To impunity and beyond

By Fintan O’Toole (for the Irish Times)

The most potent force for revelation in Irish politics is the man whom Charles Haughey, with all the emotion conjured by the receipt of huge bank drafts, affectionately called “Big Fella”. Ben Dunne’s big mouth and sudden impulses have made him the wild card in the game of power. A culture of quiet influence and tacit understandings is best maintained by discreet accountants and confidential lawyers. But discretion is not in the Big Fella’s nature.

Big Ben’s big mouth was open again on Tuesday. Almost as soon as Mr Justice Moriarty issued his final report, the man whose dealings with Haughey and Michael Lowry have kept him employed since 1997 was on the airwaves. While Lowry and Denis O’Brien were attacking Moriarty with phrases whose similarity suggested a well-rehearsed PR campaign, Dunne did the last thing a handler would want him to. He talked to Joe. And talked and talked. And as he ranted on to Joe Duffy, he spilled out truths that are just as significant as the forensic accumulation of complex detail that Moriarty had unveiled.

Denis O’Brien had spent a great deal of time and money preparing for the day when Moriarty would publish the findings of almost a decade of hearings into his victory in the 1995 competition for Ireland’s second mobile-phone licence. The sophistication and forethought involved can be judged simply by typing into a web browser. It takes you not to the tribunal’s website but to one “created by Mr Denis O’Brien to help explain and expose the inner workings of the Moriarty Tribunal”.

O’Brien, who wields vast influence through his ownership of both independent national talk-radio stations and his large shareholding in the Independent newspaper group, has not sought to defend himself. His strategy is to attack. The position articulated by Denis O’Brien and Michael Lowry is that they are innocent victims of a monstrous conspiracy. O’Brien went so far as to suggest not merely that Justice Moriarty had adopted a “preconceived position” before hearing the evidence but that the entire judiciary had conspired to protect and support him. This is consistent with Lowry’s view, in a statement released last year, that Moriarty was “intent on destroying my character, shredding the reputation of the Irish civil servants and damaging the international image of the Irish State”. Not only is there no scandal in relation to Lowry’s role in the awarding of the phone licence to O’Brien, but everyone is allegedly missing a far bigger scandal.

A judge regarded as the epitome of judicial sobriety and propriety has gone rogue and become obsessed with destroying Ireland’s international reputation. Instead of reining him in, his colleagues have conspired to allow him to bring his evil plan to fruition. If the best form of defence is attack, this is an aerial bombardment with preposterous allegations.

This strategy of painting O’Brien and Lowry as innocent victims of what the latter calls “State oppression” depended on one thing: the implausibility of the very idea that Lowry might be open to improper influence.

Unfortunately Ben Dunne went on air and revealed two things to listeners: his absolute conviction that he has never been involved in corruption and his belief that it was, and still is, perfectly fine in Ireland for a rich man to lift the phone to a minister and expect to get things done.

Ben Dunne paid Charles Haughey more than 2 million euro. Haughey in return helped the Dunne group reduce its tax bill by a whopping 23 million pounds. Dunne also colluded with Michael Lowry’s organised evasion of taxes. And, as Moriarty found this week, he asked Lowry to attempt to get a State-owned company to double the rent it paid to him for his office block, Marlborough House. Yet he told Joe Duffy, “I done absolutely nothing wrong in any of my dealings.”

He seemed genuinely outraged at the notion that giving huge bungs to a taoiseach and keeping a compliant cabinet minister on a financial leash could be wrong.

That his upset was genuine was obvious. His defence against Moriarty’s finding of corruption in relation to Marlborough House is not that he wouldn’t dream of asking a minister to interfere with the rental arrangements of a State company. It is that the interference he demanded was merely to speed up the process of an independent, quasi-judicial review conducted by the auctioneer Mark FitzGerald. He saw the whole thing as a simple matter of political connections: “I phoned Lowry . . . I knew he knew Mark FitzGerald and Sherry FitzGerald were doing the review. I said, ‘Michael, you know Mark FitzGerald. I don’t know him. They’re doing a rent review. Will you ever get it speeded up?’ “

Not only was this fine then, it is fine now: “In my days, and even these days, ministers still take phone calls - if you know them well . . . I would have phoned a minister within the last year or so [on] a private matter.”

