Over the past 48 hours, there has been much speculation about the kind of statement the Labour Party might want from me on this occasion to ensure the future of the partnership Government. This is a good Government and I, and my Fianna Fáil Government colleagues, believe it is our collective responsibility to continue its work. This is a good Government and a good partnership: even now, halfway through our term, the results prove that.
However, in preparing this statement to the House, I have wider and deeper responsibilities. I must, today, explain the failure of a system in this specific case; a failure with ghastly and specific consequences for the children of this country. I must not excuse the failure: I must ensure that it never happens again. I will give this House a full and detailed report but a full and detailed report of a failure in our method of dealing with such a crime as child sexual abuse will never and can never be satisfactory.
It cannot be satisfactory — and it is not satisfactory to me. As a father and grandfather, I find the idea of paedophilia revolting. That the paedophile would be a priest, with the special access to children and the extra layer of trust that we extend to the priesthood is much worse, so much worse. It is a betrayal of innocence, of family, of an honoured position and of a national commitment to the innocence and vulnerability of young people.
I wish to preface my dealing with the explanation furnished by the Attorney General by stating, upfront, my view of that explanation. It sets out the details of the handling of the case in the Attorney General's office. It cannot be satisfactory because it shows a system, developed for past conditions, failing to cope with present realities.
I will not defend that system. On the contrary. I have asked tough questions about it. I am dissatisfied when I see the standard rules and precedents being used but not working properly. I have demanded radical change. I will, as head of Government, take responsibility along with my colleagues for the fact that the system should have been changed sooner. That is my view and the view of my Fianna Fáil colleagues on the issue of public accountability.
We accepted a full explanation of what happened, not as a justification for what happened but as a record of system failure and as something showing the gaps, the flaws and the liabilities that have to be tackled under the Attorney General.
The general public have had the opportunity to read the full text of the explanation inThe Irish Times and the Irish Independent. I intend to place the full text in the Library of the House.
It has been stated that the appointment of Mr. Whelehan to the Bench has the effect of preventing me from answering questions in this House in relation to the case. That is not so. I have been advised that the fact that Mr. Justice Whelehan is no longer Attorney General does not prevent me from dealing now with any matter that arose during his term of office. I can deal with it in the same manner as I could were he still the Attorney General even though in formal constitutional terms he is not accountable to the House.
There was an unacceptable delay in the handling of this case for which we all in Government must take responsibility. On my behalf, and on behalf of the Government, I wish to express my deep regret to the Irish people for the delays that occurred. I give a solemn assurance in this House today that such a situation will never arise again, on the part of an organ of State whose special duty it is to look after the rights of the citizen.
I want to take this opportunity of confirming categorically to the House that I have been assured by the then Attorney General that he did not know and was not made aware of the existence of a request for the extradition of Fr. Brendan Smyth until recent weeks. The existing procedures gave rise to that obviously unsatisfactory situation.
In view of the seriousness of the issues which have arisen in connection with this matter, I decided that there should be a thorough, immediate review of the operations of the Office of the Attorney General. I have directed that this review will be completed within the next three weeks after which I expect a radical re-organisation of the Office of the Attorney General to take place. This review is being carried out by a high-level group chaired by the Secretary, Public Service Management and Development in the Department of Finance and comprising the Secretary to the Government and the Secretary of the Department of Justice.
The group is free to seek such assistance, from within and outside the Civil Service, as it considers necessary, to carry out its task as expeditiously and thoroughly as possible. The terms of reference of the group are: to review and make recommendations on the relevant organisational structure, systems, procedures and staffing arrangements in the Office of the Attorney General.
I see this review as being the essential first step in the preparation of a statement of strategy for the Office of Attorney General. A strategy statement will provide the basis for the reform of the operations of the office in the longer term and underpin the immediate measures that I have just announced. I have asked the Attorney General to ensure that it is put in place as a matter of priority.
Lessons from this case have already been learned by the Office of the Attorney General. It is recognised that this case was not handled as sensitively and urgently as it should have been. Steps have been taken to remedy this. New administrative arrangements have been put in place to ensure that the Attorney General is informed of every extradition request immediately it is received by his office. In addition, the Attorney General has directed that, henceforth, absolute priority over other work, irrespective of its importance or urgency, will be given to any extradition request that involves the abuse of children. I can assure the House that there will never be another Brendan Smyth case.
