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Leaders' Questions.

Tuesday, 26 November 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 558 No. 1

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Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I am sure my question is predictable. Last Sunday the Sunday Independent carried a story that a senior member of the Government was involved in what is known as the Aer Rianta drinks scandal. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether there is any veracity in the allegation made in last Sunday's newspaper that brandy, whiskey and cigars to the value of €5,000 was delivered in a van to a Minister in the 1990s and that the bill has not yet been paid? Has he called in his Ministers and asked them if there is any truth in the allegation in the newspaper report? Are current Cabinet members or members of the second bench involved centrally or otherwise in this story? Has the Taoiseach spoken to Aer Rianta's auditor? Has he contacted Mr. O'Leary, a former board member and member of Fianna Fáil, who assisted former Deputy Lawlor through a side door when he was on his way to serve a jail sentence? I am sure Mr. O'Leary would be more [36] than anxious to help the Taoiseach to sort out this problem.

Does the Taoiseach have any sense of the outrage felt by the public? If a Minister used the facilities of a semi-State body as a personal shop, it would amount to a gross abuse of public trust and he or she would not be deemed fit to hold public office. Given that this puts the members of the Cabinet in the spotlight, will the Taoiseach explain why it will take a fortnight to get a report on what should be a simple matter? Will he ask each of his Ministers individually this evening, if he has not already done so, to confirm that he or she is not the subject of this allegation and that he or she is not and has not been involved in any such ministerial profligacy of the State coffers?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison Zoom on Séamus Pattison The Deputy's two minutes have concluded.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny This shows a lack of moral leadership by the Government because allegations have been made publicly and persons have been named as being central to this issue. It behoves the Taoiseach to clear this up immediately.

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern I agree with Deputy Kenny's last sentence. It is important that this issue be addressed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible and I want to bring it to a speedy and definitive conclusion. I am hopeful that the inquiry being carried out by the Secretary General of the Department of Transport will be concluded a good deal sooner than by the end of the period allowed. I am not sure how long it will take to go through all the records, but I understand it will be done as quickly as possible – by later this week at the latest. The results of Aer Rianta's inquiry are also awaited. The company has investigated this as far as it could over the last day and a half and has asked an auditor to examine any issues.

The Opposition is right to ask for answers and those answers should be provided, which I will certainly do. The Minister does not want to give any incorrect answers, nor do I. He wants to give proper answers to the questions that have been raised. Deputy Kenny is being careful and I appreciate that he has not mentioned the name of a colleague. I did not have to call in my second row or my first row because it was very clear who was being spoken about. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, contacted me over the weekend to tell me that an article about him would appear, which I confirm to the House. That is big news to the House. The Minister issued a statement this afternoon which he hopes to discuss during Question Time. I will read his statement to the House. It states:

I wish to state that to the absolute very best of my recollection, it being approximately 12 years, and in the strongest possible terms, lest there be any doubt, that I never personally received, authorised, or had knowledge of the ordering of, purchase, or delivery, of the [37] alleged goods referred to in the Sunday Independent article, on Sunday last.

I am hopeful that the full facts relating to this allegation will be established within days. I reiterate that when the reports are available I will publish those details immediately.

I assure Deputy Kenny and the House that I will make available any other information brought to my attention as soon as we have a full statement. In so far as it has been possible to talk to past and present staff that might know something about this, there has been no result in terms of throwing light on the matter. I spoke to Mr. O'Leary and he has not been able to tell me anything besides what is in the public domain, which still amounts to an allegation. I cannot give the House any more information as to whether there is any truth in any of this, all I can do is seek the information as quickly as I can and, in the meantime, state what the Minister involved has told me. I cannot speak for anybody who might have something to answer on this or say whether there is anything to answer. All I can do is to assure the public that this is a serious matter. I do not disagree with anything Deputy Kenny has said and I will report as soon as I have something to report. If I have nothing to report, I will report that.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I thank the Taoiseach for this explanation and for the forthrightness of the comment made by the Minister who has now been named publicly as Deputy Brennan. There are reports that this matter goes back as far as 1989 and the problem is that it casts a cloud over a member of the Government. The Minister said yesterday that he would not issue any statement until the report is published in two weeks time, but things have moved on apace and he has issued the statement we have just heard. Does the Taoiseach think it is proper that this Department should be investigating and reporting to the Minister? Does he consider that there are revenue implications for the Minister or any board member arising from this? In view of the fact that allegations are being made that this may go back to a further period in the early 1990s, will the Taoiseach speak to each member of his Cabinet and each member of his party who was then a Member of the Oireachtas and confirm to the House in the morning that they have assured him they have not been involved in what amounts to a borrowing if not a theft of State property? Whoever was involved could have one hell of a Christmas party with 250 bottles of brandy or the equivalent.

