Ceisteanna – Questions. - Departmental Staff.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

1 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will list those staff in his Department authorised to speak to the media on his behalf; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6024/01]

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

2 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the procedures in place within his Department to ensure his views are accurately conveyed in response to media inquiries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6025/01]

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

3 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the duties and functions of the programme manager in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6026/01]

Joe Higgins

Question:

4 Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if there is a code of conduct governing the interaction between officials or advisers in his office and elected Members of the Dáil. [6028/01]

Michael Noonan

Question:

5 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach the functions of the programme manager and special advisers in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6721/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

Those authorised in my Department to speak to the media on my behalf are the Government press secretary and the press officers in the Government Press Office. From time to time political and background briefings may be given by special advisers. Inevitably, in the absence of the Government press secretary, the same people may be drafted in as the occasion demands to brief the media on my behalf.

The Government Press Office provides a comprehensive information service on Government policy to the public through the national and international media on my behalf on behalf of the Department and the Government. Through regular contact with departmental press officers, the Government press secretary ensures there is a co-ordinated approach to media matters. The Government press secretary and his staff are in daily contact with news desks and political correspondents and are briefed on a daily basis by him and the deputy Government press secretary.

Press releases, statements and speeches are faxed simultaneously to news desks daily and all important speeches and policy documents are posted on the GIS website. Staff of the Government Press Office and departmental press officers are available after hours and at weekends to answer media queries. The Government press secretary and his staff always strive to ensure the business of implementing Government policy is communicated accurately, speedily and efficiently to the media.

The programme manager at my Department is the principal special adviser appointed by the Government. The role and duties of special advisers are described in section 11 of the Public Service Management Act, 1997. In summary, these are providing advice; monitoring, facilitating and securing the achievement of Government objectives that relate to the Department, as requested; and performing such other functions as may be directed.

As I indicated in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 29 of 10 March 1999, the terms of reference and the job description of my programme manager-special adviser are no different than that of his predecessors. He advises me on a wide range of matters including political, administrative, business, social, financial and economic issues.

Special advisers are subject to the provisions of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and this is reflected in their contracts which contain the following paragraph in relation to duties:

You will be required to perform any duties that may be assigned to you from time to time as appropriate to your position. The position will be whole-time and you may not engage in private practice or be connected with any outside business which would interfere with the performance of official duties.

The nature of their duties requires officials and advisers from time to time to have contact with Members of the Oireachtas. I am confident my advisers apply the highest professional standards in those contacts as with all business conducted on my behalf.

Did the Taoiseach direct his programme manager to brief the press on 16 February to the effect that the Taoiseach intended to deal with the matter if the then Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, did not resign when in fact Deputy O'Keeffe had already tendered his resignation earlier that day?

No, my programme manager did not give any briefing that day. The Government press secretary gave a briefing in accord ance with my instructions to the effect that I was dealing with this matter. Deputy Quinn is incorrect in saying that Deputy O'Keeffe resigned earlier that day; he had informed me of his intention to consult his family and resign in the afternoon of the following day.

Does the Taoiseach agree that the media coverage in the various newspapers – I am referring to one newspaper in particular but the coverage is much the same across the board – clearly conveyed the impression that the Taoiseach intended to exert pressure on the then Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, to resign if he did not volunteer to do so at a time when the Taoiseach was already aware that was Deputy O'Keeffe's intention? Does the Taoiseach agree he allowed his spokesperson to mislead the public through the media?

No, I do not agree I did that on the day in question or on any other day. Unfortunately, I do not write newspaper headlines. I do not believe anyone was misrepresented. Members of the media covered this issue for a number of days prior to 16 February and they all correctly reported that I would deal with this issue which I did.

Did the Taoiseach's programme manager speak directly to the then Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, advising him to resign? How does the Taoiseach explain the discrepancies between his and Deputy O'Keeffe's version of events?

My programme manager did not speak to Deputy O'Keeffe at that stage although he did speak to him a week previously.

To what end?

The programme manager spoke to Deputy O'Keeffe by telephone regarding questions which arose about letters which the programme manager had heard were written by the then Minister of State in relation to the Environmental Protection Agency. He discussed these letters and other matters with Deputy O'Keeffe at that point.

Did the discussion between the programme manager and the then Minister of State occur in the context of Deputy O'Keeffe's future as a Minister of State or was it simply in the context of allegations which were being made in regard to practices in the Deputy's family business?

The Chair has ruled that allegations or charges can only be made by way of substantive motion. These are questions of a general nature and we cannot go into—

I am not making any allegations. I was simply going to say suggestions were made that practices on Deputy Ned O'Keeffe's farm were not up to best practice. Was the context of the conversation between the Taoiseach's programme manager and the then Minister, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, possible resignation?

It was some time previous to that. My programme manager, on my instructions, was checking information about letters which had been written by the Deputy to the Environmental Protection Agency regarding a neighbour.

Is the Taoiseach satisfied there is a written record of that conversation?

There is. I had asked my programme manager to make the call because I was at another event. He took a note of it.

