Leaders' Questions

Last evening, the letter from the former Commissioner, Mr. Martin Callinan, to the Department of Justice and Equality for the attention of the Minister in respect of the telephone recording issues was published along with a report from the Department's Secretary General. It is fair to say that the letter from the Garda Commission gives a clear sequence of actions, outlines the comprehensive interaction that the Commissioner had with many State agencies - the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Attorney General's office - and references that consultations would need to be held with the Data Protection Commissioner following advices from the Attorney General. It goes on to assert that the Attorney General advised that an inventory of all of the recordings would be compiled and also that the Commissioner's main concern was as a data controller. These are all important points because, when one reads the letter, it is difficult to find anything wrong with how the Commissioner responded to the issue, both legally and within his duties, given the comprehensive nature of his response.

The Secretary General's report is also interesting, but leaves many questions unanswered. On one particular issue, it is clear that the Secretary General is saying that he briefed the Minister on the content of that letter on the Monday evening, before the Cabinet meeting, at 6 p.m. Accepting that the Minister did not get the actual copy of the letter until the following day, he was clearly briefed on the issue. That is at odds with what the Taoiseach told me yesterday in the House when he stated categorically: "I am assured by the Minister for justice that he was not so briefed." This goes to the heart of the issue. Following on from this and the meeting between the Taoiseach, the Attorney General and the Secretary General, the Secretary General was sent to Commissioner Callinan essentially to put pressure on him to reflect on his position, leading to his resignation.

A question, please.

Will the Taoiseach correct the record of the House? Is the Secretary General correct in saying that the Minister, Deputy Shatter, was briefed on the content of the letter at the justice briefing meeting on the evening of Monday, 24 March or is the Taoiseach correct in saying that the Minister was not so briefed? Does the Taoiseach accept that, at the meeting that he held with the Minister, the Attorney General and the Secretary General, he should have been told about the existence of that letter from the Commissioner before the Secretary General went to the Commissioner's house?

And who did the Taoiseach send to Ms Angela Kerins's house?

I am sorry, but the Deputy is not the Taoiseach. I will call the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach of Kerry.

First of all, I might bring to the attention of the House the fact that, this morning at the home of the Minister for Justice and Equality, an incident occurred where an item in the post contained-----

(Interruptions).

Sorry, please.

-----anti-Semitic material and a substance which, when analysed, was harmless. I am in this House a long time. We have had members of the Jewish faith here representing the Fianna Fáil Party, the Labour Party and the Fine Gael Party over the years. This has sunk to a new low. I might say for the information of Members of the House as well that a stream of similar material has been received in the Department of Justice and Equality. Irrespective of the rough and tumble that we can have here in our politics, I am sure all of the Opposition deplores that.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

It is not in order that this sort of anti-Semitic material is being received by someone who happens to belong to a particular religion in our country irrespective of the political challenges that we have here.

When did he get that letter?

The question Deputy Martin asked me is this, and it has been cleared on many occasions by the Minister himself. In fact, on numerous occasions on his long stay in here, he indicated clearly that the letter was not furnished to him, was not seen by him and that the Department officials briefed him on the issues of the day, including the Bailey case and including the discovery of the transcribed recordings, which have a serious implication in respect of that particular case.

I should have been told about that letter, I would have assumed,-----

-----although when I spoke to the Minister and the Secretary General, I was coming from a position of having been briefed by the Attorney General on the wide range of issues here, the discovery process, the transcribed tapes and the existence of a much wider systematic business of having tape recordings made in numerous Garda stations all over the country.

So, the Minister did not see the letter. The Minister was not aware of the letter. The Minister, therefore, was not briefed on the contents of the letter. He was briefed on the issues that had arisen, including the nature of the Bailey case, which was quite explosive in terms of the content of those tape recordings.

This is an example, Deputy Martin, of information being brought to Government level where Government has responded speedily and decisively in the sense of putting together a commission of investigation to look into these matters to sort this out once and for all and to put in place a structure which will provide an independent Garda authority where political accountability will still remain with the Minister of the day to this House. That is a long way, I might add, from the Deputy's own style of refusing to speak to former Fianna Fáil Ministers for justice. It is a long way from the time when we had the geriatric costs implied in the nursing homes scandal where the Secretary General of the Deputy's own Department briefed him on two occasions and said so at a committee of the Dáil and the Deputy relied on the Travers report to have a difference between the Department knowing and the Minister being aware.

So, the substance here, Deputy Martin,-----

The Taoiseach should read what he said in the Dáil at that time. He should live by his words.

