Deputy Liam Lawlor is in possession and has 17 minutes remaining.
Adjournment of the Dáil: Motion (Resumed).
I was saying earlier that this document, the final draft report dated 30 June, was not even opened by the committee and was never read. We decided on that occasion to visit Thurles at the request of Deputy Michael Lowry, a fellow parliamentarian serving on the committee in whose constituency a major industry was under threat, particularly as a result of the very frank presentation by the chairman of the Irish Sugar Company and his executives on 15 March when they outlined in great detail virtually everything that has emerged in this so-called confidential report. They put this information on record at a public hearing of the committee. The matter was dealt with specifically in that way.
We proceeded to visit the plant in Thurles and to have a formal hearing of the committee in a local hotel to give everybody the opportunity of putting on the record their views as regards the plant. Another Opposition colleague, Senator Paul Bradford, asked at a subsequent meeting if the committee would visit the Mallow plant. Again I conceded and brought the committee to see the plant there. It has been widely reported that in the canteen at the end of that visit we had a very frank and open discussion with the chief executive of the company and four or five executives. Again it was repeated by the executives that it was the right strategy that the Thurles plant should close and that this was the intent, but the board had not made their final decision on this matter.
Deputy O'Malley asked this morning for specifics and detailed answers to questions. My accurate recollection of the facts is as follows. The chairman of that company sent me a specific letter with the documentation in reply to our own questions as members of the committee.
With the documentation?
Not with the document, no. They sent me a letter and the secretary of the committee, in carrying out his functions to the committee and to me as chairman, telephoned and pointed out that there was a certain recommendation that the documentation should not be circulated and that it was his intention to bring it to the next committee meeting. I concurred with that advice, direction and suggestion from the clerk of the committee, a senior civil servant.
It did not say it should not be circulated.
Deputy O'Malley was not in Mallow and did not know the questions we asked. Therefore he did not even know there was a document. I will not allow him to interrupt.
I am not throwing any mud. I am explaining what the Deputy asked me to explain when he made his contribution. That is the reality. When I was asked by an Irish Times reporter if I had a confidential report on the Irish Sugar Company, straight off I said no. I knew that our report, which is supposed to be confidential, was in the possession of the clerk of the joint committee but it had been leaked to the media in the month of July causing grave embarrassment to the board of the Sugar Company and to the joint committee. Deputy Lowry, according to the minutes of the joint committee, pointed out the great disservice the leaking of that report had done to the people of Thurles and the staff of the factory.
In those circumstances, the executives and the board of the Sugar Company were anxious to provide us with the maximum amount of factual information. They were also aware that the Minister for Agriculture and Food, and Deputy Lowry, represented north Tipperary and that this was a politically sensitive issue. They were endeavouring to come to a final decision on the matter. When they reached that decision they asked the clerk and me, as chairman, to treat the matter with sensitivity. Had there been a meeting on 24 November, or any time up to 31 January, the clerk, I trust, would have brought the report to the meeting and explained that there was a confidentiality request from the chairman. The terms of reference of the joint committee specifically state that if a State-sponsored company ask the joint committee to treat material with confidentiality they will honour that request. That was followed to the letter.
It was not.
It was, on the recommendation of the clerk. That is the position.
The terms of reference refer to publishing material.
If Deputy O'Malley is not able to listen to Deputy Lawlor, he should leave the Chamber. Members did not interrupt him during his contribution.
Does Deputy Lawlor know the terms of reference of the joint committee?
I should like to deal with my resignation from the joint committee. I have been a member of my party for 26 years and have been proud to represent them. I am not ashamed to state that if I want advice from the party leader, or senior party colleagues, I will seek it. That is what I did on this occasion and the party leader, looking at the false allegations said, "you, as chairman, and the joint committee, will be turned into a political football; it is my suggestion, for your consideration, that you should step down from the joint committee and deal with these matters in a factual, honest and pragmatic way". How could the Taoiseach come into the House and defend me when he did not know the details of the case? He left this to me to deal with at a meeting of the joint committee. That is what I did.
It is unfortunate that a civil servant is being dragged out of retirement to collaborate the facts. The truth has been recorded in the minutes of meetings of the joint committee. It is up to each Member to decide whether they wish to accept what I say as the truth or otherwise. I trust that when the matter is being reported in the political column in next Sunday's issue of the Sunday Independent there will not be any conflict or collusion like occurred recently.
I should like to address some comments to Deputy McDowell and his colleagues. Will they tell me where the conflict of interest arises?
The Deputy had a conflict of interest and everybody knows that.
Deputy McDowell is not in court now; he should let Deputy Lawlor continue.
Deputy Lawlor accepted that there was a conflict of interest.
I should like to be given the opportunity to explain my position.
Why would the Taoiseach ask Deputy Lawlor to resign from the joint committee if there was not a conflict of interest?
Deputy McDowell, as a Member of the House, does not see anything wrong with going to the courts, accepting State briefs and running around the Law Library with his wig and gown.
Deputy Andrews, sitting beside Deputy Lawlor, knows about that.
Deputy McDowell dashes back to the House in the evening to get involved in the business of the day. On one occasion he returned to the House in the evening and tried to go back over business that Deputy Seán Barrett and the Minister for Justice had spent the entire day dealing with. Earlier in the day, he had been in the Law Library in his conflict of interest role but he dashed back to the House to hold up the work of the House.
