Before the debate adjourned last night I was discussing how the Minister, Deputy Ahern, dealt with the issue of the Ansbacher accounts and why it appears the Government is not willing to accept either of the amendments which seek further investigation of these accounts in respect of activities other than payments to politicians. He offered three reasons for his belief that there should be no further investigation of these issues.
The first reason was bizarre. He suggested the issue had not been raised in preliminary discussions regarding the terms of reference of this tribunal and that the Opposition was jumping on a media bandwagon. That seems to betray a very strange understanding by the Minister of the purpose of debates in this House. The purpose of those debates is clearly to listen to one another, to listen to public concerns expressed in the media and to attempt to achieve the best possible terms of reference.
The Minister's view of the role of the media in drumming up wider interest in the Ansbacher accounts than the Government is willing to accept sits uneasily with the lavish and justified praise the Taoiseach offered to journalists whose persistent questioning unearthed the information which ultimately led to the tribunal. The Minister's view is decidedly not reassuring.
The other more substantive reason the Minister offered for not looking into the Ansbacher accounts in another way is that the McCracken tribunal is being encouraged by the Government to pursue the court case in the Cayman Islands. However, it is obvious — the Minister said nothing to suggest otherwise — that the McCracken tribunal is circumscribed by its terms of reference regarding the pursuit of a court case and any subsequent use it would make of information it acquired. Its terms of reference dealt solely with the Ben Dunne case and payments by him to politicians. The McCracken tribunal has no right to look beyond that aspect and no remit to consider issues such as whether offshore accounts, for example the Ansbacher deposits, were used as a systematic vehicle for tax evasion. Its terms of reference do not cover these matters.
I understand the court case it is pursuing in the Cayman Islands relates solely to the point that it is investigating in the public interest, the behaviour of politicians. Its interest in the Ansbacher accounts derives solely from that and the court case it seeks to win in the Cayman Islands relates to possible information contained in the accounts which reflects on political behaviour. The Government's encouragement of the McCracken tribunal to go further is good in itself but it will not deal with the broader issue of public concern about the Ansbacher accounts.
The Minister said the Revenue Commissioners have the power to investigate the Ansbacher accounts. However, he failed to recall the point, as outlined in the tribunal's report, that evidence concerning the accounts which was available in Ireland has been destroyed. The Revenue Commissioners would only have access to information that is available in the country. It is obvious the tax laws of countries such as the Cayman Islands are constructed to ensure that the revenue authorities of other countries cannot draw aside the veil over offshore accounts for revenue pursuit purposes. The Revenue Commissioners do not have the opportunity to pursue this issue further.
I was most disappointed at the way the Minister dealt with this important issue which has been raised by the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party in its amendment. I expected to hear a clear explanation from him regarding how he intends to deal with the obvious public concern that offshore accounts are being used improperly by businesses or individuals. It is important to recall the conclusion the tribunal drew regarding the operation of these offshore accounts. It stated:
This was a very ingenious system whereby Irish depositors could have their money offshore, with no record of their deposits in Ireland, and yet obtain an interest rate which was only one eighth of one per cent less than they would have obtained had they deposited it themselves in an Irish bank. It is not the function of this Tribunal to examine these deposits in any detail, and it may well be that a number of Irish depositors may have been people engaged in international business which was greatly facilitated by having a sterling account abroad which did not require exchange control permission to operate. No doubt there were others who deposited the monies in this way for other motives.
The tribunal clearly sets out that there is an unexplored issue regarding the way the Ansbacher accounts were operated. We know from the tribunal's meticulous description that Irish residents gave money to another Irish agent who had set up accounts offshore, redeposited that money in an Irish bank and took instructions from the Irish resident depositors as to how the money in the deposits ultimately in Irish banks was to be deployed. To all intents and purposes these were Irish accounts but a vehicle was being used to make sure there was no record of the deposits. Two approaches have been suggested in the amendments that have been tabled by the Labour Party and the Independent Deputies. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs stonewalled on these issues and did not deal with the amendments proposed, which suggest investigating every Ansbacher account and the motives behind them. That would be an enormous investigative task and also raises the question of why one should investigate one set of offshore accounts for tax evasion and not investigate others.
It also creates a problem regarding the focus of a tribunal. We do not want a tribunal that carries out immensely detailed investigations of individual accounts or seeks to replicate the powers of the Revenue Commissioners relating to individuals. However, a view is clearly expressed by the tribunal and mirrored by public concern that there were mechanisms in place being used by Mr. Traynor, as the effective agent, by which people were using these offshore accounts illegitimately.
There are legitimate reasons for using offshore accounts and we cannot point an accusing finger at everybody who has one. If one has legitimate offshore activities and a company earning income overseas, it is quite legitimate to open an offshore account and to have the dividend generated by that company overseas managed in a low tax location such as the Cayman Islands. That is legitimate.
