NOT ONLY CORRUPTION BUT TREASON TOO
Justine McCarthy, Sunday Times, Author of “Mary McAleese – the Outsider” and “Deep Deception – Ireland’s Swimming Scandals”
Forgive me if I begin back in the mists of time when I was a young and, clearly, naïve journalist. The year was 1984. I was working on a full-time freelance basis for the Irish Independent and being fleeced every week by the extortionate emergency tax rate. Somebody recommended an accountant to me and I went to see him. He was a sombre-suited gentleman who charged me £25 and told me to buy a box of chocolates, go along to the Revenue office in Nassau Street in Dublin, smile sweetly and appeal for help.
So off I trotted with a box of Double Centres in a brown paper bag, slid them across the counter and asked for help. At once, the chocolates came whistling back at me and an irate official fulminated that she was prohibited as a civil servant from accepting inducements. Mortified, I ran from the building faster than you could shout “fire” and dropped the chocolates into the lap of an astounded man wearing neither shoes nor socks as he begged on O’Connell Bridge.
What I learnt from that experience – apart from the obvious lesson that one should never listen to an accountant – was that a formalised code of integrity existed in Irish public life and its bottom line was that doing favours was not in the public interest. Sometimes, people say the mohair men with their brown envelopes operated in an era of obliviousness to the effects and the boundaries of corruption. It echoes the plea of ignorance you hear in relation to child sexual abuse; the defence of nobody-told-us-it-was-wrong. But that civil servant knew it was unethical to accept the chocolates from me even as, around the corner and up the street in Leinster House, the mohair men were putting “the effing mafia to shame”, in the famous words of Tom Gilmartin when faced with an extortion ring of government ministers in Leinster House. We know now that Charlie Haughey received the equivalent in today’s money values of €45m between 1979 and 1996.
The tribunals chaired by McCracken, Flood, Mahon and Moriarty mean we can never again claim we didn’t know about the misuse of power for personal benefit, to quote the definition Transparency International provides for corruption. Judge Alan Mahon says in his final report that “ignorance and apathy are both corruption catalysts” and that, because “the pathways of corruption are ever changing”, measures to fight it must be constantly reviewed. Corruption’s chameleon nature was, in fact, thrown into stark relief throughout the lifetime of the Mahon and Moriarty inquiries.
For 14 years, while they ploughed on, politicians like Bertie Ahern avoided answering questions about the evidence being uncovered of his and his party’s anti-Irish activities by insisting that we had to wait for the tribunal reports. Often we were told – falsely and, I believe, deliberately falsely – that the tribunals were sub judice and could therefore not be discussed. Not that this stopped Ahern and his cabinet vilifying the Mahon tribunal for supposedly being on a witch-hunt against him and, generally, rubbishing all tribunals because of their inflated expense, ignoring the inconvenient reality that it was politicians who set their terms of reference and their lawyers’ astronomical fees. Although, you know, the lawyers could have said no thank you to their €2,500-a-day.
Against this censorious sound-track, the biggest property bubble in history was being hot-housed outside the old garrison walls of Dublin Castle. Noël Coward said that “the higher the buildings, the lower the morals”. Despite an abundance of housing, the number of households on housing waiting lists doubled between 1996 and 2008. A statistic such as this shows how disingenuous and inflammatory is the post-boom catch cry that “sure, we all benefitted and we all lost the run of ourselves”. Some of those high-buildings of the boom have started to come down but there is scant evidence that public morals have start to rise in parallel.
It was the usual suspects who benefitted most from the Celtic tiger and the reason many of them did so is because our society continued to be ambivalent about low standards in high places right throughout the existence of the tribunals. Ahern’s tear-stained interview with Bryan Dobson in September 2006 captured the invincible amorality of the political culture when the Taoiseach of the day blithely declared that he appointed people to state boards because they were his friends.
Let’s take Michael Bailey as one example of those who rode the pig’s back during the stifling Celtic tiger years of loose morals and tight crony circles. In June 1989, the Bovale Developments director famously visited Ray Burke, a former minister for justice – for God’s sake! – at his home, Briargate in Swords north Dublin, and handed him a sum of money believed to be IR£40,000. In his second interim report published in September 2002, Judge Feargus Flood concluded that this “amounted to a corrupt payment and that all present at the meeting were aware it was such”. Flood also concluded that Michael Bailey bribed George Redmond when the latter was the assistant Dublin City and CountyManager. The report charged that Michael Bailey had hindered and obstructed the tribunal, that he gave false oral and documentary evidence, and that he attempted to undermine the tribunal by damaging its integrity.
