The purpose of this resolution is to reconstitute the membership of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments and ensure the tribunal will be able to get back into public session immediately. When resolutions have been passed by both Houses, the Minister will make an instrument under the Tribunals of Inquiries (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2002 to give full effect to the new membership. At that stage, the membership of the three person tribunal will be Judge Alan Mahon, chairperson, Judge Mary Faherty and Judge Gerald Keys.
The need for this resolution arises from the resignation of Mr. Justice Feargus Flood as both chairperson and member of the tribunal. I pay tribute to Mr. Justice Flood for the exemplary manner in which he has discharged his duties, initially as sole member and more recently as chairperson of the three member tribunal.
When Mr. Justice Flood took on the task of investigating allegations of corruption in the planning process in 1997, neither he nor the Government expected that the work of the tribunal would be still under way six years later. During that period he made a sustained and dedicated contribution. His resignation is, in many respects, the end of an era. As the Taoiseach noted, his name will be synonymous with the will and determination of the Dáil, the Seanad and the people to expose and root out malpractice and corruption. That of itself is a significant contribution by him to Irish political history. One has only to look at the public response to his second interim report, published last year, to have an appreciation of the esteem in which he is held by the people.
In recent days there has been much speculation about the events leading to the resignation of Mr. Justice Flood and when the Dáil and Seanad should have been informed. I would like to outline the facts. On 26 May there was a meeting, at the request of the tribunal, with Mr. Justice Flood, Judges Mahon and Faherty and the Attorney General concerning Mr. Justice Flood's staying on as an ordinary member of the tribunal and the costs issue being decided by Judge Mahon. On 28 May Mr. Justice Flood wrote to the Attorney General indicating, for reasons set out in that letter, that he considered himself to be unable to continue to act as chairperson but that he considered he could continue as an ordinary member. He asked the Attorney General to arrange to have the Oireachtas and the Minister informed. Both the Minister and the Taoiseach were given a copy of that letter.
The Attorney General responded on 30 May to Mr. Justice Flood asking whether he wanted a copy of the letter circulated or whether he wanted the Attorney General to simply apprise the Oireachtas of the contents. On 30 May counsel for the tribunal requested the Attorney General not to circulate the letter for the reasons stated on Wednesday by the Taoiseach. On 4 June Mr. Justice Flood wrote to the Attorney General saying he would shortly send a letter, concerning his intention to step down as chairperson, for circulation to the Clerks of both Houses of the Oireachtas. By letter dated 16 June, received late on 17 June, he formally confirmed to the Attorney General that he considered himself unable to continue to act as chairperson and asked that a copy of his letter be sent to the Clerks of both Houses of the Oireachtas. This letter was forwarded to the Minister by the Attorney General, by letter on 18 June, in which the Attorney indicated he believed it would be proper procedure for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to send the letter to both Clerks. He agreed this changed procedure with counsel for the tribunal.
When a copy of the letter of 16 June was received by the Minister, he decided it should be brought to the Government's attention at the earliest opportunity. At the next Government meeting, on 24 June, the Government considered the letter in the presence of the Attorney General and decided on the lines of the response which the Minister should make on its behalf to the chairperson. At the same time, the Minister arranged to forward a copy of the letter of 16 June to the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk of the Seanad.
The Minister's letter of 24 June to Mr. Justice Flood raised several issues. It indicated that the Government considered it preferable if he were in a position to remain as chairperson to decide the question of costs. It also expressed the view that there were concerns as to the prospects of legal challenges to future reports of the tribunal, in the light of the contents of his letter of 16 June and his continued involvement as an ordinary member. It asked Mr. Justice Flood to address the risk of legal proceedings to a report produced by the tribunal while he was a member. In doing so it was addressing the following issue.
It was the Government's concern that if Mr. Justice Flood continued hearing modules as an ordinary member over a lengthy period of time, any subsequent report could be challenged. What the Government was seeking to elicit from the tribunal was the nature of risk of such a legal challenge in the context of the length of the proposed modules Mr. Justice Flood would be hearing as an ordinary member. The concern was simple, namely, that those who were determined to challenge a subsequent report of the tribunal would rely upon the fact that Mr. Justice Flood had not heard the costs issue but was willing to decide issues relating to corruption and bribery. It was seeking clarification on this potential problem.
On 26 June 2003 a meeting took place between the Attorney General and Mr. Justice Flood. This meeting had been sought by Mr. Justice Flood to clarify his position. He stated he was personally disposed towards dealing with the issue of costs and to continue in the tribunal for a further period. He stated his willingness to address the costs issue, notwithstanding the added strains and burden it would impose.
There was also a brief discussion about possible future legislative changes to enable the administrative burden of the tribunal placed on a chairperson to be reduced by permitting the administrative tasks of the chairperson to be delegated to another member of the tribunal. This was to address one of the reasons behind the proposal contained in the letter of 16 June 2003 and was a mechanism that would assist his continuation in the tribunal.
It was agreed that Mr. Justice Flood would return to the tribunal offices for the purpose of sending a letter to the Oireachtas in relation to this future role in the tribunal as discussed with the Attorney General. Later that afternoon the Attorney General received a telephone call from Mr. Justice Flood who was at the tribunal. In the call the Attorney General was informed by Mr. Justice Flood that he then wanted to reconsider his future role in the tribunal having had further discussions. It was agreed there would be further consideration of his position overnight by Mr. Justice Flood.
