July 10th, 2019
Deputy Brid Smith and Leo Varadkar clashed yesterday over “cup of coffee” lobbying of one of the Taoiseach’s advisors by the oil and gas industry about her stalled Bill to block new exploration licences.
The fiery exchange occurred at Leaders’ Questions yesterday over an unrecorded meeting between the head of policy at the Department of the Taoiseach John Carroll and Feargal Purcell, a former press secretary to two Taoisigh, and now Director of the public relations firm Edelman Ireland.
One of Edelman’s clients is the Irish Offshore Operators’ Association (IOOA) that represents the offshore oil and gas industry in Ireland, with The Sunday Business Post revealing last weekend that Mr Purcell met with Mr Carroll earlier this year on behalf of IOOA.
According to the lobbying register, the meeting was to provide information on the economic value of the industry in the context of the Bill. While Mr Purcell recorded the meeting in the register, the Department of the Taoiseach said that it had no record of the meeting.
Responding to a question from Ms Smith about the meeting, Mr Varadkar said that his Department did not record it as there was no meeting in the Department of the Taoiseach itself and that the issue had been raised on Mr Purcell to Mr Carroll over coffee outside of State premises.
“[Mr Purcell] did not tell him the reason for the meeting. Over coffee he raised this issue and he declared it in the lobbying register,” Mr Varadkar said.
“If the Deputy wishes to read the lobbying Act, she will know it states the obligation to declare whether lobbying occurred is on the lobbyist,” Mr Varadkar added. Pressed by the People Before Profit deputy on the exact date of the meeting, the Taoiseach said that it took place on 2 May 2019.
A “totally angry” Ms Smith then proceeded to interrupt the Taoiseach, stating that it was “interesting” that the meeting took place just a few weeks before the Government wrote to the Ceann Comhairle asking for a reconsideration of whether the Bill needed a money message.
Money message questioned
A money message is a State recommendation approving of legislation that will cost the State money. Unless approval is received, a Bill cannot progress to Committee Stage.
When the Bill was first approved by the Dail in February 2018, the Bills Office judged that it did not require a money message and would have no cost implications or need the appropriation of public funds.
However, in the letter sent to the Ceann Comhairle at the end of May from the Minister for Natural Resources Sean Canney TD, several estimated costs are outlined, including the repayment of application fees to licence applicants and acreage rental fees for existing licences, as well as legal fees for potential challenges by exploration companies.
Ms Smith, however, accused the Government of misleading the Ceann Comhairle on the issue as an answer to a Dáil question raised by the deputy earlier last week revealed that the State has never returned application fees where explorations applications have failed as it is not common practice to do so.
Ms Smith said: “This revelation clearly undermines a key argument that the Bill requires a money message and I will be contacting the Ceann to ask that, in light of this, he reconsider his decision. It is clear that his office and the Dail are been seriously misled… and that this Bill will have no real cost should it pass into law.”
A spokesperson of the Department of Climate Action told The Green News that there is no requirement to refund the application fee if a determination is made to refuse an application.
“However, if the Bill became law, applications on hand for a licence would not be capable of being considered by the Minister and the application fees would have to be refunded– at a cost to the Exchequer, the statement continues.
Speaking at a protest outside the Dail yesterday evening, Ms Smith said that she will continue to fight to see the Bill progress either through a change to standing orders that would bypass the need for a money message or a possible legal challenge if required.