Undeterred by these findings or by a £3m retrospective tax settlement with the Revenue Commissioners, Bailey applied to the tribunal to have his €1m legal costs paid by the state. Meanwhile, he continued to pay for a table in Fianna Fail’s fund-raising tent at the Galway Races each July and his company took out a full page advertisement in the party’s in-house newspaper, entitled The Nation, no less. A year after the Flood report came out, Bovale’s annual accounts showed the company’s profits had shot up by 300pc, from €14.8m in 2002 to €69.2m in 2003. It had assets of almost €100m. Michael Bailey and his brother Tom were paid €9.8m each, making them the biggest salary recipients in Ireland.
Fast-forward to the present day. Michael Bailey has never even been charged in connection with the bribes he paid, despite the Prevention of Corruption Act 2001 providing for a maximum penalty on conviction of 10 years’ imprisonment. To add insult to injury, his company, Bovale Developments, has had its loans transferred to NAMA, the agency we the citizens own at a cost of €30.5 billion. Fool me once, as they say, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Though we citizens are saddled with Bovale’s debts, we are not allowed to know how much they actually are because NAMA is exempt from the remit of the Freedom of Information Act. Pulling down the shutters on public information and, by extension, on transparency and accountability, was one of the most tangible accomplishments of the Fianna Fáil-PD alliance hatched in 1997. They brought in prohibitive charges for FOI requests that are among the highest in the world and exempted a host of public bodies from the legislation’s remit. One such is the Dublin Port Company where Ahern appointed his close friend and former Fianna Fáil councillor, Joe Burke, as chairman; not once but twice, despite Burke’s less than illustrious history as the owner of a number of failed and liquidated companies.
Next door to the Port Company, Sean FitzPatrick, the kamikazee Anglo Irish Bank chairman, sat on the board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority to which the government granted self-governance for construction planning. It is little wonder that the single biggest property scandal to unfold during the existence of the tribunals was the Dockland Authority’s joint venture with Bernard McNamara in a €412m purchase of the 25-acre Irish Glass Bottle site. When additional costs such as stamp duty were factored it, the final bill was €431m. Last year, the derelict site was valued at €45m. This is what happens when you give your pals state assets as playthings.
But that was then, you might say: Ireland has woken up to the stink of corruption and has built a legislative ring-fence against it so that these things cannot happen in the future. And I say: I give you Michael Lowry.
Last year’s Moriarty Tribunal report described as “profoundly corrupt” Lowry’s attempt to increase a state company’s rental charges for the benefit of his old pal, Ben Dunne. The state has spent untold millions investigating Lowry’s affairs since the McCracken tribunal was set up in February 1997 following revelations by journalist Sam Smyth of his fishy financial relationship with Ben Dunne. The subsequent Moriarty tribunal further found that it was “beyond doubt” Lowry, as Minister for Communications, facilitated Denis O’Brien’s winning of the state’s second mobile phone license in 1995. O’Brien had enriched Lowry, the report said, by around €1m in the form of cash payments, benefits and the enabling of a loan. Lowry had already availed of a tax amnesty but, having failed to reveal his offshore accounts, he had to pay another €1.4m to Revenue.
Judge Michael Moriarty wrote:
“In the cynical and venal abuse of office, the brazen refusal to acknowledge the impropriety of his financial arrangements with Mr Denis O’Brien and Mr Ben Dunne, and by his contemptuous disregard for his taxation obligations, Mr Lowry displayed qualities similar in nature, and has cast a further shadow over his country’s public life.”
It is repugnant to every precept of democracy that this man continues to occupy a seat in Dáil Éireann. A country that does not recognise that and do something about it is a country still in denial. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Lowry continues to enjoy ready access to government ministers. Dunne continues to personally advertise his gym on the radio as if his reputation is his unique selling point. And O’Brien has been invited to the Global Irish Economic Forum at Dublin Castle and to share the platform with the Taoiseach in the New York Stock Exchange as if he represents the best of Irishness.
The voters who have consistently returned Michael Lowry to the Dáil since his contempt for democratic values was first exposed 16 years ago are often demonised in the media. The argument made is of some merit but I think it is unfair to those voters who have stayed loyal to Lowry because he has delivered for their constituency. This sort of clientalism has been avidly nurtured by politicians and their parties since the foundation of the state. By creating a culture of dependency, the very system sets us up as a bunch of mugs to be done. Afterall, not all corruption is a crime. In cases of patronage, favouritism, political donations and personal relationships no law appears to be broken, even when it may bear the hallmarks of not only corruption but treason too.