No sugar for those sweeteners.
I am amazed at the attitude of Deputy Dukes. I find it hard to understand the role he has adopted in regard to this. I have always held him in very high regard. I admire his pragmatic approach to politics and public life. His Tallaght strategy is an acceptable and realistic approach to the running of the country. However, I should like to put on record my amazement that Deputy Dukes on two occasions made reference to my so-called visits to Thurles. I went once at the invitation of Deputy Lowry and I have been to the Munster championship hurling games there for the last three or four years. They are the occasions I visited Thurles. Deputy Dukes should withdraw any insinuation that I was in Thurles for any other reason. I am amazed that a former Minister for Finance, and leader of the largest Opposition party, should consider it worth mentioning on the floor of the House. That is the depth of his analysis of this matter.
Deputy Spring connived to embarrass the House by putting himself in the position of being asked to leave the House. It is a great slur on the role of any Deputy that that should happen to him but that happened to Deputy Spring. The Deputy is not present for the debate today. His heart is not in this and he left it to Deputy Desmond to huff and puff for about 20 minutes. That Deputy never dealt with any of the issues involved but went all over the place. He addressed the nation on a range of issues but not on the matter I have been accused of.
This is another can of worms and the Deputy knows it. Deputy Spring had to be thrown out to get this right.
Deputy De Rossa was the only Opposition party leader to act honourably. In the debate on this issue, while I was attending a meeting of the joint committee, he put it on record that he was not making any allegations against Deputy Lawlor but wanted to put forward reasons for having a register of interests. I respect his right to do that and I would not be at variance with his views on that. However, I do not have anything to worry about on that score because my interests are known publicly. That is what has brought about this wasteful debate. I made an honourable decision to step down from the joint committee's investigation of the Sugar Company after the exchange of two letters by two chairmen of different organisations.
Deputies fully realise that the Sugar Company is a State asset. It is a matter for the executive of that company to consider any structural change. That is referred to the board of directors, then to the Minister responsible, on to the Cabinet and, finally it is a matter for the House to make any decision in regard to State assets. If that realistic approach must be gone through in regard to each item how can any conflict of interest arise?
There was a conflict of interest.
How can a conflict of interest arise if between 20 and 50 letters are exchanged between various people? Do they amount to a proposal to take over the Sugar Company?
This is utter rot and unfounded nonsense. As a non-executive director, I do not know what the 20 or 30 executives in any organisation are doing today, were doing yesterday or will do tomorrow. I do not know who they are meeting. Any proposals put to any board of directors or any committee will be in a proper documented form for consideration and that has not arisen in this case.
What are they paying the Deputy for in that case?
Deputy Lawlor should be allowed to continue without interruption.
Who said that they are paying?
The Deputy is making the judgment, but does he know? I should now like to deal with the Progressive Democrats, the petty Deputies of the House. I delivered a letter to Deputy Des O'Malley notifying him of his expulsion from my party. That was the greatest service I have ever done for the country because by him being expelled from the party he has managed to make this the most dynamic, united, progressive Government we have had since the foundation of the State. His being expelled from the party was the most decisive thing that could have happened to it. Deputy Des O'Malley has gone to the margins of Irish political life because of the venom he poured out on the day the House dealt with this matter while I was attending a meeting of the joint committee. At Christmas, Deputy Des O'Malley suggested that personalities should be taken out of Irish politics but when nobody followed that hare, he suggested that there should be a grand alliance between Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats because it would be dreadful if we did not have an alternative Government. When Fine Gael rightly rejected that suggestion, Deputy Des O'Malley attacked the Tallaght strategy. Deputy Des O'Malley is now reflecting in his desperation. If the best he can do today is to link Bailieborough and Babylon it is a bloody sad day.
When I was in Iraq, an embassy official asked me to endeavour to get payments for small clothing manufacturers who are facing bankruptcy at home.
What was Mr. Mayne doing in the car with the Deputy?
I have a letter from one of those companies which recognises what I did at the request of an Irish Government official who was working on behalf of Irish manufacturers and trying to save Irish jobs.
What was Mr. Mayne doing in the car with the Deputy?
The Deputy should get Deputy Des O'Malley to return to the Chamber to listen to the truth.
What was Mr. Mayne doing in the car? He is not a debt collector.
In regard to Deputy Pat O'Malley I should like to point out that the only time I had contact with him was when I was his public representative and he was my constituent. He came to me and asked me to make various inquiries about something or other on his behalf.
I do not believe I ever went to you in that capacity.
He was not an active member of the party in Lucan, but I knew him at arm's length as a relation of Deputy Des O'Malley. The reality is that Deputy Pat O'Malley has been used.
No. I feel absolutely happy in what I am doing. Nobody is coercing me.
Deputy O'Malley has been here a couple of years but I have been in public life since 1974. When Deputy O'Malley has harrowed what I have ploughed, he will realise what I am saying to him today. He will realise that he has been used by Deputies Des O'Malley, Geraldine Kennedy and Michael McDowell.
Why not name the rest of them while you are at it?
I am dealing with it now and Deputy O'Malley does not like the medicine he is getting.
