It is always a pleasure to address this House. I congratulate all the new Senators elected and appointed to the House and wish them well during the lifetime of this Seanad.
The motion before the House seeks to amend the terms of reference of the tribunal of inquiry established by the Oireachtas into suggestions of collusion by members of the Garda Síochána, or other employees of the State, in the brutal murders by the Provisional IRA of RUC chief superintendent Harry Breen and RUC superintendent Bob Buchanan in March 1989. The original Seanad motion was passed on 24 March 2005 following the passing of a similar motion in the Dáil on 23 March 2005. The tribunal was established on 31 May 2005 and is chaired by Mr. Justice Peter Smithwick, former President of the District Court.
There has been some misreporting surrounding the reasons for putting forward this motion. Its purpose is not to curtail, impede, confine or interfere with the independence of the tribunal in fulfilling the terms of reference of the inquiry. Neither is it about the winding down of a tribunal, as suggested in the recent headline of a particular newspaper. Rather, it is about fulfilling this House's responsibilities while fully supporting the work of the tribunal.
The purpose of the motion, therefore, is to afford Seanad Éireann the opportunity to consider the current state of play with the tribunal's work. It seeks to do so by establishing a timeframe which is reasonable for the tribunal to complete that work. I do not believe it would have been appropriate, given the respective roles of the Oireachtas and the tribunal, for me to have consulted Mr. Justice Smithwick about the terms of the motion. Nevertheless, some time ago Mr. Justice Smithwick indicated to me that the tribunal would be able to conclude its work in the timescale now contemplated by this motion. It will be both in the public interest and in the interest of those bereaved by the callous murders of the two police officers to underpin that in the motion.
Notwithstanding that, if, for any reason, this does not prove possible, the tribunal's chairman can report back to the Clerk of the Seanad that circumstances have arisen which require that timescale to be extended. I offer a solemn assurance that the Government's response to that will be fully cognisant of and consistent with the need for the tribunal to fulfil its obligations fully and as expeditiously as possible.
These assurances meet concerns expressed about the public imposition of a deadline. While for the reason I have given I did not consult with Mr. Justice Smithwick about the specific terms of the motion, I will convey that assurance to him in light of concerns he has expressed to me about any possible effects of an indication by this House of a deadline and those concerns expressed subsequent to the newspaper report I mentioned.
From my contact with the chairman and comments by others, the concern about the public imposition of a completion date relates to the possible effect on witnesses of this approach, and, in particular, the publicity surrounding it. It is unfortunate that a public impression may have been created that this motion is about winding down or curtailing the tribunal's work. This, in turn, may have led to persons having reconsidered their support for and co-operation with the tribunal. It is most important such co-operation is given. Now that I have put formally on the record of this House the actual position, I believe these concerns should be allayed.
Six years after its establishment and the expenditure of more than €8 million of taxpayers' money by my Department, this approach best protects the public interest. The motion also requires the chairman to prepare and submit an interim report by the end of June. Again, this is consistent with the tribunal's own timescale which envisages public hearings commencing on 7 June with an opening statement by counsel on that date.
There has been some misinformed public comment about this, apparently based on the mistaken view that this is a new requirement. In fact, under the current terms of reference set down in 2005, the chairman must submit an interim report on certain matters as soon as may be after the tenth day of any oral hearings of the tribunal. The motion, therefore, does not impose any substantive additional requirement or undesirable burden on the tribunal.
The Smithwick tribunal has, since early 2006, been conducting its inquiries in private. Given the importance attached to the subject matter of those inquiries, the Government considers it appropriate that the Oireachtas and the public should have an indication of where the tribunal is placed in carrying out the mandate which was conferred on it by the Oireachtas. It is my view and that of the Government that it serves the public interest to have information from the tribunal as to the current status of its inquiry.
With hindsight, it may have been a mistake in the original terms of reference to link the timing of an interim report to a number of public hearings having taken place. I doubt very much the House would have envisaged at the time that this would mean that it would hear nothing from the tribunal for six years.
I do not consider it unreasonable that the tribunal should be asked to report progress at this stage. In so far as the proposed interim report is concerned, the motion does not seek to have the tribunal deal with the substance of the matters into which it is inquiring. Rather, the purpose is for the tribunal to give the Oireachtas an indication of the numbers of persons granted representation, progress to date with its hearings, the number of witnesses it may be calling and other matters which the tribunal considers should be drawn to the attention of the Oireachtas.
I am anxious the tribunal should be facilitated to conduct and conclude its inquiries in as comprehensive a manner as is possible. I consider, however, that it is helpful, especially to those most directly affected by these dreadful killings, for this House to indicate a timescale for that. It is not in the public interest or in the interest of the families bereaved by this IRA atrocity that an inquiry should continue indefinitely. The seriousness of the matters being investigated requires greater urgency than that.
The tribunal's chairman has informed me he believes the tribunal will be in a position to complete its work in advance of the date now proposed. If a difficulty were to emerge subsequently with the target date for conclusion, however, the chairman would report that difficulty and the Oireachtas would have the opportunity to consider the matter further. There is no obstacle of any nature to any such report being made in the future to the Houses of the Oireachtas by the chairman.
It is against that background that the motion proposes that the tribunal should conclude its work and report to the Clerk of the Seanad by 30 November 2011. I respect and defend fully the independence of the chairman of the tribunal to carry out his inquiries without fear or favour. It is central to the remit of the tribunal that having completed its hearings, it reaches its conclusions and finalises its report for submission to the Clerk of Seanad Éireann without any interference or its independence being compromised.
It is, however, in the public interest that its deliberations do not continue indefinitely with no public target date for the completion of its work or without accountability to this Parliament or explanation for the duration of its sitting. After all, its original remit was to report on a "definite matter of urgent public importance" on which it is "to make such findings and recommendations as it sees fit". Moreover, its original terms of reference require that when it reports on an interim basis, the tribunal must detail the likely duration of its proceedings in so far as it can estimate it. There must be some accountability to the Houses of the Oireachtas for the progress of its work and the public expenditure connected with it. This was clearly envisaged in the motion to establish the tribunal passed by this House on 24 March 2005, some six years ago.
The amendment to the Government motion is unsupportable. It proceeds from an entirely erroneous understanding of the intention behind the motion. First, it is not the case, as I have emphasised, that the intention is to curtail the work of the tribunal. That is precisely the effect that the amending motion would have. Furthermore, it would be entirely inappropriate for me, as Minister, or the Government to engage directly with the tribunal about its terms of reference. That is a matter solely for the Oireachtas. The Government motion before the House reinforces that position. Additionally, I fail to see how it is considered possible, in view of what I have said about the tribunal's independence, that I or the Government could undertake consultations with any interested parties as to the terms of reference of an independent tribunal established by the Oireachtas. The tribunal would clearly be an interested party and I have been at pains to emphasise that it would be improper for me or the Government to consult it about its terms of reference. Communication with the tribunal on that matter is for the Oireachtas. The Government motion does not interfere with that position. The amendment to the Government motion is in terms which would be likely to bring about further delay.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to bring the motion before the Seanad. I commend it to the House and hope it will receive the support of all Members.