When politicians use the power vested in them by the people to secure their own positions, that is what we call politics. There was no law broken when Charlie McCreevy, as Minister for Finance, announced his decentralisation master plan to relocate 10,000 civil servants around the country. Remember his colleague Tom Parlon’s triumphalist banners at the entrance to earmarked towns in his constituency for the following general election: “Welcome to Parlon Country”. After just 1,000 citizens moved at a cost of €290m, the plan was abandoned.
Last week, I came home from a trip abroad and, arriving at DublinAirport, I looked at the portraits lining the walls of the arrivals walk way, my gaze lingering – I must admit – on Pierce Brosnan and Gabriel Byrne. And there, among past presidents, Taoisigh, Olympians, acclaimed writers and peace-makers was a photograph of Dermot Desmond, who is regarded as one of Ireland’s richest men, though he is not actually in Ireland as he is resident in some other country for tax purposes.
In 1991, John Glackin, a solicitor appointed by the government to investigate the purchase by Telecom Éireann of the old Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien site in Ballsbridge, found that Desmond was a beneficiary of the transaction. He denied it and said he would publish a rebuttal of Glackin’s findings. Perhaps Mr Desmond is a slow writer but his rebuttal has yet to materialise.
Last year, Desmond was among a group of 17 people who penned a document entitled A Blueprint for Ireland’s Recovery. Denis O’Brien was another of its authors. Representatives of the group of 17 were among the first to enter Government Buildings after last year’s general election for a private meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss their recipe for Ireland’s recovery. The document recommended, among other measures, that we sell off our air and sea ports, reduce regulation, give employers a PRSI holiday, establish an expert group to eliminate fraud in social welfare, cut red tape for business and improve Ireland’s reputation abroad.
There is a saying that, if you look after your character, your reputation will take care of itself. Ireland needs to start working on its character. The corruption that Moriarty described as “endemic” is being addressed piecemeal by new laws on whistle blowers, lobbyists and ethics in public office. We have even seen a corrupt politician jailed for his crime; albeit Fred Forsey was a small-fry councillor who was unmasked by his scorned wife.
To borrow a phrase, there is a lot more to do. We must, for instance, make it possible to expel somebody like Lowry from the Dáil. As a recent European progress report on transparency reminded us, it is imperative that the powers of the Standards in Public Office Commission be expanded in order to deal effectively with wrong-doing by our elected representatives.
It would be wrong to assume that the tribunals have uncovered the full story of Irish corruption. What they have laid out before us is a mere fraction of it. That is what is most worrying about this government’s decision to shut down the inquiries John Gormley had begun into planning decisions in other parts of Ireland. The scope for favour-buying is endless when you think of the licenses, the permissions and the state contracts that are regularly sought and awarded.
I remember the day Frank Dunlop, the corrupt former government press secretary, got into the witness box at the planning tribunal and, in tabloid parlance, started singing like a bird. At the back of the packed public gallery watching him, I spotted a familiar face. It was John Hanrahan, the CountyTipperary farmer who fought an heroic battle more than 20 years ago to prove that Merck, Sharp & Dohme, a pharmaceutical company with a plant near his farm, was polluting his land. During a break in the tribunal hearings, he told me that he and his wife, Selina, had travelled up from Carrick-on-Suir to attend the tribunal because Dunlop had been engaged as a PR consultant by Merck and had run a campaign of reputation assassination against him, claiming Hanrahan was a bad farmer and that was why his animals were dying. It truly is an appalling vista when you consider how many pies the likes of Dunlop, Liam Lawlor, Ray Burke, Michael Lowry and Charlie Haughey had their hands in.
In his report, Judge Alan Mahon said that “corruption is a failing of individual morality”. In order to protect our country against the ever-present reality, we need a change of heart as well as a change of mind. And that means no more sneaking regard for the cute hoor. In France, President Francoise Hollande has appointed a moralisation committee under the chairmanship of Lionel Jospin to recommend how public life there can be cleaned up and better reflect the true republican values of fairness. Were we to have such a committee in this republic, I suggest we should begin at the infancy of our citizens. Right from the start, there ought to be a civic awareness inculcated that corruption is unacceptable. Teaching philosophy in primary schools would be a good start.
How wonderful it will be to, some day, have a country in which the citizens feel they are entitled to the highest standards in those elected to work on their behalf. I am sad to say, there is no sign that day is fast approaching because corruption will never be stopped until we stop celebrating the corrupt.