I have not got any medicine yet.
The truth was told to the committee last week. The Deputy was at the committee meeting and did not even put in a reservation in regard to the statement. The unanimous decision of the committee was to release a statement putting the facts on record. Unfortunately 20 minutes is not long enough to say other than that I hold no personal malice against any Member of this House. I will accept their apologies, just as I faced their allegations, and I trust that those Deputies will be big enough to make those apologies. It is never pleasant to be accused, but to be accused in the public media and found guilty before one even gets a hearing is very unfair. This House has suffered a grave disservice by the way this matter has been dealt with.
In conclusion, I would like to put it to Deputies that they should be big enough to make an apology, as I have been in dealing with questions and in making myself available to whatever forum was necessary to answer questions. It is sad that a very fine public servant who took early retirement should be dragged into this matter and made a political football. I abhor that. I never even had the opportunity to express my appreciation for the work he did on behalf of the committee. This committee concluded reports on the B & I, Irish Life and Irish Steel, all very complex companies at serious stages of development but there was not a word in the public press about them. I sought no publicity for my work on this committee. We did a job and, tragically, the country are now asking what the hell we are arguing about, what about the jobs in Thurles, what about this House dealing with the issues of the day instead of wasting time on this nonsense.
I feel totally vindicated by last Tuesday's meeting and nothing that has been said here today changes that.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Brendan Griffin.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I hope that as a result of today's debate one lesson will be learned, that is, that State boards should be left alone. The present sugar board is highly commercial and determined to put the company in a competitive position for 1992. They will do whatever needs to be done without fear or favour. I hope that all the publicity surrounding this sad saga will result in politicians steering clear of State board decisions and that all in public life will be conscious of any conflict of interests.
The Sugar Company have, over the years, served the farming community very well indeed. Not only do we produce our full requirement of sugar but we have exported quantities of sugar all over the world. The Sugar Company, however, no longer have a monopoly of the Irish market but must henceforth compete with companies like Tate and Lyle and others who are giants in sugar production.
Sugar is very much in over supply in Europe and there is no doubt that we will have a sugar war. The sugar board must prepare for this eventuality and they must be allowed to do so without interference. The slimming down of CSET did not not begin with Thurles. Fastnet Foods, Erin Foods in Carlow, Erin Foods in Mallow, East Cork Foods, Glencolmcille and the Tuam Potato Plant were all closed, as was the Tuam Beet factory.
I had two closures in my own constituency when I was Minister of State, and I certainly did not go whinging to the board of the Sugar Company or to the Government. With the help of the IDA and an international company we succeeded in getting both operations moving again and we are now profitable, exporting and processing vegetables to the United Kingdom and to mainland Europe. If all goes well we expect to continue to expand operations of growing peas, beans, etc. for processing.
However, I have to say I did not get much support from my colleagues across the floor at that time. I still recollect quite clearly the Private Members' Bill and the howls of derision on the closure of Erin Foods in Mallow and the closure of East Cork Foods in Midleton. In the last election campaign I heard it said that I, as Minister, closed Midleton and Mallow Foods. Thankfully, the begrudgers were proved wrong. We now have the success story of the century in horticultural processing at my doorstep. The present Ministers for food and horticulture delight in coming down to Midleton and Mallow — and they are very welcome — donning white coats and basking in the success with which they had nothing whatsoever to do.
Let me suggest to the Minister that in getting a replacement industry more emphasis should be placed on agri-business. For instance sugar beet pulp is probably the best base for cattle rations and dairy rations. Why not utilise some of the Thurles complex for ration making in conjunction with the major dairy cooperatives? I certainly would be concerned about any individual taking over Irish Sugar. As former chairman of the beet growers' association and as somebody who worked all my life in the beet industry, I must say the temptation to import sugar is too great at the moment. There is a lot more profit dealing in sugar than there is in growing it. Already at least one supermarket is inclined to look elsewhere for its supplies.
Beet is one of our few profitable crops for the tillage man. Nothing must interfere with this industry. The industry is as old as the State and has weathered many a storm. It is now having to face the cold easterly winds of mainland Europe. If our 40,000 tillage farmers are to survive the beet industry must thrive. Yields of sugar here are higher than they are in Europe. The French are already saying that in 1992 the price of sugar should drop. We could not live with that. Thankfully in spite of all, not only are we utilising all we produce but, if we were allowed to do so, we could grow more sugar. For this we have to thank not so much the supermarkets and the housewife, because there has been a steady decline there, but our biggest customers Rowntrees and Cadburys who are prepared to utilise all Irish sugar. They do not go looking to Tate and Lyle. They want Irish sugar and they should be complimented.
This debate has served to highlight the importance of this industry. I am not out to castigate anybody. I was the victim of criticism myself when I had the difficult job of opening up two factories. I hope that as a result of this debate today the significance of the Sugar Company in the context of Irish agri-business will be noted. I hope we will not lose sight of the jobs that must be found in Thurles. I hope they are not mythical but real jobs that will materialise immediately.