Extraditon requests are among the important matters that are invariably placed before the Attorney General for his personal decision, but before he will be in a position to make his decision on the request, the preparatory work on the case has to be done by his professional staff. Nevertheless, I believe, and I operate on this basis in my own office, that important and sensitive matters should be brought to the immediate attention of the Taoiseach, Minister or office holder, such as the Attorney General, so that he or she may give directions as to how the matter is to be dealt with in his or her office.
The importance and urgency of this case was clearly not appreciated and understood in the Attorney General's office. Legitimate concern has been expressed by many people at the fact that this case, involving as it did accusations of sexual abuse of children, took so long to be dealt with by the Attorney General's office. I fully share that concern. I appreciate and regret the deep anxiety which is felt by everybody, especially parents, about this case.
Two particularly serious issues arise in connection with this case. The first is how the Attorney General's office could take seven months to process the warrants and, secondly, who is accountable for this situation. In relation to the seven month delay, with great regret I have to tell the House that there is no really satisfactory or adequate explanation which I can give in response to that.
One reason that has been advanced by the Attorney General's office, has been the issue of Fr. Brendan Smyth's address at the time of the warrants. The address on the warrants was a previous address in Northern Ireland but on the accompanying documentation supplied only to the Attorney General's office was an address at Kilnacrott Abbey in County Cavan. It was unfortunately assumed in our Attorney General's office on the basis of this that, if Fr. Brendan Smyth was in the State he was living at that address, living within a religious community. That comfortable assumption, which we now know was regrettably incorrect, resulted in consideration not being given to the possibility that Fr. Brendan Smyth might be out in the community or in contact with young people. There was an unquestioning belief that residence within a religious community by a person accused of offences such as those specified in the warrants would render it out of the question that he would engage in, or have the opportunity to engage in, further activities of that type.
The statement in the documentation as to Brendan Smyth's residence, upon which the assumption was made, should not have been accepted by the Attorney Generals' office at face value. It is a mistake that cannot be allowed to happen again. In future cases of this type any such statement will have to be thoroughly investigated.
I fully accept that there has been justifiable public concern about the manner in which this particular extradition case was handled. Proper priority should have been accorded to it. It was dealt with as a normal extradition case but this was clearly not appropriate given the particular seriousness of the offences and the possibility that existed for further offences to be committed. I regret very much that the lack of urgent action on it has caused so much anxiety to parents and others. I can assure them that they will have no basis for such anxiety in the future.
I fully agree with the criticism which has been made that the process of examining extradition warrants in the Attorney General's office must be changed and changed radically. A seven month delay in processing the paperwork is totally unacceptable. I conveyed my strong views on the way in which this case was handled. The Attorney General will ensure that all members of the staff of his office are fully aware of these views and of the absolute need to ensure that all matters related to the welfare of children will be accorded the highest priority in future.
In the wider context of policy, this partnership Government has made child care a priority and has undertaken that all sections of the Child Care Act will be implemented. Priority will be given to those provisions which confer new and improved powers on health boards, the Garda and courts to intervene more effectively in cases of child abuse. Our State legal services must also reflect these priorities in their work.
The general question of responsibility and accountability has been raised in connection with this case. The Attorney General is an independent constitutional officer and is not part of the Executive of the State. He is the legal officer of the Government but also has a quasi-judicial role. In the case of the implementation of the Extradition (Amendment) Act of 1987, the Attorney General is required to direct that a warrant for the extradition of a person from the State shall not be endorsed unless, having considered such information as he deems appropriate, he is of the opinion that there is a clear intention to prosecute that person, founded on the existence of sufficient evidence. The Attorney General is not answerable to the Government or to the Dáil for that particular statutory function.
As regards the integrity of the office of Attorney General, I am informed that only one officer in the Attorney General's office was involved in the processing of the Smyth case. In response to my personal inquiries, I have been assured that there is no question of outside influence being brought to bear in the case.
When a request for the extradition of a person has been received from another jurisdiction, the decision whether to advise the Garda that they may endorse the warrant, thus initiating the extradition process, or whether to direct them not to do so is one for the Attorney General himself and not for any official, save in the case of absence or illness, which is not relevant in this situation.
The Attorney General is responsible for the decision whether to grant or refuse an extradition request. In the Smyth case, the Attorney General did not make any decision because the preparatory work which had to be done by officials had not been completed at the time it became known that Fr. Brendan Smyth was voluntarily going to Belfast to face trial there. As is known, he did return and was in due course sentenced to four years' imprisonment.