-----is of serious concerns to the citizens of this country and Government has moved decisively and swiftly to deal with that. The Minister has cleared up in the House here on a number of occasions the nature of the matters that he discussed, the fact that he did not see this letter, the fact that he was not told about the letter and that he did not get it or see it or receive it until the following Tuesday,-----

The Taoiseach will be sending someone to Mr. Brian Purcell's house next.

-----in the same position as I was myself. The point is, he has already referred to this in some detail on a number of occasions in his contribution here to the House.

Can the Taoiseach explain to the House how the Secretary General - I will cite the report - briefed the Minister on the matter on Monday evening? How could he brief the Minister on the matter without briefing him on the letter? Can the Taoiseach explain that? The letter is comprehensive and outlines a series of actions that the Commissioner took since last November on this issue. It is just not credible, particularly in the context of the Secretary General a few hours later being sent out to the Commissioner's house. I would love to have been a fly on the wall. I would love to have seen the Commissioner's reaction to the Secretary General. Was it, "Did I not send you a letter two weeks ago-----

The Deputy was often a fly on the wall.

(Interruptions).

Deputies, please.

-----detailing everything I was doing and voicing my concern?"

The Government is worried.

The former Commissioner wrote in his letter: "I am anxious to resolve any data protection issues... "

The issue of substance is a simple one - for the first time in 30 years, we saw the forced resignation of a Garda Commissioner-----

-----on the issue of telephone recordings because, as the Taoiseach told the House last week, he wanted the gravity of the situation conveyed to the former Commissioner. Sources close to the former Commissioner are saying that he was told by the Secretary General that there was anxiety in the Cabinet about the issue.

He was clearly forced out of the position. That is why it is very important, as an issue of substance, that we get clarity on this.

Can the Taoiseach get the Secretary General to say that he did not at any stage brief the Minister on the content of the letter? There should be less of the language terms "furnishing", "receiving", "get" and so forth. He says in this report that he accepts he did not get the copy of the letter until the following day, but he briefed him the previous day. There is a fundamental issue of substance here, because the sequence of events led to getting rid of the Garda Commissioner. The inescapable conclusion is that the Garda Commissioner was the scapegoat to protect the Minister. Unless we get clear answers I can come to no other conclusion, and I regret to have to say that.

The Deputy does not want to come to any other conclusion. That is the position. He has no interest in anything other than political damage to the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The Taoiseach is able to do that himself.

There was a case before the Deputy's time in the House when a relation of Deputy Collins, a former Minister for Justice, called in the Garda Commissioner and told him he had two hours to resign or be sacked. I considered it my duty-----

To get someone else.

The Taoiseach outsourced it.

A woman was murdered in west Cork. Her killer is at large, if the killer is alive. There is a court case of very serious substance arising from that murder. It is a live, unsolved case.

I was briefed by the Attorney General and if the Deputy thinks I should sit in the Taoiseach's office and not do something about it, he is badly mistaken.

(Interruptions).

No one can hear anything.

When I spoke to the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Secretary General, I made it perfectly clear that my concerns were grave, because the transcription of those tapes has serious implications for our international relations, the status of the Garda Síochána and the case in question.

How was the Garda Commissioner culpable?

That is a matter of serious substance.

What is the Garda Commissioner culpable for?

So the Taoiseach is accusing the Garda Commissioner of something.

Will you mind your own business?

It is my business, a Cheann Comhairle.

The Deputy is not the party leader yet.

It is not your business.

It is everyone's business.

Deputy Kelleher should wait for another few weeks until he makes his move.

When I spoke on Monday evening to both the Minister and the Secretary General-----

The Garda Commissioner was sacrificed to save the head of the Minister.

Hold on, this is a reply to the Deputy's leader. Please allow us to hear the reply.

-----I made it perfectly clear that I wanted my concerns communicated to the former Garda Commissioner.

What were the Taoiseach's concerns?

To hold on to his best buddy, Deputy Alan Shatter, as Minister.

The Secretary General did that.

I am not putting up with this filibuster. If the two Deputies do not stay quiet, I will ask them to leave the House.

Obviously I am not privy to the content of the discussion they had, and I do not wish to assume anything. I wanted my concerns about this communicated to the former Garda Commissioner. The former Garda Commissioner made his decision and I noted his press release the following morning regarding his retirement in the interests of his family and the Garda Síochána.

I think I will go of my own accord, a Cheann Comhairle.

