Witnesses Bill delay unlikely to hinder work on Dunnes report

 

THE latest obstacle to the passage of legislation to give Oireachtas committees the power to compel the attendance of witnesses will not hamper the work of the subcommittee examining the Dunne's Stores payments affair, according to its chairman.

With the Buchanan report on payments made to politicians expected to be handed to the Ceann Comhairle of the Dail today, Mr Michael Bell said yesterday that his sub committee would proceed to examine it on the basis of existing law.

Even without new powers, he added, "I'm quite sure we will be able to persuade everybody we want to speak to speak to us."

But there are fears that Mr Bell's committee will not be able to get at the truth without the new powers proposed in the delayed Compellability of Witnesses Bill. Even when the new Bill is passed, according to the Opposition, a full tribunal of inquiry may be needed to find out which politicians and public servants received money from Dunnes Stores and why.

The passage of the Compellability of Witnesses Bill, originally due next Thursday, has been postponed for at least a week after the Government bowed to Opposition pressure to redraft the Bill substantially.

There were reports at the weekend that the only politician named in Judge Buchanan's report as having received money is Mr Michael Lowry, who has already given an explanation to the Daily of the payments he received.

Mr Michael McDowell of the Progressive Democrats said last night that if, as is believed, Mr Lowry is the only politician to be named in the report the Government would have to face up to whether it needed a tribunal to inquire into the matter.

"The committee thought it would have a juicy piece of meat on which to dine but they seem to be getting a bone which has been well gnawed already," he said.

The five man subcommittee of the Dail Committee on Procedure and Privileges looking into the Dunnes payments affair is likely to receive the Buchanan report today or tomorrow. According to Mr Bell they will then decide what procedure to follow. This will depend on what is in the report.

But after lengthy committee stage meetings on the Bill last week, at which the Government bowed to Opposition pressure to make many changes in the Bill, the Government decided that the necessary redrafting work would not be finished in time to allow the Bill to pass this week. The Bill will now be taken "not earlier than" next week.

According to the Fianna Fail Chief Whip, Mr Dermot Ahern, the Government agreed to postpone the Bill's completion only after he had threatened to create difficulties over Dail pairing arrangements in protest against the rushing through of the legislation.

The Government Chief Whip, Mr Jim Higgins, came back to him later and said the Minister of State, Ms Avril Doyle, had agreed that the timescale was unrealistic.

The Opposition maintains that the Bill as presented by the Government listed too many circumstances in which people could opt not to appear before a committee.