In the initial part of my contribution I indicated to the House that in discussing these amended terms of reference we are doing something that the Government and two of its senior Ministers, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Finance, said could not be done. It must be with some sense of embarrassment or at least some recognition of a wrong position that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government acknowledges that the position adopted by the Opposition, when the original debate took place, was correct. Some of the sharpness with which the argument was put to downplay the Opposition's point of view must be seen now for what it was.
Before the break I was turning to the details of the motion and had indicated that the Labour Party is broadly in agreement with the proposed amendments to the terms of reference. There is a sense of vindication in the Labour Party that what we achieved in two legislative measures, namely, the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Act, which we steered through the last Dáil against some trenchant opposition, particularly from the parties in Government, was not only timely but necessary.
The past couple of weeks have seen the two parties in Government desperately scrambling to catch up. The Taoiseach has been to the fore in this unruly scramble. Belatedly we welcome their coming on board. I absolutely reject the comments made by some people in and about the time Mr. Burke resigned that he was being found guilty of breaches of a code of ethics then not in existence. The actual statements put on the record by the Taoiseach and by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government have been re-read into the record this evening by Deputy Dukes. There should be some acknowledgment that the position taken then was indefensible in the light of the facts we now know.
The need for the two legislative measures introduced by the Labour Party has been more than apparent for some years and it was beholden on Government to ensure they were enacted, so that at least members of Government did not seek to take advantage of their absence. At a late stage my party considered suggesting an amendment to the tribunal's terms of reference but ultimately chose not to do so because we felt the point was covered by the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Act, 1997. The need for that measure arose from the report of the McCracken tribunal when it emerged that, despite it being the tribunal's stated view that Mr. Charles Haughey had obstructed its work, there was no mechanism to allow it recoup some of the costs from him — the existing legislation only allowed individual parties to the tribunal to recover costs from one another. On foot of that, Labour produced a Bill which was ultimately accepted by the Government, as a result of which it is now possible for a tribunal to recover costs from someone it has found to have obstructed or withheld information from it.
This is a pertinent point in light of the controversy which continues to surround payments to Mr. Ray Burke by Fitzwilton through Rennicks in 1989. It is now established that Mr. Burke received money and the motion before us asks the Flood tribunal to establish whether there was any linkage between the receipt of this acknowledged payment and any other moneys, yet to be discovered, paid to Mr. Burke and any decision taken by him while a public representative, either as Minister, Deputy or county councillor. This is right and proper, it is in the interest of the political system that this investigation take place, and it is my party's belief that the Flood tribunal is the appropriate forum for this inquiry and investigation to unfold.
However, tribunals can only work effectively if they receive full co-operation from every individual and group with information which is of interest to them. Judging by last weekend's newspapers, it appears still to be a source of dispute as to exactly which members of Fianna Fáil knew about the £30,000 payment to Mr. Burke. This must also be a matter of investigation by the tribunal because it relates specifically to its capacity to perform its functions. As a result of the 1997 Act, if any evidence of obstruction is unearthed on this occasion sanctions exist to deal with it. I would welcome a comment from the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, as he may be able to cast further light on the degree of knowledge available to officers of Fianna Fáil and when that knowledge became available to them.
I will deviate slightly to make a further point about the misleading of this House last September by Mr. Burke. The McCracken report referred to the House being misled by Deputy Lowry but despite that we as Members have put no procedures in place to deal with such matters. Unfortunately the Taoiseach does not seem to think it any of his business to correct the record of the House when information becomes available to him, so we as Members must do so ourselves. We must look at the regulation of our affairs, a Cheann Comhairle, to ensure strict adherence to the long-held tradition of the veracity of any statement put on the record; and if anyone becomes aware that misleading or inaccurate information is put on the record, that the long-standing practice of correcting the record is strictly applied.
This is a difficult period for all involved in politics. Never before has our profession been subject to so much public suspicion and distrust, which has been magnified by the impression — an accurate one — that the Opposition has had to bully the Government into investigating this matter. If the Minister wishes to dispute this point, I cite the Ansbacher accounts. They should have been dealt with in the Moriarty tribunal and I put down an amendment to have the story behind them fully ventilated. As of now, the true facts behind those accounts may never see the light of day and it is difficult to see how the Tánaiste's investigation of this issue will not encounter the same problems as her investigation into the NIB scandal. This is entirely unsatisfactory and the veil of suspicion which currently extends over the body politic will not be lifted while the Government seeks to curtail full investigation of issues like the Ansbacher accounts. I restate a challenge to the Minister to respond to this issue and to explain how it is to be fully ventilated.
The Taoiseach recently proposed new ethics legislation and the establishment of an ethics commission. I welcome his party's conversion to the transparent regulation of politics. Labour will support any positive and concrete measure put forward by the Government and will engage constructively with all parties in this House in refining such measures. As a member of the Select Committee on Members' Interests I look forward to the Government's proposals in this regard, which will be looked on much more favourably than were our proposals by the Government parties when they were in Opposition.
I hope that, sooner rather than later, we can put the scandals of recent years behind us. The sitting tribunals and the motion before us are an integral part of that process but we have a long way to go before we restore public confidence in the conduct of our business. That is the objective of this motion and for that reason Labour welcomes and supports it.