This is a second serious allegation against a member of the Cabinet, the other involving the receipt of £80,000, which the Taoiseach dealt with to some extent. In terms of democracy and public life this is not good, which is why I would like the Taoiseach to show strong moral leadership and clear this matter up with everybody in his Cabinet and in his second rank tomorrow morning.

[38]The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern I agree with what Deputy Kenny said, it is a serious matter. Regarding the figure mentioned of £5,000, the price of drink has moved on in the past 12 or 13 years.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Information on Gay Mitchell Zoom on Gay Mitchell It has surely.

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern The sum is more like £12,000 and I would expect my colleagues to remember if they drank that much—

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten They probably would not.

A Deputy: Champagne Charlie would.

Mr. R. Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton The memory has been blurred.

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern —particularly if it was in one Christmas. I will do my best to establish the facts as quickly as I have said. It is fair to ask if the investigation should be carried out by the Secretary General of the Department of Transport, but that is where all the records are. The Department will consult with whoever it needs to and I am keeping a close watch on this in so far as I can. I assure Deputy Kenny and the House that we have been able to contact many of the officials we thought could help us on this and we have contacted the Minister's staff and advisors of the time, as well as officials of Aer Rianta. I am not sure where the figure of £5,000 originated, because no one I have spoken to has quoted that figure to me. I am trying to find out and I do not know if there is any foundation to this. I do not want to guess because I have made that mistake before, but as soon as I have the facts I will disclose them.

Mr. Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I would like to hear the Minister's statement again, though I am prepared to take it at face value. I am puzzled that it has taken two days to issue it when, if there was no truth to the allegation, one would have expected a rebuttal by lunchtime on Sunday or a statement to the effect that there was some truth to it, though the essential facts were incorrect. The only third option I can think of is that an admission would be have been made and a resignation tendered.

Why did it take this long and why is it presumed that an investigation should take 14 days? If the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism was accused of inadvertently or otherwise taking artefacts from the National Gallery, he would remember whether he did it or not. I can understand that the passage of time makes recollection imprecise, but on something like this, as the Taoiseach said, if somebody consumed that much drink, they would be inclined to remember it, even if it was with others. Will the Taoiseach say whether or not he thinks the merchandise came from the bonded warehouse system in Aer Rianta?

When the Taoiseach says his own inquiry is under way in parallel, is it the case that there is an internal dispute and that people not likely to [39] be re-appointed to the board of Aer Rianta are spilling the beans, in this case, the brandy, so to speak? It is important that the Taoiseach can assure the House that the bond system that Aer Rianta operates was not operable here. What did the Minister, Deputy Brennan, mean when he said he did not know whether there was one Minister or ten Ministers involved? Was he or whomsoever, if there is truth in this allegation, acting on behalf of a number of Ministers? Was the booty being shared out? Is the Taoiseach saying to the House that he is satisfied there is no basis at all for this allegation? What does he mean when he says he cannot find any basis for the £5,000 figure. Is there a basis for some figure?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison Zoom on Séamus Pattison The Deputy's two minutes are up.

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern I will try to answer some of those questions. I understand it would be impossible for any of the spirits to come out of the bonded warehouse in Aer Rianta. Obviously there is some way of checking if anything came out on any occasion, and Aer Rianta is quite satisfied that could not have happened. When the Minister, Deputy Brennan, said he did not know if there were more Ministers involved this was because dates in 1989, 1991 and the mid-1990s were mentioned. He thought people were talking about a cumulative figure. Whether it was one year or not I still do not know because I do not know the basis of the £5,000 and whether a number of Ministers were involved. I have made whatever inquiries I can but as of now, other than hearing what is said here and reading what is in the newspapers, I gather that somewhere in the 1990s it is stated that there was a bill or an invoice within the Aer Rianta system that was due to a Department and was not paid. I do not have any other information on whether that existed but it was stated some years ago that such a bill existed.