As a Deputy for south Tipperary I am pleased to contribute to this debate. Like many on this side of the House I have no doubt about the impropriety of the actions of both the Minister for Agriculture and Food and his colleague, Deputy Liam Lawlor in this sorry debacle which is ultimately depriving Thurles town and hinterland of a long established industry. The case has been excellently presented by our leader, Deputy Alan Dukes and by many other speakers on this side of the House but I doubt, even after the conclusion of this debate, that satisfactory answers will be found to the many questions put to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Agriculture and Food and Deputy Liam Lawlor.
However, in the brief space of time allotted to me I would like to approach it from a different angle, to put a human face, so to speak, on what is happening to the Sugar Company and especially to its employees. As a Deputy across the border from north Tipperary I am only too well aware of the massive contribution Thurles sugar plant has made not only to the economic and commercial life of Thurles itself and of North Tipperary but to the vast hinterland and the many towns of south Tipperary. The plight of the 174 full-time employees comes to mind. Likewise the future of approximately 170 more seasonal workers who got temporary employment year after year during the campaign must be taken into account. We are dealing with people's lives and their future. As a family man I can appreciate how traumatic the past few months must have been to the many breadwinners who now see their future and that of their children evaporating, in idle rhetoric spoken here today in this House, before their eyes. Their financial commitment to house loans, mortgages and their children's education is in shatters and ruin.
If there are to be replacement factories, in justice these present employees must get first option. Otherwise their chances of ever again obtaining full time employment are very remote. Thought must be given also to the business people of Thurles and their staff who have developed their premises and businesses on the understanding that the factory's future was secure. Indeed during the last general election campaign a categorical assurance was given by the present Minister for Agriculture and Food who on his election literature promised that if Fianna Fáil were returned to power the factory would be kept open. Fianna Fáil put the factory there, Fianna Fáil will keep the factory there — so ran the ill-fated and, as we now know, misleading election propaganda.
The farming community who down through the years geared themselves for beef production and invested heavily in machinery, fertilisers and so on are now in a quandary. To transport the sugar beet to either Carlow or Mallow will prove too expensive and often an alternative system of farming is not available to them, with quotas on milk, beet and cereals. Their whole lifestyle has been interrupted. It is widely accepted, too, that for every five industrialised jobs one service job is created. This was very forcibly brought home to me recently when a small industrialist from as far afield as Cahir wrote to me and stated that with the proposed closure of the plant in Thurles the jobs of ten or 12 of his workforce were now in jeopardy as serving the Thurles sugar plant ensured three or four months of continuous work every year for his plant. These are some aspects which must be taken into account when deciding whether a plant remains open or whether the gates are closed.
It is very hard to reconcile the morality of any chairman's decision to close a factory on his casting vote. Surely in such a tight voting situation the status quo which obtains in this House should have been followed and the breath of life given to the Thurles sugar plant. So far as I am aware, the Thurles plant was in a profit-making situation. I wonder if the board of this semi-State body were more interested in balancing the books than in maintaining the plant and its workforce. For the past year the Sugar Company made a profit of £11.4 million. It is obscene against that background of such profit making that Thurles sugar factory should be closed.
The people of Thurles, the employees of the factory, the farmers and the business people, are the real victims of this debacle. I call on the sugar board to reconsider their decision and not to sacrifice the plant on the altar of financial rectitude. If this cannot be done, I ask them to keep the factory open at least until the new replacement plants are up and running when the transfer would have a lesser impact on the commercial and industrial lives of so many people. I sincerely hope that the members of the sugar board would pay attention to this, give it every consideration and treat it as sympathetically as they possibly can.
In this debate the truth is the most powerful weapon in my armoury. I intend today to present to the Dáil, first, a clear record of the approaches made to me on the Sugar Company, secondly, a refutation that I ever mislead the Dáil and, thirdly a rebuttal of the suggestion that I sought in any way to conceal or ignore an alleged conflict of interest or that I tried to lobby the board of Siúicre Éireann except as I was entitled to do. These are the issues raised in this contrived affair. I doubt if the people who count, the people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by the matters, would see these as the priorities. However, this is the agenda that has been set by the parties opposite. I do not think that parliamentary democracy is endangered by this circus act but I believe it is demeaned by it. I know why I am the target of certain Deputies' spleen, not for the first time and no doubt not for the last but I am going to present my side of events in plain and blunt terms.
This controversy stems from distortion and misrepresentation of what were unsolicited approaches to me on matters related to the Sugar Company's operations. Efforts have been made to present my listening to these approaches as being in some way sinister and as being other than what it was in fact. Here is the sequence of events. On 11 October I received correspondence from the EuroArab Group through the Minister for Trade and Marketing in which an interest in refining sugar in Ireland was signalled. I sent this to the chairman of Siúicre Éireann on 13 October, asking him to bring the matter to the attention of his board and to keep me informed.
October 19 is seen by the Opposition as a significant date. On that date I met with representatives of Finn Sugar. The meeting was at their request. The company outlined the nature of their operation and suggested that they had expertise which would be useful to the Sugar Company. I asked the company to outline this in a letter for transmission to the chairman of Siúicre Éireann. This was done by way of letter dated 16 January 1989 which was passed, on a confidential basis, to the chairman of Siúicre Éireann on 18 January 1989. The fact that it was subsequently widely leaked and reported on a selective basis must be a matter of some concern to us all.
