McDowell `up a pole' during abuse deal talks

The Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell has confirmed he did not take part in crucial negotiations on the controversial compensation scheme for children abused in religious-run institutions.

Mr McDowell was accused in the Dail of being more interested in his re-election campaign and putting posters on lamp-posts, than in the affairs of state.

Altogether, the Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, has been facing a torrid time in the new session of parliament in Dublin. The failure to hold of elections in the North, the bin charges, the decline in the health services and miscellaneous scandals plaguing his colleagues have featured in a number of bruising exchanges.

The government has been particularly accused of incompetence and worse over a deal with the religious orders which will mean delays for abuse victims and ensure that taxpayers bear the brunt of the compensation scheme.

The angry resignation of Justice Mary Laffoy recently from the commission handling the scheme over the government's reluctance to process the claims catapulted the issue into the front pages in recent weeks.

The cost of the scheme could run to over a billion euros, according to some estimates. Asked today why he had agreed a full indemnity with the religious orders in return for only ¤128 million, Dr Michael Woods claimed that he was under pressure to conclude the deal.

As Minister for Education, Dr Woods negotiated the deal on behalf of the government during a six-month period from October 2001. The agreement was signed off on June 5th, 2002, the last day of the last government.

Ms Christine Buckley, director of the Aisling centre, said the deal prevented abuse victims taking their cases to court and seeking adequate compensation.

``He should have compensated [the State's] share - and then it would be up to the victims to take it to court. He capped it in order to prevent us from taking our cases to the High Court.''

The absence of Mr McDowell, then Attorney General, from the negotiations has not been fully explained. Although Mr Ahern claimed today that Mr McDowell had been ``fully briefed'' on the issue, the Attorney general would normally be a key figure in advising the government on legal matters, including the settlement of compensation claims.

In addition, Mr Ahern has also failed to explain why he failed to notify the Standards in Public Office Commission that party colleague Michael Collins, representative for Limerick West, was about to be named for tax evasion.

Mr Collins had come to him in the second half of June and said that he had sorted out a tax issue with the Revenue. But the matter did not come to light until he was ultimately named in a list of defaulters last week.

Commenting on the ongoing revelations, Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said the ``debacle'' over the tax affairs of Deputy Michael Collins ``demonstrates that the Taoiseach's promise to stamp out corruption had about as much impact as being struck over the head with a sock full of feathers.

``If the Taoiseach wishes to rescue what's left of his party's shattered credibility then he must initiate policies that not only effectively combats tax evasion but ensures that the most powerful and wealthy in Irish society pay their fair share.''

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