to take on the matter. Subsequent activities of others are not relevant to the decision I had to make. The absence of a tendering process may require public examination at a later stage, but that is not germane to the decision to be taken by the House today, or to the decision I had to take on Sunday evening.

On 25 January the Taoiseach indicated to the House that every officeholder in his Government had given him a comprehensive list of their holdings and that he did not deem it appropriate to publish the information in advance of proposed legislation in this regard. Will the Taoiseach accept that was not a good decision and that he should ask all his Ministers to publish their interests? The Taoiseach said at the time that he did not have a problem with them publishing that information on an individual basis. I put it to the Taoiseach that it is time for him to exhort all of his Ministers to do so. In that debate the Taoiseach also said that all the Ministers had withdrawn from their business interests. Yet, in his contribution today, Deputy Coveney indicated that at the time he made a declaration to the Taoiseach, he said he retained a share in his family firm. He also reiterated in this House that he had a significant share in this firm. He said that he was not in receipt of a salary and that he was not taking any part in the day to day running of the firm, but if Deputy Coveney is in receipt of a share of profits or has the potential to receive a share of profits, will the Taoiseach accept that perhaps that also should be divested at this stage?

In regard to the declarations of interests which I received, as far as I know I am the first Taoiseach to have requested officeholders to make such comprehensive written declarations. I am not sure whether any declarations were sought by my predecessors but this is a very comprehensive declaration. Second, when I was asked a question about the publication of these declarations, I outlined in the Dáil that my reason for not doing so was the need to protect the legitimate privacy of third parties such as spouses, children and others. I indicated that some of the declarations would involve joint holdings and, therefore, these declarations would involve disclosing information that was private to the other joint holder. Obviously, the Government will comply fully with the disclosure requirements of the ethics Bill, once passed. As the Deputy has rightly said, any Member who wished to make a full declaration of their own accord was free to do so.

I do not think this is in any way relevant in this particular case. Everybody knew that Deputy Coveney had a continuing interest in this quantity surveying partnership. It is not a matter that was concealed in any way and members of the public would not have been any wiser about the matter than they already were if the declarations had been published. It is true that Deputy Coveney, as a shareholder in the company but as someone who is not involved on a day to day basis with its activities, would stand to gain from any enhancement of the business performance of that company, and that is why I regarded the matter as sufficiently serious to agree with him that a resignation would be appropriate. It is precisely for that reason that this situation arose. If he had divested himself entirely of all shares in the company, the call would have been almost irrelevant. The implication of Deputy Ahern's question, if it were carried to its ultimate conclusion, would be that all persons, on becoming Ministers, would be required to divest themselves of all financial interests.

Without taking profits. That was always my understanding.

That is impractical and would mean that people of any independent activity would not be willing or able to enter political life.

They are not supposed to be doing anything else.

I too found Deputy Coveney to be an excellent and efficient Minister. Also, I wish Deputy Barrett every success in his new post. We are dealing here with serious matters and there is an onus on the Taoiseach, and the people on this side of the House, to establish the facts. Will the Taoiseach be a little more accurate about the dates and times? Deputy Coveney said he telephoned the chairman of Bord Gáis about five or six weeks ago. Will the Taoiseach confirm that date? Will he establish the date on which Bord Gáis made its decision? These two dates are relevant in that the question was to be decided by Bord Gáis at a particular time. If the Minister did not have any day to day contact with this firm, as required under the regulations which applied in previous Governments, why did he make representations to the chairman of Bord Gáis, effectively acting as a public relations agent for the company?

Has Deputy Woods filled in his diary lately?

I am unable to be any more precise as to the date of Deputy Coveney's call because, as he outlined in the House, this was a conversation between two friends. He did not and had no reason to keep a note of the date or the content of the conversation and he has no record available to him to enable him verify the exact date of the conversation. The Deputy's question cannot be answered. The call took place approximately five or six weeks ago. That is all I know because that is all Deputy Coveney was able to tell me.

Will the Taoiseach give me brief replies to the following questions? First, will he advise the House whether he was aware of a rumour circulating in the House during the week concerning a story which was about to break in relation to Deputy Coveney and his business interests?

The Fianna Fáil rumours?