Much has been made of the fact that at a meeting arranged with me on 19 October for another purpose, namely the question of export refunds on meat, Mr. Larry Goodman mentioned that he might be interested in having discussions with Siúicre Éireann plc about the Thurles plant and other possibilities. I informed the chairman of Siúicre Éireann about this tentative expression of interest. I had no prior knowledge or indication that this matter would be raised on that day. I categorically reject that this expression of possible future interest should be represented as discussions or negotiations and I gave no response that could elevate them in any way to that status. Therefore, my reply to the question of 20 October from Deputy Pat O'Malley, which incidentally was submitted prior to 19 October, was factual and truthful. The third meeting I had on 20 October was with the chairman of Siúicre Éireann. This was one of my frequent meetings with the chairman, usually preceding meetings of the board of the company. At that meeting I informed Mr. Cahill of the tentative expression of interest by Mr. Goodman. I also outlined the approach made by Finn Sugar, without naming the company — at their request — at that point.
On 20 October and 29 November 1988 two parliamentary questions were tabled which are now being falsely portrayed after the event as being significant. The question of 20 October last, which was clearly submitted before 19 October, asked whether I had made any decision on the future of the Thurles plant. I replied:
No proposals in regard to the future of the plant in question have been made to me.
This was the truth. There were no proposals before me or my Department. At that stage the board of Siúicre Éireann had not taken any decision with regard to Thurles.
I have dealt with Parliamentary Question No. 113 in this House on 29 November last which read:
Mr. P. O'Malley asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if he had any discussions or negotiations with representatives of a company (details supplied)...
(Food Industries Ltd., Liam Lawlor, director)
... regarding the possible takeover by that company of one of the three Siúicre Éireann cpt sugar processing plants....
I replied as follows:
I have had no such discussions or negotiations.
Again, that was the truth.
Deputy Desmond O'Malley attempted again this morning to subvert the truth when he purported to quote me as acknowledging — and I want to make this very clear — that I had chitchat with Deputy Liam Lawlor in this matter, that is to say, the acquisition by Food Industries of an interest in the Thurles sugar plant or Siúicre Éireann. I repudiate that. I can only assume, I hope charitably, that Deputy Desmond O'Malley has himself been misled or is now deliberately attempting to mislead the House. Can I once again state the unvarnished truth: that I never discussed with Deputy Liam Lawlor at any time any Food Industries' interest, suggestion, proposal or otherwise in Siúicre Éireann. I hope Deputy Desmond O'Malley will have the grace and honour to withdraw that unfounded allegation, like so many others that are characteristic of this approach.
The issue of conflict of interest was first mentioned in a parliamentary question, No. 36, of 23 February 1989 tabled by Deputy Pat O'Malley. That was the first reference after Deputy Lawlor had already resigned as chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies.
It referred to the question of 29 November 1988.
Deputy Desmond O'Malley has also asserted today, with reference to Mr. Goodman, that his company began negotiations — to quote his own words today — certainly in October and possibly earlier; those are the words of Deputy Desmond O'Malley today. If Deputy O'Malley has information to that effect he has now, and at all times had, an obligation to communicate the source of his information to this Government because I had no such information. If the Progressive Democrats had this information available to them prior to 21 November 1988, as Deputy McDowell asserted in this House on 21 February, at column 936, volume 387, of the Official Report, at least they should have communicated that to the Government, if they were concerned or, at the very least, Deputy Pat O'Malley should have communicated it to the committee of which he was a member along with Deputy Lawlor.
I was not aware of any discussions or negotiations between Food Industries and Siúicre Éireann cpt until, on 18 January 1989, I was given, by the chairman of Siúicre Éireann a copy of a letter which he had received from the chairman of Food Industries. This letter itself confirms that fact when it states, at the end — and significantly this sentence is often omitted from the leaked media presentation:
We shall bring our interest to the attention of Government.
That was on 18 January 1989. Surely that puts an end to all allegations and suggestions that I was involved in any discussions or negotiations with Food Industries or any of its representatives? What, then, is the basis for the accusations against me of misleading the House, of failing to recognise and report a conflict of interest allegedly brought to my attention? Is the basis the substantive questions asked by Deputy Pat O'Malley on 20 October and 29 November 1988, or is it the misrepresentation and distortion of those questions by himself, Deputy McDowell and Deputy Desmond O'Malley? The Official Report of 21 February 1989, columns 925, 929 and 935 to 947 demonstrate that these latter two Deputies had no interest — and have no interest now — in presenting factually the nature of the questions at issue.
I want to quote, first, what Deputy Desmond O'Malley said on that occasion at column 928:
The Minister for Agriculture and Food, in particular, was first alerted to the possibility of a conflict of interest in this matter as far back as 26 November last when a question was put down to him by Deputy Pat O'Malley calling the Minister's attention to Deputy Lawlor's chairmanship of Food Industries plc and his chairmanship of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies, asking for his views on any possible difficulties that might arise in relation to that and if he had any discussions with anybody arising out of that matter. Therefore, the Government have been on notice since the date on which that question was put down which, presumably, would have been four or five days before the date on which the question was answered here.
Deputy Pat O'Malley's question to me of 29 November 1988 made no reference whatsoever to conflict of interest. Neither did it call — as Deputy Desmond O'Malley said:
... the Minister's attention to Deputy Lawlor's chairmanship of Food Industries plc and his chairmanship of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies...