To reply to the Deputy's first question, the Minister for Justice and Equality was not aware of the letter, was not informed about it and did not see it. The briefing that began in the Department of Justice and Equality was interrupted by me at 6 p.m. to call the Minister over to the Department of the Taoiseach. That briefing was about the Bailey case, the discovery of those tapes and their transcription and the need for an affidavit, and it had started when I called. It is not a case of the contents of the letter being the subject of a briefing, because the letter was not seen and the Minister was not made aware of it.

We are in a different spot now-----

-----with a very serious issue. When the terms of reference for the commission of investigation are finalised, in consultation with the eminent judge, we can then set out the strategy to deal with this. I assume the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality will, in time, have the opportunity to discuss the exact timelines with the Secretary General and the Minister for Justice and Equality. That is the proper way to deal with all the detailed questions. For now, we are proceeding to follow clear Government decisions that will lead to a commission of investigation with clear terms of reference and also to the establishment of an independent authority for the Garda Síochána in order that the men and women in the force can have absolute pride in the uniform and the citizens of the country can have faith in its openness, transparency, professionalism and oversight.

The difficulty with dealing with all of these ongoing controversies in the administration of justice is that every day brings a new revelation, such as the taping of prisoners' telephone calls and the latest twist last night in the penalty points debacle. However, there are other distractions. While I have no confidence in the Minister, Deputy Shatter, it was nauseating to listen to the former Fianna Fáil Minister, Deputy Willie O'Dea, pontificating last night in a highly vindictive, personalised and inappropriate way about the Minister. Fianna Fáil Members know as well as everyone else that this telephone tapping happened on their watch.

The Deputy was most of the reason for setting it up in the first place.

(Interruptions).

These justice issues date back for decades and involve Governments made up of Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and Democratic Left-----

The Green Party.

The Independents.

-----so the Oireachtas should keep its focus on what is involved here. Yesterday I made the point, and the Taoiseach agreed, that the Ian Bailey case is at the root of these problems. This arose from the investigation of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Ian Bailey's solicitor wrote three times in 2012 to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, about the Garda Commissioner's refusal to provide information to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Incompetence aside, this refusal, repeated many times, is the real reason for the lack of cohesion in the Government's response to these scandals. Yesterday's report by the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality confirms this. He said that departmental officials were so preoccupied with the possible ramifications of taped calls at Bandon Garda station that they might not have realised the gravity of more widespread taping of telephone calls over decades.

Yesterday I asked if the Minister would clarify his position in the debate on the Private Members' motion. Our justice spokesperson, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, put the same question directly to the Minister but he refused to do it. Is it not the case that alleged corrupt activities by gardaí in the investigation of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier should have been the subject of a commission of investigation? Will the Government now initiate such a commission or will the Taoiseach give a commitment to make it part of the commission of investigation that is being established?

Yesterday, the Deputy raised the Bailey case, which arose from the murder of Ms Toscan du Plantier. The case has been ongoing for a number of years. As I said yesterday, the issue became crystalised because the end of the discovery process required a Garda affidavit to send the material to the legal team representing Mr. Bailey. It is clear from the Secretary General's report that the tapes that became known to officials when they were transcribed and assessed contain material that is very serious indeed. Those tapes are part of the discovery process and this case is before the courts. I do not wish to say anything here that would prejudice the outcome of that case, but clearly the material that has been transcribed and assessed and which will more than likely enter the public domain is very stark. Those tapes are part of the discovery process and are being sent to the legal team to be part of the case before the courts.

In approving the appointment of Mr. Justice Fennelly at its meeting yesterday, the Government made a number of recommendations that will have to be concluded in the terms of reference for the commission in consultation with the Department of Justice and Equality. Clearly, we need to be able to have, as part of that, the process, background, context, reasons, authorisation, use, retention, and the legality, the illegality or whatever of tape recordings where matters of public concern are involved. This is a matter of grave public concern and it needs to be dealt with.

This is in two parts. There is the immediate focus on the specific case and there is the wider implication for the trawl which produced evidence of systematic recording of conversations in Garda stations, and their retention, which have to be subject to a protocol if they are to be destroyed, as the Data Protection Commissioner pointed out. However, as the Deputy is aware, the Attorney General made an order that no tapes be destroyed. I think that is in the public interest as well.

