I thank the Chair for selecting this important matter. The House will recall that I raised the case of Emerald Meats on the Adjournment on 5 November last, almost exactly one year ago. I hope now, in the aftermath of the "Prime Time" programme, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development will take this affair more seriously than on that occasion when the Minister of State gave a reply which failed to deal with any of the serious points raised.
The details I set out have been confirmed by the "Prime Time" programme. It involves a tale of how the Exchequer has been ripped off to the extent of millions of pounds by the deliberate action of servants of the State either at political instigation or mere complicity in unlawful collusion with the companies in the beef processing sector which were the intended beneficiaries of the scam. Legal costs of more than £1 million arising from unnecessary and wasteful litigation in which the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development embroiled itself were finally discharged by the State. General damages awarded to the injured party have yet to be assessed but will exceed the amount already paid out for costs by an unknown factor. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development ignored all entreaties to desist and no other agency of the State would agree to intervene. Attempts by some politicians inside and outside Government to terminate the madness were fought off by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development on the grounds that it was likely to succeed in court.
The rules in respect of GATT import quotas were changed in 1989 arising from an unrelated court judgment in that the EU Commission took over allocation of the quotas from the Department. The Commission introduced a regulation binding on member states that would give the quotas to the traditional importer, therefore, in Ireland the law dictated that these quotas should go to Emerald Meats. In blatant contravention of the law, the other beef companies, predominantly the Goodman Group, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development officials conspired to knowingly misrepresent the historical position to Brussels. The Department furnished a fictional list of traditional importers to Brussels, described subsequently by Mr. Justice Costello as "a travesty of the true position".
The Department then set about doing down Emerald Meats and asserting the claims of the Goodman companies and others in Brussels, which led to a complaint by the managing director of Emerald Meats to the Garda Síochána in February 1990 that there was "a conspiracy to defraud my company of its entitlements under EU and Irish law". To my knowledge no action was taken by the Garda and similar complaints to the Department were ignored. Emerald Meats was left with no alternative but to carry out its threat to sue the Minister.
In the ensuing years Emerald Meats was comprehensively vindicated on all counts. Mr. Justice Egan's judgment made it clear that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development could not win an appeal. However, the Department carried on regardless. The Supreme Court in March 1997 rejected every one of the Department's legal grounds and ruled that, in addition to specific damages, Emerald Meats was entitled to general damages which have not yet been assessed. The State is occasionally forced into litigation on constitutional and other grounds that sometimes are difficult to explain to the taxpayer. No such grounds exist in this case. This was a case of conspiracy between the Department and certain companies in the beef sector to steal from a rival company. The question is, why?
It would be serious in any circumstances, but especially grave when the Department involved has already been indicted of an unacceptable, cosy relationship with a dominant group of companies in the sector. This is the same Department whose negligence in supervising the depredations of the same group in another context led to fines of up to £70 million being imposed on the State by the EU. History shows that the Minister, Deputy Walsh, has been implicated from the beginning in the favouritism shown to the Goodman companies. At the height of the 1990 controversy with regard to certain Ministers and Goodman International, the then Minister told the House that the Department had written to the companies concerned seeking indemnification with regard to costs. The then secretary of the Department reiterated to the Committee of Public Accounts that necessary steps were being taken to get moneys from the companies involved. Eight years after the first such commitment was given to the House, a spokesman toldThe Irish Times that no attempt had been made to recover the money from the companies involved. Again, the question is why?
Why did the Department become wantonly involved in a conspiracy to ruin a small company to the benefit of giant competitors? The Department's Secretary General is on record as saying "Did we ever think they would?". Why did the Garda not act on the complaints made to it? Why did the Department persist in wasteful and expensive litigation when it had fabricated documents and lied to Brussels? What was in it for the Department or the officials concerned? Were they acting at the behest of their political masters? Given the heavy cost to the taxpayer, has there ever been an internal investigation of the scandalous handling of the licence application? Has anybody been made accountable?
This is a scandal that reflects only discredit on a major Department. It reflects the climate of favouritism instigated by Ministers at the time, and since, towards the Goodman Group. It also reflects no credit on the Garda because, if it had acted on complaints made to it, millions of pounds might have been spared this House and the taxpayers. They have already incurred a substantial cost and, facing an unquantifiable bill for general damages, are entitled to answers from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development
(Mr. Walsh): I welcome the opportunity to respond to this Adjournment matter. I understand why, especially this week, the Deputy would wish to deflect from the scandal in his new political vehicle, namely the Labour Party and—