I now wish to deal with a number of specific points. The first point was "why was there such an absolute refusal to issue a public statement or face public questions". I am doing today what I clearly indicated last week I would be doing. I am giving a full account. There has been no refusal to issue a public statement or face public questions.
The second point was in relation to "the Attorney's explanation that he had not seen the request, amplified by the assertion that there would be no point in his seeing it, until all the preparatory work had been completed by an official". This was contrasted with his predecessor's statement in December 1988 that the Attorney General "bears ultimate responsibility for the initation and conduct of extradition proceedings".
The third point was that "in his explanation, the Attorney also says that what comes to him and what does not, is decided on the professional judgement of the person with responsibility for the relevant file". This is contrasted with a letter from the Attorney General about aspects of the Ethics Bill, in which he referred in detail to the "non-delega-tory" nature of the job of Attorney General.
The answer to those two points is as follows: the initiation and conduct of proceedings in the above context refers to the courts, not to the examination of the file in his office. Anything that requires the decision of the Attorney General is, of course, submitted to him, and his decision-making functions indeed cannot be delegated. But that does not mean he has to work singlehanded, or in particular, that work preparatory to a decision cannot be delegated.
I would now like to address some of the broader issues of the case. The Attorney-General's position is not the same as that of a Minister, but he clearly has responsibility for the operation of his office, in the same way as a Minister has under the Ministers and Secretaries Act. We must distinguish between responsibility and culpability. As Ministers pointed out yesterday, if for example there were a teacher accused of molesting a child in a school under the control of the Department of Education, the Minister would be responsible, but he or she would not be culpable, unless, having been informed of that fact, they failed to take corrective action.
Similarly, for example, if patients are abused or left untreated in a public hospital, the Minister for Health is responsible, but again he or she is not to blame, provided they act when the problem is brought to their attention.
Another example would be a case of negligence by a local authority official. The Minister for the Environment would be responsible, but he would not be to blame.
The reality, as we all know, is that hundreds of decisions are made in Government Departments every day of the week. The ministerial head of the office is responsible and accountable for each of these decisions, and must take corrective action when required. They are also in general responsible as far as possible for the efficient operation of their offices. That ideal is not always easy to fulfil, but must be striven for at all times.
Government in Ireland operates under the doctrine of collective responsibility. The Attorney General is the legal adviser to the Government. The Taoiseach is in practice administratively accountable for the Attorney General's office in this House. Indeed, accountability is unaffected by the Attorney's appointment to the Presidency of the High Court. I am here to answer for his office and his conduct of it in this House.
If there were legislative delays, as there have been in the past, I do not think the House would find it an adequate excuse if I were simply to attribute all responsibility for the delay to the Attorney General's office. The responsibility would clearly also lie with the Government as a whole. W.T. Cosgrave, as President of the Executive Council in 1924, stated, given the necessity to have somebody to answer for the Attorney General in the House, where he was not a Member, that `In this arrangement the Executive Council has the general responsibility, and must be prepared to answer for the Attorney General — Official Report, volume 5, cols. 916-917. In other words, it was laid down by the first leader of a post-independence Irish Government at the time of the Ministers and Secretaries Act that the Government as a whole was responsible for the Attorney General. In my opinion, it follows that I personally and the Government as a whole must take some responsibility for the deficiencies in the operation of extradition procedures in the Attorney General's office, as brought to light in the Smyth case.
I now want to address all the issues surrounding the appointment of the former Attorney General to the Presidency of the High Court. In recent months, particulary since controversy arose about the appointment, when it was brought into the public domain, I have been faced with two unenviable choices. I was faced on the one hand by the opposition of my colleagues in a partnership Government to this particular judicial appointment, which was made much more difficult to resolve by the fact that it had become public. On the other hand, if I had acquiesced in the violation of a well-established precedent, it would have implied that the Attorney General did not enjoy the full trust and confidence of his colleagues, and consequently, his position as Attorney General would have become untenable.
Part of the question that arose between us was over whether there was a precedent for the Attorney General to be entitled to nomination as President of the High Court. With regard to that point, about which there has been some dispute, I would like to quote one of the most eminent authorities on constitutional government in Ireland, Professor Basil Chubb, in the 1992 third edition of his book,The Government and Politics of Ireland page 295. There he states: “by custom the Attorney General, a political appointee, who is the Government's legal adviser and state prosecutor, is always offered any vacancy to the High Court that occurs during his term of office”. I underline the word “any”, which clearly includes the presidency. No provision was made in the Programme for Government for any alteration of this custom and precedent. I now accept that the desirability of such a custom is open to question, and both parties in Government have agreed that it will not obtain in the future.