Second, will he further advise the House when he first discussed the matter with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa and the content of those conversations? Third, is the Taoiseach in a position to say whether he is aware that any other of his Ministers, particularly Fine Gael Ministers, were aware of the situation?

The answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second question is about 11 o'clock.

And the third question?

Discussions with other Ministers?

I discussed it with various Ministers during the period but I cannot remember exactly the time of each conversation. I discussed it with Ministers who were available in order to have their advice on the matter.

What did the Taoiseach mean when he spoke of the absence of a tendering procedure a few moments ago? Did he discuss that lack of a tendering procedure with Deputy Coveney on Sunday afternoon?

I discussed with Deputy Coveney solely the matters concerning his call, why that call was not one I felt he should have made and the appropriate decision to take in regard to that. The question of the new project in the city centre not being put out to tender was a matter that arose incidentally in the conversation but it was not a central matter because it did not affect the issue I had to decide, in conjunction with Deputy Coveney, in regard to the appropriate measure of accountability.

So there was no list?

Question put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 75; Níl, 63.

  • Ahearn, Theresa.
  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Barry, Peter.
  • Bell, Michael.
  • Bhamjee, Moosajee.
  • Blaney, Neil T.
  • Boylan, Andrew.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Bhreathnach, Niamh.
  • Bree, Declan.
  • Broughan, Tommy.
  • Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
  • Bruton, John.
  • Burke, Liam.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Donal.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Connor, John.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Hugh.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Crowley, Frank.
  • Currie, Austin.
  • Deasy, Austin.
  • De Rossa, Proinsias.
  • Doyle, Avril.
  • Dukes, Alan M.
  • Ferris, Michael.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Fitzgerald, Brian.
  • Fitzgerald, Eithne.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Flaherty, Mary.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Foxe, Tom.
  • Gallagher, Pat.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Harte, Paddy.
  • Higgins, Jim.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kavanagh, Liam.
  • Kemmy, Jim.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • McGahon, Brendan.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Mitchell, Gay.
  • Mitchell, Jim.
  • Mulvihill, John.
  • Nealon, Ted.
  • Noonan, Michael. (Limerick East).
  • O'Keeffe, Jim.
  • O'Shea, Brian.
  • Owen, Nora.
  • Pattison, Séamus.
  • Penrose, William.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, John.
  • Ryan, Seán.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Sheehan, P.J.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Spring, Dick.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Taylor, Mervyn.
  • Timmins, Godfrey.
  • Upton, Pat.
  • Walsh, Eamon.
  • Yates, Ivan.

Níl

  • Ahern, Bertie.
  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Aylward, Liam.
  • Brennan, Matt.
  • Brennan, Séamus.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • Browne, John (Wexford).
  • Burke, Raphael P.
  • Byrne, Hugh.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Clohessy, Peadar.
  • Connolly, Ger.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Davern, Noel.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • Doherty, Seán.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • Moffatt, Tom.
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Morley, P.J.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • Noonan, Michael. (Limerick West).
  • Ó Cuív, Émon.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Donnell, Liz.
  • O'Donoghue, John.
  • O'Hanlon, Rory.
  • O'Keeffe, Ned.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Fitzgerald, Liam.
  • Flood, Chris.
  • Foley, Denis.
  • Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hilliard, Colm M.
  • Hughes, Séamus.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Keogh, Helen.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kirk, Séamus.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Lawlor, Liam.
  • Leonard, Jimmy.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McCreevy, Charlie.
  • McDaid, James.
  • O'Leary, John.
  • O'Malley, Desmond J.
  • O'Rourke, Mary.
  • Quill, Máirín.
  • Ryan, Eoin.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Dan.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Woods, Michael.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Barrett and B. Fitzgerald; Níl, Deputies D. Ahern and Callely.
Question declared carried.

I wish to inform the House that following its approval of the nomination of Deputy Barrett to be a member of the Government I intend to accompany him to Aras an Uachtaráin for his appointment as Minister by the Commission constituted as provided for in section 2, Article 14 of the Constitution. I congratulate Deputy Barrett.

I, too, congratulate Deputy Barrett on his appointment as Minister. He is a close friend of mine in the House. We shared Whips over ten years ago and he is still Whip which is a difficult job. On behalf of Fianna Fáil I congratulate him and wish him a short stay in his position.