On the morning of Friday 27 June 2003 the Attorney General received a telephone call wherein he was informed that Mr. Justice Flood was resigning from the tribunal. A letter was then sent to the Oireachtas and copied to the Attorney General. Members of this House have a copy. There was only one meeting last week between the Attorney General and Mr. Justice Flood.
The Minister received a letter from Mr. Justice Flood on Friday 27 June in which he indicated that having reflected on the matter and in the interests of the tribunal and its very important work to date and into the future, he had decided to resign with immediate effect as chairperson and member of the tribunal. Mr Justice Flood also sent this letter on the same day to both Houses of the Oireachtas. These are the facts which clearly show that neither in the past nor present has there been any conspiracy to withhold information from the Oireachtas. I hope the matter can rest there and the bona fides of the Government will be accepted.
The Government has also been accused of attempting to frustrate the work of the tribunal by delaying last year in appointing additional members. Again, this is not the case and is unfounded. Resolutions to allow for the appointment of additional members were passed by the Dáil and Seanad on 28 March 2002. To give effect to these resolutions, it was necessary for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make an instrument under the Tribunals of Inquiry Acts to formally appoint the new members. However, the tribunal specifically requested in May 2002 that such an instrument should not be made until after Mr. Justice Flood had submitted his interim report to the Oireachtas.
The interim report on the first three modules was finalised by Mr. Justice Flood and submitted to the Oireachtas on 26 September 2002. An instrument was signed four weeks later extending the tribunal to a three person tribunal with a reserve member. The allegations of attempts to frustrate the tribunal were also scotched when Mr. Justice Flood wrote to the Taoiseach on 30 June confirming that all such allegations were completely groundless. The Taoiseach read that letter into the record of the Dáil on Tuesday. I propose to read it again into the record of this House. It reads:
I refer to my correspondence with the Attorney General and Minister Cullen on the above matter in which the reasons underlining my resignation are set out.
I note in the public press statements to the effect that action-inaction by the Government in relation to requests from the tribunal for additional judges or other matters have caused frustration and are the real reason for my resignation.
I wish to state categorically that this is not so. My decision is in no way related to or consequent upon any action or inaction by the Government of any kind.
My relationship with the Government is through the Department of the Attorney General. I have at all times during my tenure of office had a relationship with the Attorney General's Office that has been exceptionally cordial and co-operative. The allegation that the work of the tribunal has been delayed or frustrated in any way by the Government is completely groundless and has nothing to do with my decision to resign.
The reasons for my resignation are solely set out in my correspondence with the Attorney General and Minister Cullen. I trust this letter clarifies the position.
Feargus M. Flood.
While significant work has been carried out by the tribunal, it clearly has much more to do. When the Minister wrote to the tribunal on 24 June, he also asked it to give him a report dealing with the following matters: the likely duration of the current module or modules; the likely duration, up to completion, of all matters arising within the terms of reference, as amended, of the tribunal; the total in legal costs claimed to date by third parties, that is, those who sought representation or provided discovery and so forth; and the likely costs to be incurred in investigating all matters within the terms of reference. The tribunal responded on 25 June. On the future duration of the tribunal, it indicated the tribunal was in the course of hearing evidence in public in relation to a number of interlinked planning modules.
It is the current intention of the tribunal to conclude the public hearings relating to these modules by the end of 2006, after which it will furnish a report on allegations of planning corruption in the Dublin area to the Oireachtas. It is the intention of the tribunal that its report will make recommendations as to how any matters then outstanding might best be dealt with, having regard to the tribunal's obligations and experience and any legislative changes in the meantime.
The tribunal also indicated that the duration of the tribunal beyond 2006 would depend upon the number of issues, if any, deemed to merit public inquiry. The tribunal is currently investigating a number of issues in private but no decision has been taken as to whether any of these issues require public hearing. It is anticipated that within the next 12 months the tribunal will be in a position to decide whether any of the issues should be heard in public and, at that time, it will be in a position to advise the Minister and the Oireachtas of the likely duration of the public hearings relating to any such issue. The full text of the letter in question and the Minister's letter of 24 June were sent to the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad on 27 June. It is clear from that correspondence that the tribunal still has significant work to do. In the light of the likely duration, it is understandable that Mr. Justice Flood could not be expected to finalise the work of the tribunal as chairperson and his resignation must be seen in that light.
The decision taken last year to appoint a reserve member allows for a smooth transition to a newly constituted tribunal. The proposal is to appoint an existing member as chairperson and to make the reserve member a full member. There is no proposal to appoint a new reserve member at this stage and none has been sought by the tribunal as it would not be practical given that the current module is in mid-stream. If the tribunal makes such a request at any stage in the future, the matter will be brought before the Oireachtas.
Before concluding I wish to refer to the question of who will determine costs on modules to date. It was the Government's preference that Mr. Justice Flood would deal with the matter. The resignation of Mr. Justice Flood means it has to be dealt with by another person. This raises legal issues regarding hearings to determine the issue of costs in respect of modules of the tribunal completed to date. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will arrange for new legislation in the autumn to deal with this issue. Pending such legislation, hearings in relation to costs will not take place.
I re-affirm the commitment of the Government to the completion of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments. The speed with which this resolution was brought to the Seanad gives an indication of its commitment to the future work of the tribunal. The members of the tribunal are persons of the highest calibre and integrity and this tribunal will continue with the same persistence and determination demonstrated by Mr. Justice Flood. The members of the tribunal with their legal team and staff will be supported in full in their determination to establish if any corrupt practices exist or have existed in our planning system and to report without fear or favour on the outcome of the inquiries. I commend the resolution to the House.