Institutional abuse deal ‘a blank cheque’

DEPARTMENT of Finance officials yesterday admitted that the deal struck between the Government and the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) on compensation payments to victims of residential abuse was in effect a blank cheque.

The controversial deal, agreed by former education minister Michael Woods in the last hours of his term of office, meant that CORI’s 18 religious institutions were indemnified against abuse claims by paying the Government €127m in cash and property.

Estimated costs to the Government have varied wildly, up to a possible €1 billion.

However Ann Nolan, principal officer of the Department of Finance’s public expenditure division, yesterday admitted the department did not have a reliable estimate as to how much the final bill to the taxpayer would be.

“In effect, what has happened is whatever the Redress Board says needs to be paid, will be paid,” she told the Oireachtas Finance Committee.

“We have no way of knowing what the figure will be. We don’t know how many cases there are,” she continued.

Ms Nolan also said that the Department of Finance had played no role in the final three weeks of negotiations between Minister Woods and CORI, and that the deal struck by the minister was the minimum acceptable to the Department of Finance.

“The final agreement by the Minister for Education and Science was what we regarded as the minimum acceptable,” she said.

Committee members expressed dissatisfaction at the terms of the deal, and questioned why the Department of Finance did not seem to be watching the situation as closely as it usually monitored the financial affairs of Government departments.

“We are not satisfied that the State’s interests have been properly protected,” said chairman Sean Fleming, referring to delays in the transfer of property to the State under the deal.

Referring to the Government’s original estimate of somewhere between €250m and €500m, Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin accused the Department of Finance of pulling ballpark figures from the clouds.

Criticising the Church, he called the agreement the most mean-spirited he had ever come across in his life.

Labour finance spokesperson Joan Burton criticised the Department of Finance for failing to produce a list of properties to be transferred to the state.

“If this is an arms-length deal and not a sweetheart deal, then there has to be some genuine mechanism for the Department to ensure there is real value to the State,” she said.

Ms Nolan said she could not provide a list of properties since that responsibility resided with the Department of Education.

“We have not been involved in a case-by-case look at properties. Our role is merely in terms of the overall value of any property accepted,” she said, adding that a number of properties had been accepted but not yet transferred, while other properties were still under discussion.

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