Is it available or will I look for it under the Freedom of Information Act?

He gave the note to me. I remind the House that in the case of Ministers of State, the House does not have any role in their appointment, resignation or removal. The matter is exclusively a function of the Government in the case of appointments and removals, and in the case of resignation, it is a matter for the Taoiseach. That has been and still is the practice in this House.

(Dublin West): Would the Taoiseach agree that anonymous media briefings by the Taoiseach or his Government under cover of “Government sources” or “reliable Government sources” is a dishonest way of communicating with the public? Would he agree that this means can by cynically used by the Government or Ministers to test the air, to fly kites, to see how some Government proposal might be received, but allowing the Government to back away without accepting responsibility? Would he also agree that this practice should be stopped and that when the press is briefed on the instructions of the Taoiseach or the Government, it should be done openly on behalf of the Taoiseach or the Government, by a named servant of the Government, and put out for public discussion in an open and honest way, rather than by way of the underhand manipulation, so-called spinning, that is the practice of so many governments in western Europe?

That is a very wide ranging question. There was no spinning involved in the matter we are talking about. The person who gave the briefing acted on my behalf. The media reported what he said, that I was dealing with the matter. It was carried on the front pages of all the newspapers the following day. People flying kites or spinning are not always welcome, because the Government does not always know who is at it or from what side of the House it comes. I agree with the Deputy on this.

Someone who is the subject matter of this question is quoted as saying that the Taoiseach intended to deal with an issue when in fact, by virtue of the Taoiseach's own statement to the House today and earlier, the issue had been dealt with. The net point is that the Minister of State was going to resign, the matter had been resolved, he was just waiting for time to inform his family. If it was not the programme manager who briefed the media, it was someone who as a civil servant was asked to spin on behalf of the Taoiseach in a particular way designed to be misleading. Does the Taoiseach accept that he gave instructions to that person to mislead the media in the way in which—

Charges of misleading should not be made against the Taoiseach.

I want to establish whether an instruction was given. Does the Taoiseach not agree that a deliberately misleading spin was put out on his behalf?

The Deputy should ask a question, not make an allegation.

Does the Taoiseach agree that a deliberately misleading spin was issued on his behalf?

I reiterate that there was no spin attached to these statements. The Government press secretary asked what he was to say in his daily briefing to the media and he said precisely what I asked him to say. It is an oversimplification to say that the matter had been dealt with because it had not. It was not the final contact. There was to be further contact. It would have been much better if there had been nothing about it, but that is not possible in the normal workings of life. However, what I said did not have a spin put on it and was reported. I have no argument with this.

Given the interest generated by Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, which, in the main, appear to centre on the resignation of the former Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, will the Taoiseach give a full account to the Dáil of the exact circumstances surrounding the resignation—

These questions do not relate to a specific case.

—or are these questions as good as it will get in explaining matters to the House?

The answer to that question lies in the rules of procedure and precedence in the House. What I said on 20 February went much further than what should have been the case. To reiterate, the rule states that on no occasion or precedent is the Taoiseach of the day required to divulge details to the House of dis cussions and other dialogue which always accompany the appointment, resignation or removal of Ministers in circumstances where the House has a constitutional role in approving the nomination of a Taoiseach or Ministers of a Government. That has been the practice since the 1930s. The House does not have a role in the appointment, resignation or removal of Ministers of State. These are matters exclusively for the Government in the case of appointments or removals and the Taoiseach in the case of resignations. Similar considerations apply to similar matters which are proper to Government. As always, I try to be helpful and have probably said enough.

I asked the Taoiseach if he could reconcile the difference in opinion between his programme manager and Deputy Ned O'Keeffe. I wish to return to that question because the Taoiseach did not answer it.

We are going into detail on a specific case. That is not in order on these questions.

It arises from them.

The Chair has advised on many occasions that the matter can be dealt with by way of substantive motion. That is the only way to deal with it.

I put it to the Taoiseach that there is a serious doubt about the precise functions of programme managers when a particular programme manager refuses to confirm or deny that he asked for a Minister of State's resignation and when, on the previous day, the said Minister of State indicated that the programme manager had not only looked for his head, but his whole body. This is damaging to democracy. Will the Taoiseach reconcile these differences? There is a straight contradiction between the former Minister of State and his programme manager.

The Deputy is confused as to when it happened. It happened ten days earlier.

Therefore, the Taoiseach asked the former Minister of State to resign earlier.

No, it did not relate to that matter. They did not have a conversation during that period. The Deputy asked what issue they discussed at that stage. I have answered that question and have no more to say about it.

Will the Taoiseach reconcile the difference between the former Minister of State and his programme manager?

I am not in the business of reconciling.

The former Minister of State said that he was asked to resign and the Taoiseach's programme manager will neither confirm nor deny that he asked him to do so.

I have answered that question.

The Taoiseach has not answered it.

The Chair has ruled on the matter. We cannot go into specific detail. The Deputy has a way of dealing with the matter, if he so wishes.