Joe Higgins TD, speaks in the Dail on Fianna Fail corruption

Dáil Éireann, Leaders' Questions, 27th September 2006

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party): This very morning the Government has thrown thousands of Aer Lingus workers to the multinational wolves, on stock exchanges around the world. Yesterday, the Government had gardaí pushing the decent people of Rossport around the place at the behest of the Shell Oil corporation.

Finian McGrath (Independent): Hear, hear.

J. Higgins: At every hand's turn the Taoiseach has facilitated the powerful and the very wealthy. Therefore it is no surprise that wealthy businessmen should cough up €50,000 to him. What is shocking is that the Taoiseach still apparently does not see that a Minister for Finance taking large amounts of cash from businessmen is by any objective yardstick a massive conflict of interest. The Taoiseach minimises the amount of money, but in 1993 the average industrial wage was €13,416 per year, so that three times that amount, by any ordinary worker's standard, would be colossal. By coincidence, two years after that I bought a semi-detached home for €47,000 with a mortgage that goes on until I am 65. At no stage should the Taoiseach have brought his personal life or difficulties into this issue. It is not relevant.

Again last night, deliberately, he cast RTE's Brian Dobson in the role of agony aunt in order to divert attention from the critical issues which he is refusing to answer. The Taoiseach's personal circumstances are irrelevant because he said, last night, that he had already got a bank loan to pay off pressing bills, that they were taken care of. Presumably he had a schedule of repayments to the bank. He then used what he says were personal loans to pay off the bank loan. Can he explain that conundrum to the House?

When the Taoiseach was in the Dáil in 1997 setting up tribunals on payments to politicians, it beggars belief that the alarm bells that should have been going off in his head were not so deafening as-----

An Ceann Comhairle (Chair): The Deputy's time has concluded.

J. Higgins: -----to tell him to pay back the €50,000. It was at the very least a catastrophic failure of political judgment. It further beggars belief that he could not give it back. Did the Taoiseach ever hear of a bank draft? This morning it took me two minutes to draft the letter the Taoiseach could send with it:

Ah Jaysus lads, you'll have me in huge trouble if you don't take back the €50,000. My circumstances are improved and I'll have 50 reporters traipsing after me for the rest of my life if this comes out. Bertie.

It was as simple as that. Perhaps he might have said: "P.S. Tell Paddy the plasterer to steer clear of Callely's house. He is in enough trouble with the painter already."

A senior Minister gets substantial amounts of money from wealthy people. Half of them are subsequently lifted into influential positions on prestigious State bodies. What would any objective assessment of that be in any jurisdiction? That was nauseous patronage and cronyism. Incredibly, the Taoiseach blocked it out last night: the appointments were not because they gave him money but because they were his friends. That is just as bad. Can he not understand that appointing cronies to State boards because they are friends is the most despicable abuse of the State and of public bodies?

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy's time has concluded. He must give way to the Taoiseach.

J. Higgins: Finally, we had the hapless Deputy Callely. A businessman gave his house a slap of paint.

An Ceann Comhairle: I ask the Deputy to please give way to the Taoiseach.

J. Higgins: That caused the Taoiseach to show him the door, while he walked away with the whole house. By those standards, should the Taoiseach not go after the former Minister of State, Deputy Callely?

The Taoiseach: As I said earlier, these were loans with interest, not from businessmen but friends. My friends have been described as businessmen but the impression given that they are captains of industry is far from the truth. They are people who assisted me at a particular time because they knew the circumstances. I accepted that only on the basis these were loans with interest. That is the position.

Every person appointed to a State board whether by myself or my colleagues is someone we believe is qualified for such an appointment. They are appointments based on merit taking into account the particular combination of skills, qualifications, background and life experience that each person has. Over a long political career I know a great many people who have been appointed to key boards. I knew these people. They had relevant skills and experience. Three of the five had served on State boards long before they gave me any loan. The other two could be considered under any fair examination to be outstanding people who served the State well on these boards. I do not accept the position outlined.

Deputy Joe Higgins can make the point that all of this is a bit of fun. I do not see it as a bit of fun but as a serious issue. As regards paying them back and how, he could be right in saying that I should have paid them back. Perhaps I should have just paid them back and not worried how it would be interpreted, although I had taken the initiative of giving documentation to the tribunals. I should have been able to say that I had paid them back over several years. I did not do it that way because I thought that would be seen as just doing it at that particular time. I followed the advice I got to the effect that these matters could not come out, and that I should keep the interest and the paperwork up to date.

Deputy Rabbitte asked me earlier whether there was documentation on the circumstances of these loans from the individuals concerned. There is comprehensive documentation and it is with the tribunal as well. On the issue of the Deutsche Bank and the forgery, the tribunals, I believe, have finished with that matter. I mention it because again, it was a sinister act to try to set me up by suggesting I had extensive accounts. I am not making a point about it, however it shows the things one has to try and deal with. That is why I dealt with the tribunals so comprehensively.

J. Higgins: I do not think it is a bit of fun, but sometimes one has to resort to ridicule to show the untenable position the Taoiseach is holding onto with his explanations. The Taoiseach is not the only person who has to offer an explanation to the House. In the face of patronage, cronyism and double standards we have the Trappist-like silence from the Tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats. In a previous life in Opposition, one can only imagine the fulminations that would rain down from on high on the Taoiseach's head from Deputy McDowell as regards these issues. To say he would become beetroot red is really only a pallid description of the shade of crimson verging on purple which would describe the glow irradiating from the indignant persona of Deputy McDowell.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy's time has concluded.

J. Higgins: Far from standing up for standards, he is sitting neatly beside the Taoiseach today. Admittedly, his demeanour is rather tombstone like, without the moonlight even. However, since his appointment two weeks ago, Deputy McDowell is trying to work hard to have us believe he has no previous history in Government, that he has not been in Government for ten years, and that he has no responsibility for the billions of euro in stamp duty and the rest. He wants us to believe he is a political newborn, dropped by a stork, perhaps, into a basket outside Government Buildings two weeks ago, with Deputy O'Donnell playing along as the besotted nurse fetchingly referring to him as Michael, if one does not mind. That is somewhat different from the name she was spitting out two months ago from behind clenched teeth, when Michael was trying to take the PD rattler from Mary. What has the Tánaiste said to the Taoiseach about this and will he make a statement?

The image which Fianna Fáil has carefully cultivated of the Taoiseach, who is on €250,000 per annum, is that of an ordinary, struggling man like the rest of the ordinary people out there. This image has taken a fierce battering. Ordinary people do not have wealthy friends to do a whip around and the myth that Fianna Fáil is somehow the ordinary working person's party will hopefully end with this episode, where rich people come to the assistance of senior politicians.

Deputies: Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach: As I said a number of times, these people are friends. If the Deputy wants to categorise people who are friends, that is his entitlement, but it is not an offence to get loans from friends at times. I did that one time in my 55 years on this earth. If in hindsight that was not the wisest thing to do, so be it, but I think there are few of us in this House who have not benefited from friendship at times, particularly in times of difficulty. I have broken no laws and have violated no ethical codes. I have co-operated fully with tribunals that are there to make findings of fact. Other circumstances are used to put out half-truths, exaggerations and claims. I made it very clear what I did and did not do, and I did so many years ago under the confidentiality of tribunals to show that I had nothing to do with any of the issues that I was accused of doing. People are well aware of what has been stated about me over a number of years. I would not wish that people in this House would have to go through the same process I have had to go through in the past eight or nine years to prove that I had no hand, act or part in any of the serious allegations that have been pressed against me, but time will see that right.

Deputies: Hear, hear.

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