Private Flood inquiries 'possible'

Future elements of the Flood tribunal could be dealt with in private inquiries rather than public hearings in order to save time…

Future elements of the Flood tribunal could be dealt with in private inquiries rather than public hearings in order to save time and costs, according to the Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell.

Responding to a report in this newspaper that senior Government and legal figures are exploring ways of closing down or reforming tribunals, Mr McDowell said at the weekend that no changes had yet been considered by Government.

There were five significant tribunals in operation, and he did not believe any decision would be made "on a blanket basis".

However legislation to set up a new type of inquiry that he was currently planning, could apply to future aspects of Flood, he said on RTE radio.

"Maybe the time has come to do an estimate of where it's goingIs it going to be a 15-year enterprise? Can a single tribunal go for 15 years? Is that a good idea?"

Stressing that this had not been considered by the Government, he went on: "It might be that at some stage that say if it did appear thatthere is a 15 year time span for all of the Flood material, maybe parts of it could be sent to a private inquiry."

He said a decision was primarily the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment, Mr Cullen, and he was not aware of his having considered it.

The alternative means of inquiry being put forward by Mr McDowell is closer to the High Court inspector process than a tribunal of inquiry. Legislation setting up this mechanism - the Commission of Investigation Bill - is due to be published before the summer recess.

Mr McDowell said: "Whether it would be of any assistance to the Flood process that later modules were done in thatthat's a possibility I suppose."

The idea of dealing with elements of the Flood Tribunal in this way comes amid continuing controversy over the cost of tribunals and the fees paid to lawyers.

Reliable estimates put the final bills for the various tribunals at €500 million. Mr McDowell has been critical in the past of the level of fees paid to lawyers, and of the effects of tribunal publicity on the reputations of witnesses.

On Saturday, the Taoiseach denied that there were plans to close down or reform current tribunals. "That is not the case", he said.

"We have put out proposals before to get into a permanent mechanism, rather than the judicial route. But where the present tribunals are concerned, we have no proposals other than to keep going. We could have an alternative mechanism for the future."