The Mahon Tribunal said tonight that its inquiry will only cost €300m– one-third of the one billion euro bill suggested by Tánaiste Michael McDowell.
Judge Alan Mahon also revealed in a letter sent to the Dail that he told the Government two weeks ago that it would conclude its work in early 2008.
Environment Minister Dick Roche is currently in talks with the Mahon Tribunal and other inquiries about reducing costs and fast-tracking their investigations.
Mr McDowell claimed yesterday that the Tribunal, which began probing planning corruption a decade ago, could cost more than one billion euro and could not go on forever.
The Minister for Justice also claimed that lawyers in some tribunals had threatened to quit if their estimated 2,500 euro a day fees were slashed by the Government.
In his two-page letter dated today, Judge Mahon said of the one billion euro estimate: “The Tribunal believes that the ultimate costs of the Tribunal will be considerably less than that estimate.”
He added: “The final figure should not exceed €300m.”
Referring to the duration of the inquiry, the judge continued: “The Tribunal believes that it will complete all of its remaining public hearings in early 2008 and that legal costs thereafter will be substantially reduced. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage & Local Government has been so advised in correspondence on February 2, 2007.”
The reduced fees structure is due to come into operation late next month.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said of the latest dramatic developments: “You cannot believe a word the Minister for Justice says any more.
“He will say and do anything to keep his political masters happy.”
Earlier, the Tánaiste was due to take the Order of Business in the Dail today but was replaced by Minister for Social Affairs Seamus Brennan.
Mr Kenny said in the chamber: “This is a classic case of Fianna Fail confusion here where the Tánaiste is out like a lap dog doing the dirty work of the Taoiseach. He should be in here giving a full explanation about the future of the Mahon Tribunal.”
Fine Gael said the tribunal’s work should continue while Labour claimed yesterday that it was a sinister and disturbing development for the Tánaiste to be threatening to close the inquiry.
Mr Brennan said the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were both attending the inaugural plenary session of the Towards 2016 national wage agreement at Dublin Castle this morning.
He added: “The Government never has and never will interfere with any tribunal, including the Mahon Tribunal. It has very important work to do and it must do that work to completion.”
Mr Kenny said the absence of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste was a ’contemptuous snub’ to the Dail and he demanded a statement on the matter from the Government.
Green TD John Gormley said: “The Tánaiste seems to have lost the plot completely again and it looks like he will self-destruct before the general election.”
Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins said: “The Mahon Tribunal exposed the corrupt underbelly that pertained in planning in the country and the interface between politics and business which was rotten to the core.”