EOGHAN WILLIAMS THE former Education Minister, Michael Woods, has said that his strong Catholic faith made him the most suitable person to negotiate the controversial compensation deal for abuse victims with religious institutions.
Defending the exclusion of then Attorney-General, Michael McDowell, and his officials from two meetings, Dr Woods said: "The legal people simply couldn't have attended - it was a no-go area for them - they had fallen out with the religious."
As the row over the exclusion of the Attorney-General's office from the negotiations continues to divide the Government, Mr Woods yesterday told the Sunday Independent: "My religion was an asset."
While Dr Woods said his Catholicism had helped to break the deadlock in the negotiations, he denied he was a member of Opus Dei. He also said he was not a member of the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus or any other lay Catholic organisation.
When Dr Woods and the Department of Education Secretary General, John Dennehy, eventually struck a deal with religious institutions, the Church's liability was capped at ?128m, a settlement which has been strongly criticised by the Comptroller & Auditor General.
Asked yesterday if Michael Woods was a member of Opus Dei, the organisation's spokesman in Ireland, Paul Harmon, said: "It is not the role of the Opus Dei information office to say whether a person is or is not a member because it is a personal matter to do with their spiritual lives."
He also said the organisation was forbidden by Church law from getting involved in the professional or political lives of its members.
Dr Woods, who has also held ministerial portfolios at the departments of health and social welfare, said he had always brought a "straight and honourable" Catholic decency to his work.
He denied ground was conceded by the Government during the negotiations. But he said his strong Catholic faith, as well as his status as the minister, had "kick-started" the talks and led to a larger financial commitment coming from the religiousorders.
"My religion was an asset. They knew me and they knew my work. I can't say someone else wouldn't have been able to do the same. That said, they would have known me well," Dr Woods said.
He said that he entered politics after working with several Catholic community groups. "I am a Christian first, then a Catholic," he said.
Dr Woods said he kept in mind the "helpfulness and generosity" of the Church, which he had experienced as a minister, during the negotiations. The Church had not only given guidance, but also property, he said.
Survivors of Child Abuse, a group representing clerical abuse victims, has accused the former Education Minister of being a member of Opus Dei, a group labelled "the holy mafia" by its detractors.
The issue of the Church's influence in matters of State resurfaced last week when a former civil servant said Opus Dei actively sought members with influential jobs.
"I was personally invited, in my capacity as a civil servant, to join Opus Dei in early 1984," Nigel Cooke, who now lives in England, said.
He claimed a number of Catholic lay organisations seek to infiltrate government departments in an attempt to "interfere in the making and execution of public policy".
Michael McDowell, the Justice Minister, who at the time was Attorney-General, sparked a major controversy last week when he contradicted Dr Woods's assertion that he had been involved in talks at all appropriate times.
This month the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was told by John Purcell, the Comptroller and Auditor General, that "greater diligence" by the State "would have added extra rigour" to its negotiating strategy.
Responding to Mr McDowell's comments, Mr Woods said he resented anyone "playing politics" or undermining the rights of victims.
He said talks with the Church had broken down following leaks about the negotiating position of the orders. "I am not going to say where those leaks came from but they did not come from my Department and they did not come from the orders. The only others involved were Finance and the A-G's office," Dr Woods said.
Given Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy's recent public backing of the deal, many will see the comments as a thinly veiled allegation that Michael McDowell was undermining Dr Woods during the talks in autumn 2001.
The former Education Minister says the State's position was strengthened following his intervention.
The PAC heard this month that the Department of Education, in a letter sent to the religious orders the day before the controversial meeting, performed a significant U-turn, agreeing to consider counting the value of property given by religious orders to the State in the past towards the value of the total religious orders' contribution.
Up to that point, the State team, including officials from Michael McDowell's office and the Department of Finance, held out against this, the PAC was told.