The Taoiseach's answer is very disappointing because I am not clear whether he is going to include these matters in the commission of investigation, or whether he is going to set up a separate commission of investigation. The Taoiseach is saying these are highly significant and stark matters. In the lead-in to the Morris tribunal, then Opposition Deputy Alan Shatter rightly tabled a motion here for the required public inquiry into allegations of misconduct by some gardaí in County Donegal. He expressed disappointment when the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice said that he was going to appoint a lawyer instead to examine all the relevant papers. At the time of the Morris report, the Minister said the following:

These matters should not have been left festering. The [Fianna Fáil] Minister for Justice kicked essentially to touch... A banana republic would not deal with an issue as serious as this in such a manner.

I rest my case. The Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, said that a banana republic would not deal with an issue as serious as this in such a manner, yet he is now the justice Minister. The Morris tribunal uncovered alarming illegalities, corruption and cover-up by some elements of the Garda, which do not reflect on the vast majority of members of that service. Mr. Justice Morris was also very clear that the combination of corruption uncovered in Donegal could easily occur elsewhere. He made that very clear. In the Bailey case, it could be even worse, because the issues involved are not just local or regional; they go right to the top of the justice system in the Garda Síochána and the Minister for Justice and Equality, and that is a matter of public record.

Again, I ask the Taoiseach to be clear in his answer that either he will include these matters in the commission of investigation, or he will set up an appropriate inquiry, which the Minister, Deputy Shatter, argued for in the build-up to the Morris tribunal when he was Fine Gael spokesperson, which means a commission of investigation.

When the information was brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality, he informed his colleagues at yesterday's Cabinet meeting in respect of the recordings of prisoners. I heard Mr. Donnellan speak clearly on that matter. The Minister published immediately the information that we have, and it will be the subject of further discussions here. The terms of reference for the commission of investigation have to be agreed and concluded with the eminent judge. They have to be brought here to be approved by the Dáil.

This matter was brought to my attention on Sunday evening. Within 48 hours, we had moved to make a decision to have a commission of investigation. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, spent two years raising the case in Donegal before the then Minister, former Deputy John O'Donoghue, agreed that there should be an investigation. Now we are being criticised for acting swiftly and decisively in putting together a commission of investigation-----

The Minister still has not appointed a commission of investigation in respect of the whistleblower issues.

We are being criticised now because we are going and doing something about it, when that crowd over there year after year let it pass by, swept it under the carpet and did nothing. As far as I am concerned-----

(Interruptions).

-----the Government will bring the terms of reference here for discussion and approval by Dáil Éireann.

He was opposing a Garda authority until a couple of weeks ago.

Will you stay quiet?

If it is appropriate that the terms of reference include tape recordings of conversations between gardaí and the public, prisoners and so on, these are matters that the Government will decide on with the involvement of the Department of Justice and Equality and approval by the Dáil. I do not wish to pre-empt that, except to say that the Bandon tapes are covered by the discovery process. I am informed by the Attorney General that the Garda affidavit has been sworn and signed off on, and that material will be going to the legal team involved.

Deputy Adams comes in here and says that we should not act decisively and have a commission of investigation set up within 48 hours to deal with a matter of fundamental importance for our State.

The Taoiseach is becoming a bit like background noise, like elevator music.

Deputy Dooley, can you keep your mouth closed for just a few more seconds? Thank you.

A woman was murdered and there is a court case. There are tapes that are very stark in their remarks about this matter. At the end of the day, all we can do is what we believe to be right. What I believe is right is to have a commission of investigation, to have proper terms of reference, and to have all these matters investigated by an eminent Supreme Court judge to deal with that matter. Separately from that, we need to move to having an independent authority for An Garda Síochána. It has gone on for too long and we must put in place a structure that stands up to this country's needs for the future. That is what we intend to do.

Thousands of Irish families are facing eviction. Ulster Bank alone has 4,700 repossession cases before the courts.

Please allow the Deputy make his point. If you are leaving the Chamber, you should leave quietly. You are in the Houses of Parliament, so please remember that.

At Clonmel court last Thursday, there were 30 such repossession cases and the same is happening in every courthouse right across this country. At the same time, thousands of Irish homes have been sold to foreign landlords. The Irish Nationwide Building Society non-performing loan book is being sold at knock down prices to American vulture capitalists Loan Star and Oakland Capital. What have they immediately done? Their first action was to appoint Pepper of Australia as debt payment enforcers. The holders of these mortgages, who are the home owners, were not even allowed to bid for them. At the same time, the Government is allowing senior bankers to give each other and other rich friends huge secret write-downs using money borrowed by the State and supplied to the banks, when unemployed and low-income families who owe as little as €20,000 on their homes are being bullied out of their homes or they are being repossessed. The banks have sole discretion on write-downs using State supplied money.