However, it is not legitimate in Irish law for an individual to stash away his income in that way. Companies are entitled to manage their affairs, but an individual resident in Ireland is taxed on his worldwide income. We must look further into these Ansbacher accounts, not in a way that opens all holders of offshore accounts to scrutiny but in a way that examines the mechanisms and the way in which those mechanisms were being used illegally, as I suspect in some cases. There is a need to investigate this seriously and a need for recommendations to be made to deal with it. The financial institutions involved need to look beyond the minimalist approach they would take with these accounts. There is an obligation to look beyond an Irish-based person giving instructions about certain deposits to see if nonresidents are operating these accounts. The tribunal must look at the mechanisms behind the Ansbacher accounts and how they were managed and come up with recommendations on how tax evasion may have been perpetrated through this and how we can deal with this in the future. Then we can remedy this potential problem with our tax code.
That is why we feel the mechanism should be examined by the tribunal rather than every offshore account. That is not called for at this stage. In many ways that is a key issue and it is important that the Government returns to this issue today because when the dust settles on this debate and people look at how we conducted it, the remaining and lingering questions will be whether there is systematic tax abuse of offshore accounts and if the Dáil has taken proper action to ensure such abuse is addressed. As it stands, the Government is seeing, hearing or speaking no evil and it must address this issue if it is serious. The best way to proceed is that which we have outlined in our amendment, although I would have expected the Government, with access to financial advice and the advice from the Revenue Commissioners which it has at its disposal, to have been able to advise the House on the merits of the two amendments tabled — one by the Labour Party and others and the other by Fine Gael, which we will press.
Fine Gael is pleased to support other amendments tabled. I suspect there will be some confusion later today as we reach these amendments and I would like to signal Fine Gael's view on a number of them. We support the need to look at the issue of Glending Wood in County Wicklow. We have seen the repeated involvement of those central to the McCracken tribunal in this case. It is important to allay public concerns and include this issue, which figures in amendments Nos. 16 and 20 and which Fine Gael will support, in the investigation.
Fine Gael is pleased to support amendment No. 22 in the name of Deputy Spring which is worthy and picks up on the recommendations from the McCracken tribunal. Many Members on both sides of the House feel there is further work to be done on what action will be taken in the future. Yesterday the Fine Gael Party Leader outlined a number of necessary changes in our corruption laws and in other areas of law to remove the corruptibility of the system. Deputy Spring's amendment sets out for the tribunal the need to look beyond what happened and to what will be done about it in the future in areas such as company law, the independence and operation of the Revenue Commissioners, the Central Bank and so on. Fine Gael is pleased to support that amendment.
We have some doubts about amendments Nos. 25 and 26 which appear to seek to remove the private phase of the investigation. I, like the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, see merit in the private phase of those investigations. The reasons outlined by the Minister are cogent and provide the tribunal with the opportunity to sift through evidence in private without names coming into the public arena if there is no evidence of wrongdoing. It also allows it to operate in a way where people are not forewarned of a possible investigation into their affairs which might be undertaken. From the point of view of not breaching natural justice for those who are innocent and of being effective in pursuing those who are guilty, the private phase has merit.
There is merit in amendment No. 29, which Fine Gael will support. If someone is found to have failed to co-operate with the tribunal and costs are generated as a result, those costs should fall on the individual or individuals who create them. Fine Gael does not support the suggestion that we should investigate each person who availed of the tax amnesty and seek to reopen their affairs to determine if any may have made payments to a political party. While it would be a fruitless task to pursue so many cases, there are also the limits set in the amnesty law in relation to confidentiality of the tax amnesty which remain intact. We cannot unpick them at this stage.
I take no pleasure in reading the sad account of Mr. Haughey's style of leadership as outlined in the McCracken tribunal. I have shared a constituency with Mr. Haughey for all of my political life and I know the respect in which he has been held by many constituents. However, a very bleak picture of Mr. Haughey's style of leadership has been portrayed. His belief in an entitlement to lead a lifestyle which he did not earn seems incredible. His willingness while in high office to have agents dispatched to raise money from wealthy businessmen to support his lifestyle was a serious flaw. The persistence of this behaviour even at times when there was huge public concern about the golden circle and the potential influence of wealthy businessmen on decision making defies belief.
Mr. Haughey's intimate knowledge of the tax laws side by side with blatantly ignoring his tax obligations is a sad testimony to his style. This was followed by the provision of misleading information in writing to the tribunal and the subsequent non acceptance of 11 major points of evidence provided by him when he appeared before the tribunal, despite a claim to be making a clean breast of the sources of payments made to him. It is more than a tragic end to his career. It is a demonstration of the deep flaw which characterised his conduct and it places many of the controversial events of his career in a new light. This is why it is necessary to pursue the money trail and to get to the bottom of the many issues which occurred in his life to see if the arbitrary exercise of power which we have seen time and again related to payments he received.
I was disappointed to hear the contribution of the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, to this debate. Perhaps it was the late hour, but we were treated to a speech more attune to the 1930s in his characterisation of Fine Gael and his eulogy of Fianna Fáil. Perhaps it was valuable archive material and I am aware of academics interested in such issues. However, it struck me that the Minister or his speech writer must be suffering from the problem which is affecting word-processing software, namely, the inability to distinguish the early part of the 20th century from the onset of the 21st century.