Neither did it ask the Minister, as Deputy Desmond O'Malley quotes it as doing:
.... for his views on any possible difficulties that might arise....
or ask, again as Deputy Desmond O'Malley has asserted wrongly and untruthfully:
.... if he had any discussions with anybody arising out of that matter.
Deputy Desmond O'Malley's false conclusion that the Government, to quote himself, was on notice since the date on which the question was put down is based exclusively on his own distorted presentation of the question. If one distorts any basic premise it can lead to any distorted conclusion.
It is outrageous then that Deputy Desmond O'Malley particularly should require me, in the face of those deliberate misrepresentations, to respond to his accusation of misleading the House. Deputy Desmond O'Malley's ability to distort the precise nature of the question is surpassed only by his colleague, Deputy McDowell who has, on my calculations, distorted and misrepresented the nature of the same question on at least eight occasions at columns 936 to 947 of the Official Report of 21 February 1989. For the record of the House I will leave it to all Deputies to ascertain whether I am telling the truth of that record or whether Deputy McDowell is telling the truth of that record. I would find it embarrassing to go through each and every one of those eight false statements to demonstrate that Deputy McDowell can so outrageously distort the record of this House. It is there to be read by all.
There is no place, as Deputy McDowell would suggest, for the very gentlemanly hint, to quote himself in that debate, from Deputy Pat O'Malley in communications of matters of potentially serious consequence. Is that the manner in which we should communicate a gentlemanly hint? As the question is now being represented by the Progressive Democrats, if it was going to have the serious consequences they now represent it as having, surely it warranted more than "a gentlemanly hint". If it was a gentlemanly hint it was about the only gentlemanly thing that was characteristic of the Progressive Democrats in this whole matter.
The only conclusion one can reach is that the gentlemanly hint was used for concealment purposes so that, months later, they could make outrageous and unwarranted allegations against my integrity and that of other Members of this House and spread smears across this Government whose success they just cannot tolerate.
I have not finished.
I want to quote Deputy McDowell again, because this is worth quoting. It is a rehash of another quotation — column 947 of the Official Report of 21 February 1989:
all these things are part of a piece and show low standards in high places.
As the Progressive Democrats have conclusively demonstrated through their perversion of the truth, there are very much lower standards in very much lower places in this House.
Apart from perverting the truth, the Progressive Democrats seem determined to frustrate the normal operation of the Dáil and Government through the abuse of the procedures of the Dáil.
Deputies Desmond O'Malley and McDowell are on the record of the House of 21 February 1989 at columns 927-936, Volume 387 of the Official Report. I will now quote Deputy D. O'Malley:
It is common knowledge that for some time apparently Food Industries plc, .... have an interest in the Sugar Company. They have apparently corresponded with them and have had meetings with them.
Deputy McDowell went on to say in column 936:
Deputy Pat O'Malley...came into possession of information,... prior to 21 November 1988,...that there was an intention on the part of Food Industries plc at least to investigate and certainly to pursue with some degree of enthusiasm, the possibility of an acquisition of all or part of the assets including the sugar quota of Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann.
What did Deputy Pat O'Malley do with that information? Did he report it? No, he did not. It has to be assumed that this information was withheld from the joint committee of which he is a member and from the Ceann Comhairle and other relevant Dáil committees in order to use it selectively against me and the Government at a later stage.
I put down a question.
His failure to recognise his responsibility and to abide by the traditions of the House renders hollow indeed the Progressive Democrats' trumped-up accusations against me. I confidently expected that Deputy Pat O'Malley would use this debate to explain his position to the House without trying to misrepresent the text of Question No. 113 on 29 November 1988. To my regret, and I am sure to the regret of the House, he has failed to do so. Perhaps he will explain his actions to the committee.
Accordingly, I strongly reject any imputation or accusation that I was remiss in not recognising or bringing the conflict of interest on the part of Deputy Lawlor to appropriate notice. I had no information available to me to this effect. As I said earlier, the first knowledge I had that Food Industries plc had made a substantive approach about becoming involved with Siúicre Éireann was from the chairman of Siúicre Éireann on 18 January 1989. I understand that Deputy Lawlor stepped down from the chair of the committee at that time when apparently he also became aware of this fact. When I listened to Deputy Dukes this morning, I wondered if we were living in the same world. If a pre-arranged meeting on 31 January between himself, and his front bench colleagues and Mr. Goodman specifically to discuss Food Industries plc interest in Siúicre Éireann is to be described as "reflections" rather than even "suggestions", how can he expect us to believe just that while he tries to elevate a comment by Mr. Goodman to me to the status of full-blown negotiations — a comment that was in no way related to the general purpose of our discussions, as I have said over and over again?
This morning Deputy Dukes made yet another allegation that I was responsible for a premature leak which endangered a major project for Thurles. I do not think Deputy Lowry or anybody in Thurles would share that opinion. The very opposite is the case, as the concern I expressed in writing to the chairman of Siúicre Éireann will prove. I expressed my concern about the leak to the chairman in writing. These latest allegations demonstrate how spurious is this whole exercise.
This factory has been the very lifeblood of Thurles since Mr. Éamon de Valera established it in the early thirties. Despite the significant reduction in capital investment since 1983, the workers feel justifiably proud of their performance since then. I owe no apology to Deputy Dukes for representing their concerns and interests.
