One of the main concerns of successive Irish Governments has been, and continues to be, the British nuclear industry and in particular the British Nuclear Fuels operation at Sellafield. As a result of Sellafield's proximity to the east coast of Ireland and the complexity of its nuclear operations, Sellafield has long been a source of public debate and a cause of concern to the Irish Government.
Public and political opinion in Ireland is firmly opposed to the use of nuclear power for energy purposes. The Government's policy is clear — to minimise and, as far as possible, eliminate the adverse implications for Ireland of the nuclear facilities at Sellafield and the nuclear activities in the UK and elsewhere.
A case is being taken by four County Louth residents against BNFL. The State is named as a co-defendant in this action. The Government has offered financial assistance to support the residents in their High Court action against BNFL. Last October, the House accepted a resolution which stated:
That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to urgently support the legal case of the Louth residents' group against British Nuclear Fuels through the provision of the necessary financial assistance towards research and legal costs as well as the appropriate technical expertise and information.
Following acceptance of the resolution, the Government offered a package of financial assistance to the residents towards the cost of research activities being undertaken by them in their legal proceedings against British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. This offer, which involves financial assistance of £400,000, was duly made to the residents in October last year. A total of £350,000 of the sum is earmarked for research purposes, primarily scientific research, and the remainder is for information technology purposes to assist the residents in processing documents furnished by the State in the course of voluntary discovery.
No funding has yet been provided on foot of this offer. The main reason for this is that one of the conditions attached has yet to be met by the residents. This concerns an undertaking which the State requires the residents' solicitor to sign and which would oblige the residents' solicitor to furnish to the State all reports received as part of a research programme funded by the State and to keep the State promptly and fully informed about progress of research. It would also entitle the State to disclose such information and reports to its experts and legal advisers and to make use of such information and reports in these or other legal proceedings which it may see fit to bring arising from the operations of BNFL at Sellafield. Other than this, the information and reports would be treated as confidential and remain the property of the residents.
Correspondence and discussion on this undertaking have been extensive. I have met the residents on several occasions in an attempt to resolve differences regarding the wording. The residents' solicitor has met representatives of the Attorney General's office. The respective senior counsel have been endeavouring for two months to break the impasse. All attempts, however, to resolve the issue have proved unsuccessful to date.
The State's legal advisers deem this undertaking to be an essential prerequisite from the point of view of public accountability in regard to taxpayers' money and from a legal point of view where it is necessary for the State to avoid being involved in an abuse of the process of the court.
The State is still a co-defendant in this action despite numerous requests that it be removed as a co-defendant. The October l997 motion committed the Government to support the action against British Nuclear Fuels Limited but it did not commit it to support an action against itself. The House will appreciate the absurdity of a situation where the State would provide significant financial assistance for research activity but would not have use of this research. The basic difference between the undertaking sought by the State and the counter undertaking put forward by the residents' solicitor is that the State's version would enable it to make whatever use it can of the research if the residents persist with the State as a co-defendant.
In December l997 the Government approved a further package of assistance relating to work engaged in by the residents' counsel in assessing and certifying proposals for research and in engaging in dialogue with researchers to ensure relevance and admissibility of evidence. I put these proposals to Mr. MacGuill in a letter dated 12 December l997. The residents have yet to confirm that they are in a position to accept this offer. I hope discussions on this second package can commence when the issue of the undertaking is resolved.
I now turn to the matter of a request by BNFL for details of the State financial assistance to be provided for the residents. In January l998 BNFL's solicitors requested the State to provide information on the financial aid offered to the residents for research purposes. The Attorney General's office was strongly of the view that BNFL's solicitors should be given full information on the role the State is playing in this matter. If the State did not disclose these details to BNFL, it was likely to obtain a court order requiring the State to furnish the information at a future date. Consequently, in March l998 the Chief State Solicitor's office replied to BNFL's solicitors' request providing details of the package of assistance offered by the State to the residents.
The residents' solicitor subsequently claimed that he had learned of the State's action on this matter "by chance" and that such details had been released without prior consultation with him. He requested copies of the correspondence with BNFL's solicitors and sought a categorical assurance that there would be no further release of information without prior consultation. There was no question of the residents learning of this by chance. I personally instructed that the residents' solicitor be advised of BNFL's request and the nature of the response that issued. The residents were copied with the State's response to BNFL's solicitors. Ireland and the Attorney General continue to be defendants in this action. In the circumstances the State must be in a position to deal with this action as it sees fit. It was not possible, therefore, to accede to the residents' request that there be no further release of information without prior consultation with them.
Discussions which I had with the residents and their solicitor up to now, have by mutual agreement, been carried out in a confidential manner. I have now been informed, however, by the residents' solicitor that his clients do not assert confidentiality in relation to the discussions that have taken place. Provision was made in the Estimates last year and this year for the provision of financial assistance for the residents. I have done everything possible to facilitate payment. The Chief State Solicitor and I have urged Mr. MacGuill on numerous occasions to avail of the funds as quickly as possible.
I have given my personal attention to the issues involved in detail since taking office. I am concerned at the delay which has occurred in respect of the drawdown of funds arising from difficulties with the undertaking and have urged Mr. MacGuill to sign it to allow prompt payment of moneys to his clients. I am in the process of arranging another meeting with the residents and their solicitor, from whom I received another letter today, which may be of significance, in a further attempt to resolve the current difficulties which the residents have with the undertaking which the State is seeking.