What did the vultures pay for the former Irish Nationwide Building Society loan book? Will the Taoiseach bring forward immediately legislation to protect these and other mortgage holders from arbitrary interest rate increases and repossessions? Will he bring forward legislation to bring complete transparency to the write-down process? Will the Government ban confidentiality clauses in that process? Finally, will the Government put in place fair, legally enforceable criteria for that write-down process?

The Government could get that done in two days.

We have made it perfectly clear that there is no strategy in place to force or encourage possessions of people's family homes. In fact, the Government's approach to mortgage arrears and mortgage distress over the past two and a half years has involved putting in place a suite of opportunities for borrowers and lenders to work out sustainable solutions in each of these cases. That is why the personal insolvency legislation was introduced and other facilities were brought into operation. I am glad to say these measures are having an impact on significant numbers of people. This is not happening as quickly as we would like, and is not helping as many people as we would like, but it is happening. A number of people just will not engage with the lender in the first place. Those cases are solvable-----

They are not solvable.

In most cases, they are solvable if people are prepared to work out a solution and a conclusion.

As Members are aware, individual banks have agreed a number of write-offs in the recent past. These agreements have received quite a deal of publicity. If Deputy Healy wants to get these details from the Minister for Finance, I suggest he submit a request to the Ceann Comhairle to raise this matter on Topical Issues. The overall position is that house repossessions should be the very end of the line.

The majority of house repossessions have taken place by voluntary consent or voluntary offering from the people involved. While there are occasional increases in the number of mortgages in distress or in arrears of more than 90 days, they are being worked out as time goes on. We want the target set for the banks by the Central Bank and the Government - that sustainable workable solutions should be offered by the end of the year to every mortgage holder in distress or in arrears - to be achieved. The policy here is that no instruction for house repossessions has been given. It should be a very last resort. In some of the cases I have read about, it was a very last resort. The banks involved made substantial write-downs, which allowed people to continue to live in their own houses and contribute to their local areas, etc.

As the leader of this country, the Taoiseach is responsible for what is happening in relation to repossessions and evictions. As he well knows, thousands of families are unable to meet the insolvency criteria set down by this Government. Up to 30,000 families are facing eviction. This is happening every day throughout this country. At the same time, tax exiles and the Irish elite are getting huge write-downs from the banks.

Professor Morgan Kelly recently asked a pertinent question about whether the bankers' friends, the members of rugby clubs and the parents' associations of exclusive fee-paying schools will get first preference for write-downs. As a follow-on question, one might ask whether a house owner or a small shopkeeper-----

Or a friend of a Government Minister.

-----will have a property repossessed on foot of a debt of €50,000 while a friend of the bankers has €500,000, €1 million or €5 million written off.

Someone had €110 million written off.

Can senior bankers give write-downs to each other? Will a banker be able to give a write-down to his political buddies in the local branch or cumann? During the boom years, these bankers gave huge loans to the Irish elite. The same people are now benefitting from these write-downs. The International Monetary Fund said in a recent report that the current situation here endangers social cohesion. The answer to both of the questions I have asked is "Yes". It is a scandal that the banks have sole discretion for write-downs. I appeal to the Taoiseach to introduce legislation to end this scandalous situation.

I do not accept the Deputy's assertion that evictions are happening in this country every day.

That is simply not true.

There is no need for the Deputy to engage in scaremongering in here and cause many people throughout the country to worry that they are facing eviction.

Representatives of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service will be at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform this afternoon. Perhaps the Taoiseach should speak to them. They will tell him about it.

As I have said, the fact of the matter is that people who have problems with their mortgages now have a range of opportunities to work out a solution with the lenders.

What about tenants who have receivers moving in on them?

On the one hand, the Deputies opposite seem to want write-downs, but on the other hand, they do not want write-downs. They need to be clear on what they are actually talking about. I am sure they support the cases that have been sorted out in recent weeks. There are particular circumstances in each case in which a write-down was given.

What about the 30,000 cases that will not get written down?

I am not sure what the Deputies are saying. They do not want write-downs for some people, but they want write-downs for others.

We want fairness. We want the Government to do something.

We are concerned about the write-downs being given to bankers' buddies.

The Deputy should give us a list of the evictions.

The elite were given huge loans during the boom and now they are getting huge write-downs.

We want everyone to be able to retain their houses. When Leaders' Questions has come to a conclusion, perhaps Deputy Healy might furnish me with a full list of the evictions that have taken place in the past two months. That will allow me to assess the veracity of his argument.

Many people in this country who are €20,000 in arrears are not getting write-downs.