The former Minister for Agriculture recalls his war of words with Larry Goodman as he dealt with the tumultuous aftermath of the tribunal and describes how the affair shook up the cosy relationship between government and business
“The message being sent out of this House is that if one is brazen enough and has sufficient brass neck, one can get away with anything”
– Ivan Yates, Dáil, Sept 2, 1994
As an opposition spokesperson during the Beef Tribunal and then Minister for Agriculture in its aftermath, Ivan Yates had a ringside seat for some of the most “seismic political events” in Irish history.
He believes the tribunal fundamentally altered the relationship between business and the State, and defined the careers of many of the political giants of the era.
“I would say that the Beef Tribunal was as significant in terms of the relationship between politics and business, and public administration of business, as some of the seminal moments were in relation to redefining the structure and relationships between the Church and State,” he says.
“Over the last 30 years, things fundamentally changed in that relationship, where politicians and business people had almost a symbiotic relationship going back to the Lemass era.
“What was deemed good for business was good for Ireland. It was good for Irish society and was good for the political system.
“The Beef Tribunal changed that whole philosophy. It said ‘hold on a minute, business and politics is like oil and water — public administration should be at more than at arm’s length from business’.”
Mr Yates says this became absolutely accepted, adding that a key function of the State is now its regulatory role.
“Not necessarily giving incentives to people, but to actively police business, to ensure compliance with rules and regulations… all of that can be traced back to what happened,” he says.
Much of the Beef Tribunal’s significance has been forgotten, according to Mr Yates, but he says its impact has been very real.
“A lot of people don’t remember anything before Bertie Ahern,” he says. “It’s like you’re having a prehistoric discussion with younger people.
“A lot of the political lessons on the tribunal have been ingrained subconsciously, as opposed to people saying, ‘well the reason why attitudes changed on this was because of the circumstances and the fallout of the Beef Tribunal’.”
Mr Yates says the origins of the Tribunal clearly stem from this close relationship between business and the State.
“What happened in the ’80s was that Charlie Haughey and Fianna Fáil got very close to the Goodman empire,” he says. “They believed the way to improve beef exports and beef farmers’ incomes was to support in every way possible the global adventures and the sales success of Goodman International.”
In his view, when Fianna Fáil came back into power in ’87, they used all the organs of the State such as the IDA to support Goodman.
“What was good for Larry was good for beef farmers, was good for the country,” Mr Yates says, adding that these close ties were brought into evidence in August 1990 when the Dáil was recalled to pass emergency examinership legislation to stop the Goodman group going under.
“You could benchmark that as a point in time that the State and its authority and Goodman were on the same page. The Beef Tribunal marked the first beginning of a divergence,” he says.
Mr Yates himself played a key role in the aftermath of the tribunal and the chaotic political period that followed.
When he became Minister for Agriculture in 1994, he says he was under strict instructions from then Fine Gael leader John Bruton that any actions he took wouldn’t threaten the stability of the Rainbow Collation
That meant not being seen to be soft on Larry Goodman.
“The John Bruton philosophy and the front bench was very simple… the better the Government does… the more cohesive it is, the better it will be for Fine Gael in the polls.
“When I went into the Department, the report was coming out, EU fines were imminent. And some people I was working with in the Department were named and shamed for malpractice.
“And rest assured that my government partners wanted full accountability and wanted the Department brought to heel, and the Department absolutely reformed.
“So I had to simultaneously keep the civil servants happy, that they weren’t being hung out to dry, because I was their Minister... and I had to clearly show that on the political spectrum, I was opposed to Goodman.”
It was at this point a war of words sparked off between Mr Yates and Mr Goodman.
Under intense questioning in the Dáil from Des O’Malley on his performance relating to beef processors and Mr Goodman, Mr Yates said he “would shed no tears if Mr Goodman was to withdraw from the beef industry” and named him as the “main culprit” for the tarnishing of Ireland’s beef industry.
Mr Goodman reacted angrily to the comments and said he was been made the “scapegoat” for what he said was Mr Yates’s failure to reduce the £100m EU fine against the State for irregularities in the beef industry.
He described Mr Yates’s Dáil comments as the “most outrageous personal vilification” he had ever suffered.
Mr Goodman said he could prove that he and his company were “in no way responsible” for any of the fine levied by the EU.
Recalling this period, Mr Yates says Mr Goodman “didn’t suss the transformation of the political winds from what he was used to with Haughey and (Albert) Reynolds” and it was never going to be the same again”
“I think Goodman had an expectation that the Minister for Agriculture would simply genuflect to him. And I was never going to do that,” he says.
“I was never going to do that because it was politically impossible, given the formation of the Rainbow Government.”