Following the initial controversy, we reached an impasse on this issue. The Cabinet agreed to set up a sub-committee of four to see in what way this impasse could be resolved. Discussions took place and some progress was reported. I then had the much publicised discussions with the Tánaiste in Baldonnel on 9 October. Following that meeting the sub-committee worked out a new system of judicial appointments, which it was agreed would be incorporated in the Courts and Court Officers Bill, on my clear understanding that this would pave the way for the appointment of the Attorney General to the presidency of the High Court. Indeed, on 11 October, a Government statement said "when the legislative changes are approved by Government, an appointment to the Presidency of the High Court will be made". I agreed to repeated postponements of the decision, at the request of the Tánaiste. The emergence of the Smyth case did not affect the integrity of the Attorney General, nor his suitability for high judicial office. It was my understanding that the appointment was to be made last week. It was agreed to take it last Thursday evening, but in the event the Government meeting was devoted to a discussion on Northern Ireland arising from the tragedy in Newry that morning. It was decided to have the usual Government meeting on the following morning, Friday, when the full agenda was dealt with.
The Tánaiste came to see me on that Thursday evening and handed me a letter timed 7.30 p.m. I responded to the letter in writing. I received a further letter that night from the Tánaiste timed 11.30 p.m. which was not received by me until I returned home from an engagement, at about 1.20 a.m. I rang the Tánaiste early the following morning. In these exchanges I was anxious to accommodate the Tánaiste in every possible respect, and had no problem with his other requests seeking proper accountability. The only outstanding issue was whether the decision on the presidency of the High Court required to be deferred in order to allow me to be accountable on the Attorney General's behalf to the Dáil in the Smyth case. I sought advice on the proper procedures, and was confirmed in my view that this postponement was unnecessary, because accountability arises for all decisions that have been taken, but not for decisions which have yet to be made.
The responsibility of the Executive is to take decisions and to be accountable for them afterwards to the Dáil. We cannot as a rule hope to satisfy the Dáil, and particularly the Opposition parties, before we take decisions. When the former Taoiseach came to explain and answer questions in the Dáil on the Fr. Ryan extradition case, it was to defend the decision that had already been taken by the Attorney General independently.
My view of good Government is that it must be decisive. We had a long Cabinet discussion last Friday on this issue. I was given no advance warning that my Labour colleagues intended to leave the Government meeting, were the issue of the presidency of the High Court to be decided. Government procedures are such that dissenting voices at a Government meeting are not recorded in the Government minutes, whereas members of the Government absenting themselves from a decision may be recorded, if they so request. It was for this reason we took the view that, rather than staying at the table, our Labour colleagues were absenting themselves for this decision only, thereby recording their dissent. We therefore proceeded to take the decision on that basis. It has transpired that this was a misinterpretation on our part. I genuinely regret that, and any inadvertent offence caused to the Tánaiste and his Labour Party colleagues.
Given the consequences that have arisen, which were certainly not our intention, we must avoid any recurrence of this type of situation. It is clear we need a better method, which is not provided for in the Programme for Government, for dealing with issues of this kind which rarely happen. I am willing to sit down with the Tánaiste to set up whatever structures would explore conflicting interests, and provide a better mechanism of dealing with them within the partnership, which respects vital political interests, while ensuring that essential decisions are taken.
These new structures would underpin renewed trust and co-operation which I recognise as essential components in the good partnership Government. They can serve as the mechanism for dealing with this type of situation in the future, should it ever happen again.
It would be a great pity if a Government that is achieving rapid economic progress, that has achieved the biggest breakthrough in Northern Ireland in over 25 years, and that has a fine legislative programme should be placed in jeopardy over misunderstandings surrounding a single judicial appointment. In particular, it is my profound conviction that we have to give the fragile Northern peace process the best possible chance of permanent consolidation. I believe the national interest requires continuity at this time. We must all work to restore the spirit of partnership which is the cornerstone of this successful Government. I solemnly commit myself as Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fáil to restoring that spirit of partnership and trust.
My colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, has played an indispensable role in both the Northern Ireland talks process and the peace process. I want again to pay tribute in particular to the dedication and expertise which he brought to these delicate and protracted negotiations, the success of which will underwrite the future of this country. History will recall Deputy Spring's essential contribution to that success. We can go forward from here and build on that success. I know that Deputy Spring and the Labour Party are the right partners to achieve that goal.