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.
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.