The essence of the Minister's charge against Fine Gael was that it needlessly questioned the probity of political acts under the Haughey Administration and the payment made in 1989 to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Burke. This attitude from a senior Minister is disturbing. Has anything been learned from the unfolding events of the past months? Is Deputy McDaid saying the discriminatory allocation of export sales relief, against official advice and after a private meeting with the beneficiaries, was acceptable behaviour? Such behaviour is not acceptable. Is he saying that interference in the IDA's statutory right to alone negotiate the terms of grant agreements with companies was acceptable? I do not accept such behaviour. Is he saying pressurising bodies to purchase Carysfort and sanctioning public moneys without proper Cabinet procedure was acceptable? I cannot accept that. It is clear that by coming before the House and accusing other parties of being crass or poorly motivated, the Minister has missed the point of the debate. The type of behaviour and style of leadership thrown into sharp relief by the tribunal is not acceptable.
Deputy McDaid's scorn on the temerity of the Opposition to question the Minister for Foreign Affairs is equally amazing. Is this the Deputy who was part of the Fianna Fáil Front Bench which proposed that bankers be obliged to disclose any unusual or large financial transactions involving politicians? That proposal, outlined in the tribunal report, was designed by Fianna Fáil to flush out just such a contribution as Deputy Burke received. Admittedly, had Deputy Burke received a cheque rather than the cash he appears to have received, bankers might never have seen the evidence of such a payment. Deputy McDaid was part of a Front Bench which recommended that as soon as any such transaction would occur, there would be immediate disclosure by the bank. Fianna Fáil also proposed that a permanent ethics commission should be established to investigate such a contribution, not under the rather desultory rules of Dáil Question Time where answers must be accepted without further recourse but with the forensic powers of the High Court. Where has the zeal to deal with issues of public concern such as the probity of public office gone?
Deputy Burke's statement yesterday was, at times, bizarre. It was difficult to understand the manner in which he handled such a large contribution. He did not question the possible compromising position in which he placed himself or the reason such a large contribution was given to him. Deputy Burke is unable to account for the expenditures which occurred even in broad terms. He indicated that he used the money for political purposes other than the election yet he apparently had no method to ensure the distinction between personal and political uses. Such a distinction is an essential element of our tax laws. If Deputy Burke is to claim such payments were not taxable it was necessary for him to maintain such a distinction.
There are inconsistencies in the statements of the Minister, Deputy Burke, and those made by Mr. Bailey which were reported in the press. On the other hand, there is no prima facie evidence of any wrongdoing and Deputy Burke has categorically denied that he did anything to benefit those who made the payment.
There is a problem here; the Fine Gael party believes it would be unfair to include Deputy Burke's case in the full terms of reference of the tribunal as has been indicated in amendments Nos. 12 and 19 which say Deputy Burke should be subjected to the same detailed investigation as is to be applied in the cases of Mr. Haughey and Deputy Lowry. On the other hand, Fine Gael will support the amendment which has been tabled by Democratic Left in respect of Deputy Burke's case. The procedure in the tribunal is essentially a two phase one where initially there will be the potential for private investigations of issues which may warrant further public investigation. That is unfortunately the position in which Deputy Burke finds himself. There is no prima facie evidence of wrongdoing but there are many unanswered questions. There is a clear need on the part of the Government and on the part of Deputy Burke to have this issue laid to rest completely.
Fianna Fáil's preferred approach to this issue is to have a mechanism for the banks to disclose such information and that a permanent ethics commission should be established to deal with it. There is not such an ethics commission at present but the logic of the Fianna Fáil position indicates that it should accept the amendment tabled by Democratic Left. Acceptance of the amendment would allow the issue to be investigated in a private manner and a report could be made to the Dáil in a number of weeks to the effect that Members of the House have satisfied themselves there is nothing in these payments which warrants further investigation. That would be a very satisfactory end to this saga. If such action is not taken this issue will continue to be a problem for the Minister, Deputy Burke. Since his statement yesterday people in the media have taken issue with specific replies which he made and evidence which he put on the Dáil record. People are saying the Minister misquoted sources and there are other accounts of lands with which he had been associated.
Questions will continue to be raised and Deputy Burke will remain under a cloud of public concern. In the interests of this House, Deputy Burke's interests and those of the Government in which he serves, the Democratic Left amendment, which would allow this matter to be investigated in a private manner without embarrassment to Deputy Burke and without affecting the way he conducts his business, should be accepted by the Government. That would lay the matter permanently to rest. The logical position for the Government to take is to permit this preliminary type of private investigation to take place with the setting up of the new tribunal in the same way it envisages an ethics commission operating in the long-term. That would finally clear the air in regard to Deputy Burke. Neither I nor my party have a vendetta against Deputy Burke but we want to see this matter resolved. Unfortunately, it is linked to the broader debate taking place today. We must set new standards for the future and this would be a good way for Fianna Fáil to demonstrate that it will genuinely set those standards.