I am not hiding behind the Chair. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is in charge of the business. The Deputy should calm down. She will get the answers she is looking for, although she would have received them anyway had she approached the matter properly.
Soon after I took office on 15 December 1994 I was briefed on the facts of the case which my predecessor had agreed should be settled to avoid a court hearing which would have been prejudicial to the State's interests. A document containing the State's proposed settlement terms had already been agreed. For example, it was agreed that the State should pay compensation to the plaintiff and that there would be a confidentiality clause binding on both sides. As I was coming afresh to the issue, which was already well advanced, I queried the appropriateness of making any such settlement when I was first told of it. Having carefully reflected on the advice given to me by my Department and on strong legal advice, I agreed that the State, through the Attorney General's office, would continue with the settlement negotiations already well under way on the lines which had been presented to me when I first came to know of the matter.
The State's legal team acted from the beginning in April 1994 on the instructions of the Department of Justice. I should emphasise that what was under negotiation at that stage between the lawyers was not whether compensation should be paid or whether there should be a confidentiality clause. A sum had already been offered by way of compensation and proposed terms of settlement had been exchanged with lawyers for the other side in early November 1994. These terms included a confidentiality clause which was to be binding on both sides. Eventually, to meet demands from the plaintiff's legal representatives and on strong legal advice, I authorised an increased compensation offer. The terms set out in November were altered to reflect this increased offer and one or two other minor refinements to the proposed settlement terms were also included at that stage. These latter refinements did not alter in a material way the terms already exchanged in November 1994.
A part of the agreed settlement terms in the case was that either side could, on providing 24 hours notice to the other, issue a statement, the terms of which were agreed. The other party has already published this statement without giving the 24 hours notice. I intend to place a copy of the agreed statement in the Oireachtas Library immediately following the required period of notice to the plaintiff's solicitor. The publication of this statement is not a breach of the agreement reached and was specifically provided for in it.
It is clear that my predecessor, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, on departmental and legal advice decided that in the interests of the State confidentiality should be maintained. On examining the case I also decided that such a confidentiality clause should remain. My consideration of the facts in the case was based on the best interests of the State, not party political or other grounds. I acted — as did my predecessor I assume — in my capacity as Minister for Justice on behalf of the State. I stand over the agreement entered into in that capacity. I do not intend to depart from the agreement made in that capacity simply because there is pressure to do so. I cannot be influenced by the fact that the other party has signalled a desire to lift the confidentiality requirement by which both parties are bound. It is not open to the other party to lift the confidentiality provision unilaterally, a provision to which his lawyers formally signalled agreement on his behalf.
With regard to the "Prime Time" programme on this matter broadcast on RTE last night, I sent a letter to the producers of the programme explaining that the agreement had substantially been reached before I became Minister for Justice. For their own reasons they decided not to refer to the letter or to the answer to that question, despite allowing people in the course of the programme to imply otherwise. They did not correct that speculation.
I will deal with three incorrect implications made in the course of the programme. The first is the suggestion that there may have been other transcripts available which were withheld from the plaintiff. All the transcripts — which, incidentally, I did not read — known to be in existence were shown to the plaintiff. That was the State's agreement with the plaintiff's lawyers and the State has honoured its side of the agreement. These transcripts were available to my predecessor.
I want also to nail the implication that the Fine Gael Party has any reason to conceal what happened in the past and that is why I finalised the agreement. That is utterly untrue. I proceeded to do what I judged to be my duty as Minister for Justice. I have been surprised by the comments made by Members of the House and others that in acting as Minister, a Minister for Justice would change his or her opinion willy-nilly because it might harm somebody else. I deal with my work in a more responsible fashion than those who have made such a suggestion. I worry for the State if there are Deputies in the House who think that when they take office as a Minister they can decide to take a course of action because it might have an effect on the Opposition or an Opposition Deputy. That is not a responsible way to act. I have no reason to think my predecessor acted in such a fashion when she decided that the best interests of the State were served by a confidentiality clause.
A third suggestion, made not just on the programme but in other recent contributions on the subject, is that there is something extraordinary about settling a civil action on the basis that compensation will be paid and a confidentiality clause included. The lawyers for the plaintiff were fully involved at all times in the consideration of the case and the negotiations and I am sure, like good lawyers, briefed their client. There was no coercion of which I am aware. I am sure the settlement, when finalised, was agreed with the plaintiff.
While I do not want to turn this into a party political issue, the Opposition parties should talk to and remind each other about sensitive cases settled in the same way when they were last in Government together in the period up to 1992. The Department of Justice had no involvement in these cases.
There is nothing extraordinary in the fact that the State would decide to settle a case and pay compensation. On average, approximately 4,000 to 5,000 cases against the State are handled every year, the vast bulk of which are settled out of court. There is nothing unusual about this. Perhaps, the Deputy will be more forthcoming on the next occasion and tell me exactly what she wants to know.