I would certainly owe my apologies to the workers and their families if I did not try to secure the dignity of continuing employment for them in their own place, Thurles. What Deputy worth his salt would do anything less?
In conclusion, let me say, a Cheann Comhairle, that this has been a phoney performance from the Opposition and particularly from the Progressive Democrats. It has been a puzzle to the citizen to know what was involved. I know that certain Deputies would seek to discredit me, but I believe that instead they have discredited themselves. I am glad to have had the opportunity to put the record straight.
As Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies investigating the Sugar Company, it is not my intention to be controversial. The terms of reference under which I operate are those which the Taoiseach outlined on 21 February 1989 when appointing a Deputy to Deputy Liam Lawlor's position. While the Taoiseach asserted in his speech today that I am satisfied with the terms of reference, I assure him that I have accepted the offer he made in his speech on that day to give full backing to the committee and should the terms of reference prove inadequate that we can come back to the House to have them expanded. I accepted that undertaking from the Taoiseach and, if it is necessary to do that, I intend to ask him and the House for additional powers.
The committee have invited certain people from the Sugar Company, and the former clerk of the committee to appear before us and it would be unfair of me to enter into a debate while that investigation is continuing.
I now call the Taoiseach.
I thought the Taoiseach was going to start at 4.45 p.m. but perhaps he does not want me to speak.
I am always prepared to let the small man pull his chestnuts out of the fire.
In the few minutes that remain to me I want to attempt to gather together the threads of a very ragged cloth which has been thrown around this House today. This debate was brought about by a series of unprecedented circumstances in the history of the House. It was suggested by the then Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies that he had no conflict of interest in remaining as chairman of a committee investigating the Sugar Company while at the same time being a director of a company that was trying to acquire it. He suggested there was no conflict of interest and he said so in public. We said he was wrong, he said he was right. He went to the Taoiseach and was told to get off the committee.
Were you there?
The Taoiseach has told the House that he merely discussed the matter.
What about your own brother-in-law? He is on the health board and he is a doctor. Is that a conflict of interest? He knows the roads of Cashel.
Deputy McDowell to continue without interruption.
I remind Deputy Davern that I know who my relatives are.
Are they in Fine Gael?
Today, Deputy Lawlor has finally admitted that he was given advice by the Taoiseach that he should quit his position. It required the Taoiseach's advice to tell him what was obvious to anybody in the circumstances: that it is unacceptable for a Member of this House to serve as chairman of a committee which is investigating a State-sponsored body while, at the same time, being a member of a board of directors of a company which is trying to acquire the State-sponsored body.
I stepped down a week earlier.
Deputy Lawlor has claimed to be exonerated. I find him convicted.
The facts show that, quite different from the version he was trying to purvey in public and this House, he was——
On a point of order, in the Chair's opinion is it correct that a Member of this House should state that another Member has been convicted? Is that in order?
On recollection, I think the Deputy will reconsider that appendage.
Adjudicated in the wrong.
The fact is that Deputy Lawlor has pretended in public and to this House by his remarks here today that he, as a non-executive director of a substantial public company, was unaware of a major policy initiative of that company for what his own chief executive has described as a number of months. I emphatically reject that account. It is not correct. It is asking too much of our credulity to accept that that is the case.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food asked us in this House to accept that he was unaware of Deputy Lawlor's directorship of this company. I reject that as untrue. It cannot be.
If he is a Minister for Agriculture and Food at all, if he has any concern with his portfolio——
Did you ever see a heifer in calf?
If he is a Minister for Agriculture and Food at all, if he has any concern for his portfolio, he must have known that Deputy Lawlor was a member of the board of one of the largest agri-businesses in this country. That fact remains clear to everybody in this House. The Minister's pretended lack of knowledge simply does not wash with us.
It has been suggested in this House that the Minister's involvement in this matter was entirely tangential and peripheral.
Yes, I know you do not understand the words, but you need not tell us.
The Minister did not understand——
The Minister said he did not understand the significance of questions put to him, that he did not understand, or was slow on the uptake in relation to the inferences which were obviously there to be drawn. You may be slow on the uptake, Minister, but you are not that slow. You are well aware and intimately acquainted with the interest of the Goodman organisation in the Sugar Company, and you took positive steps to further that interest.
I say the same about the Taoiseach. It is stretching credibility to the utmost point for the Taoiseach to tell this House that he was unaware of the interest of the Goodman group in the Sugar Company.
He did not say this morning that he was unaware, and I do not believe that he was unaware. I believe the Taoiseach was informed by the chairman of the Sugar Company and by nobody else that the Goodman group was interested in taking an interest in the Sugar Company.
The Taoiseach was accordingly aware of the split role that Deputy Lawlor was playing in this matter, first as chairman of the committee and, secondly, as an executive of the company. If we have any yardstick to go by it perhaps is the credibility that is given by Deputy Lawlor's own colleagues in his own party to what he has said and done in this matter. I stand quite happy by the judgment that was formed on his behaviour by his own colleague, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, that he is not a non-executive director, but a chief protaganist and promoter of the policies of this company and as in other matters including the Nigerian oil deal he has never been shy in coming to Government with proposals to privatise assets of this State.