The Minister's original idea was that the auditor should come in and check everything. That would involve checking some records because it covers a number of years. The Department officials worked on it last night. Aer Rianta is working on it. It is best left until we get facts. Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte will appreciate that in the past I have tried, and so have other colleagues, to give a quick answer and to work totally on recollection. I am not saying one would not remember something like this. However, with the passage of time one does not remember all the details and when one tries to give some detail on recollection it then emerges that one has changed position. It is better to check the basic facts as quickly as possible and, I hope that can be done in the next day or two. As soon as I have that information I will gladly put it before the House because I am anxious that this matter be addressed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

[40]Mr. Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte When the Taoiseach says it might have been a cumulative figure over a number of years, is he saying he has established that this practice went on even if over several years? In the probability that the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, will increase excise duties on tobacco and drink next week, if there was any breach of the bonded system at Aer Rianta it would be a disgrace if it was breached either on the instructions of a Minister or, as the Taoiseach is now saying, a Department. Was this a corporate decision of a Department or was it a decision of a Minister? If it was a decision of a Department why is the Secretary General of that Department investigating it? Does the Taoiseach understand how the remark of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, leaves open the suggestion that the Cabinet of the day, or many members of the Cabinet of the day, seem to regard the Cabinet as a duty free zone like Dublin Airport? That is the impression that is out there. Does he agree the reason it is imperative to clear this up quickly is that it is demeaning to his Government and to all politics that this allegation should hang in the air and if it is part of Aer Rianta departmental politics on the part of some aggrieved individuals to make malicious unfounded allegations against a Minister the quicker that is put out into the public domain the better. Two days have elapsed. It defies most of public understanding why it should take longer than that to put this allegation to bed if unfounded malicious allegation it is.

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern I wish there was a button one could press when an allegation is made that could prove whether it was unfounded but there is not and Deputy Rabbitte is well aware of that. In this case it is reported that an invoice existed somewhere between 1989 to some period in the 1990s and was not paid by somebody, maybe a Department, Minister, official, or adviser and it was raised by an acting board member with a chief executive and somewhere along the way after that there was some other discussion but nobody ever paid it and it was written off, and this has given rise to many questions. All I and the people involved can do is methodically go through the records, invoices, bills, statements, what was written off by auditors, all the cash receipts and all the other issues to try to establish the facts. It is no good just stating that it is a puff of smoke. If I did that people will ask how I know. I do not know. All I can say is that I have a colleague who is clearly the brunt of this allegation. Whether it is for any of the reasons set out by Deputy Rabbitte, or some other reasons, or no reason, there is no point in my speculating. If I did so, I would be accused of blindly supporting a colleague. Naturally, what he says, I believe, but we have to go through the examination. When the examination is complete we will report it. Needless to say the person who would like to see this dealt with more quickly than anyone else is the person sitting on my left, because he is the brunt [41] of all these accusations which have been floating around this town, non-stop for about a week.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin The Taoiseach appears satisfied that his Cabinet colleagues can hold their drink or someone's drink. Is he equally satisfied that the Department of Transport officials have the appropriate powers to investigate the whiskey and cigars allegation? Is it appropriate that Aer Rianta management is conducting inquiries which, if proven, surely would point to culpability on its part at the very least? Surely, if the situation as indicated in the news of the recent past is shown to be the case then, undoubtedly, Aer Rianta management also has a case to answer? I wonder how appropriate that approach would be? Is it not the case that there is undoubted public concern at the make-up of the Aer Rianta board which is dominated by one political view, that of Fianna Fáil, as a result of appointments over several years? Is it not the case also that there is real concern that Aer Rianta is seen almost as an extension of the Fianna Fáil fiefdom where it has had the opportunity to make use of Aer Rianta services at Dublin and other airports in terms of, as referred to by Deputy Kenny, very special treatment of former Members of this House in avoiding members of the press and so on. As far as an inquiry into this matter is concerned, will the Taoiseach consider widening its terms to take into account the full gamut of Aer Rianta?

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern Aer Rianta, through its auditors and senior staff, is assisting in bringing these matters to completion. Considerable powers are available if necessary, but perhaps there is a better way of dealing with the situation. The Deputy is not very well informed about internal politics in Aer Rianta or what the Minister is trying to do in regard to aviation transport here, otherwise he would not make the remarks he made.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin If the Taoiseach is proposing that he should have a greater input, I would have to oppose that, whatever the level of representation of his views. As to being informed about Aer Rianta, how well informed is the Taoiseach about the current reality in relation to very serious staff concerns vis-à-vis the running of Aer Rianta and specifically the current chairperson, Mr. Noel Hanlon, in terms of his role and the carrying out of his functions within Aer Rianta? I am sure the Taoiseach cannot be unaware of the express concerns of members of the staff of that body. What is his view of those? Does he agree that what we are looking at in terms of whiskey and cigars is but the tip of an iceberg of a culture of corruption and that that must be addressed? Would the Taoiseach be prepared to initiate a proper and full inquiry into the conduct of the affairs and business of Aer Rianta?

The Taoiseach: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern Policy changes within Aer Rianta will have to be dealt with, and the Mini[42] ster is involved in that. In the meantime, to the best of my knowledge, the chairman, staff and others in Aer Rianta do their very best to provide a good service. I do not believe an investigation is required, whatever the policy issues. I will say no more.

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