I do not accept for one minute that a person in his circumstances——
A chief protoganist — raise that one outside of the House.
Order. A point of order from Deputy Lawlor.
Could I ask Deputy McDowell to put these matters on the record of the House? The innuendos the Deputy is making should be documented for us so that we can factually deal with these allegations.
The time has come to call on the Taoiseach.
Innuendo is easier.
I have 15 minutes, but I do not really need them. Three or four minutes will do so I will just put everybody on notice that this debate will collapse as has the case put forward particularly by the Progressive Democrats. We can all agree that this greatly hyped up controversy has fallen flat — a pricked balloon, whatever one likes to call it. It has collapsed pathetically around the ears of those who instigated it. Certainly nothing has emerged today which has not been rehashed over and over again particularly by Deputies Des O'Malley and McDowell and by certain correspondents in the media. It is interesting that as the debate developed its whole thrust shifted from the Sugar Company to the Goodman group. It just shows, and confirms again for the rest of us, that some of the Opposition Deputies, having totally despaired of making any sort of impact in their attacks on Government policy, are now casting around desperately to try to find some sort of base allegations to hurl against this Government. I deplore this. It is sad when this House starts to drag into our debates and our affairs the operations and affairs of private individuals and companies outside of the House.
We are faced with a major task of economic recovery. There is widespread agreement in that regard among all Members. We will only bring down unemployment and end emigration if we get economic activity, if we get business activity and if we get economic business projects underway and if we get an opportunity to create employment. I am absolutely satisfied — I am a fair while in this House and have seen this sort of thing happen before — that one of the most seriously detrimental things one can do to the prospects of economic recovery, is to engage in this sort of debate. It is wrong and irresponsible to try to use the sort of situation we have here as nothing more than a political stick with which to beat the Government of the day.
The debate shifted around today and we have had a fairly deplorable attack, not on Food Industries which apparently was the company interested in and involved with Irish Sugar, but with the Goodman organisation and the beef industry. Certain allegations were made about irregularities in exports. There have been not alone in this country but in all EC countries irregularities in exports from time to time particularly in areas where there are export refunds, but my opinion is that in so far as any irregularities have emerged in this area over recent years, they have all been subject to parliamentary questions in this House and have been dealt with.
Our Department of Agriculture and Food and the Commission work in close co-operation and in harmony, together with our revenue authorities and our Garda authorities, to follow up every allegation that is made of irregularities and deal with them and have them satisfactorily resolved. I do not think these sort of allegations should be just thrown around loosely in this way in a debate like this. I think it is a very serious matter and I do not think it is of benefit to anybody.
I agreed with Deputy Desmond about one thing, through he did not give me full credit for what I said in my opening remarks this morning. I did, in my opening remarks this morning talk about the position of the workforce in Thurles and about the need for us all to support the board of the Sugar Company in their efforts to put new industries in place in Thurles to help that workforce. That is probably one of the most important things in this whole debate. We should concentrate now on two things, first, supporting the board of the Sugar Company in their efforts to make that company not just viable but financially strong and competitive so that it can meet the challenges which we all know it will face in a few short years time. As Deputy Desmond pointed out this morning — and again I agree with him — £12 million profit is nothing in that context. The Irish Sugar Company has an enormous job to do to generate out of its own resources, if possible, the capital it needs to put its own house in order and also to invest in these new projects. There are excellent projects coming onstream for Thurles to absorb the workforce of the former Thurles factory. I hope that this debate and all this carry-on by the Opposition Deputies, and particularly by the Progressive Democrats, will not have any detrimental spin-off effect on that operation; if it has, the responsibility rests fairly and squarely with them.
Talk to your own backbenchers.
Deputy O'Kennedy is your Minister——
Please, Deputy McDowell.
I do not blame Deputy McDowell——
I have seen fairly nasty pieces of work come into this House in my long career here and you are aiming well towards becoming one of the best——
——and wagging a threatening finger at me, Deputy McDowell, cuts no ice. I was about to say that I do not particularly blame you for your irresponsibilities but I do blame your colleague, Deputy Des O'Malley, because he has Government experience and he was involved in these sort of situations time and time again. Deputy Des O'Malley conducted secret confidential negotiations time and time again right across the political spectrum——
You would not even report them to your Government never mind to this House. A Cheann Comhairle, as I said I think this has been a far-fetched piece of nonsense. There is nothing in this whole affair to justify any of the heat that has been generated and there is certainly nothing to justify the establishment of an expensive judicial tribunal. This Government are grappling successfully with the economic problems of this country. This Government, in all their business and in all their handling of the affairs of this country, will conduct themselves and adhere to the highest possible standards of public administration.
That is beyond contradiction in regard to this or any other affair. What I hope will happen is that the committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Liam Kavanagh, in whom we all have confidence, will follow its investigation through to conclusion and in due course report to this House and if there is any further action to be taken we can take it. In the meantime, I hope the Irish Sugar Company will be given the freedom now, without any hassle and without any of these allegations, to get on with its work for its beet growers, for the users of its products and for the workforce for whom it is about to provide — I hope successfully — a whole new range of industries in the town of Thurles.
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- O'Malley, Desmond J.
- O'Malley, Pat.
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