In one way Dunne’s unguarded admissions are shocking, but in another they merely confirm the weary belief that this is the way things are done in Ireland.

In the case of Michael Lowry, after all, it should be news to no one that he behaved abysmally in public office. Even before the Moriarty tribunal was set up, certain facts about Lowry had been established. There is no dispute about three things: that Lowry misled the Dail in 1996, when he gave the impression that he had no offshore bank accounts; that he misled the Revenue Commissioners when he availed of the tax amnesty of 1993 without declaring all of his hidden income; and that he colluded with Ben Dunne to evade taxes, creating, as the McCracken report put it, an “appalling situation that Mr Lowry consistently benefited from the black economy from shortly after his election to the Dail” in 1987.

We already knew, therefore, that when he was chairman of Fine Gael’s parliamentary party and its chief fundraiser and when he was, as minister, overseeing the awarding of the most lucrative licence ever issued by the State, he was showing contempt for both the truth and the law of the land.

We knew, too, that he had a taste for labyrinthine and secretive financial meanderings: McCracken referred to his use of arrangements “whereby large sums of money would be paid to him personally in a clandestine manner”. Far from it being inherently implausible that a man with such low standards would try to take personal advantage of his power over a licence that was worth billions, it seems improbable that he would not.

And yet Lowry, O’Brien and Dunne are in a position to benefit from a grotesque paradox. The question posed explicitly by O’Brien and Dunne this week was stunningly brazen but entirely apt: if all this is true, why am I not in jail? Both men ostentatiously welcomed the referral of the Moriarty report to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Dunne even suggested to Joe Duffy the appropriate sentence if he is found guilty of the “breathtaking” corruption that Moriarty accuses him of: “I should be put behind bars for a minimum of 10 years.” It is safe to assume that neither man would welcome this course of action if he actually believed that a prosecution, still less a conviction, were at all likely.

By issuing their “come and get me” challenges, Dunne and O’Brien went to the heart of the great failure of the whole era of tribunals: impunity. This is the word that Judge McCracken used in his report 14 years ago when he suggested that “the most damaging aspect” of Lowry’s behaviour was the “public perception that . . . a member of cabinet was able to ignore, and indeed cynically evade, both the taxation and exchange control laws of the State with impunity”. That perception has not been diminished by two decades of tribunals and investigations. It has been massively strengthened. Up to a point, our era of inquiries has done the great public service of opening up the golden circles of money and influence that have had such a disastrous long-term effect on our economy and our society. But it could be argued that in one crucial respect, things have gone backwards. Before all of this, someone who was exploiting the system for personal advantage might have feared exposure.

The bullish behaviour of Lowry, O’Brien and Dunne this week was that of men who know they have nothing to fear. We now know that, on the whole, exposure is not a mortal wound. It is just a passing fever.

Consider the fate of those who have been on the receiving end of adverse findings over the past 20 years. The first big scandal was the purchase in 1990 of the Johnston Mooney and O’Brien site in Ballsbridge by the State-owned Telecom Eireann, for more than twice what had been paid for it a year earlier. The report of the inspector, John Glackin, concluded that the people who ultimately had a financial interest in the transactions were the financiers Dermot Desmond and JP McManus and the developer Pat Doherty.

This conclusion (hotly contested by Dermot Desmond) did no one any great harm. Desmond went on to become a billionaire, and McManus is a popular philanthropist and racehorse owner.

The beef tribunal, which reported in 1994, made a series of astonishing findings against the Goodman International group, owned and controlled by Larry Goodman. Among them were a massive tax fraud, the systematic misappropriation of beef going into EU intervention schemes and the abuse of State export credit guarantees in Goodman’s dealings with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the subsequent Dail debate, Michael McDowell asked the rhetorical question: “Will any of these people hang their Armani jackets on the back of a cell door in Mountjoy?”

The answer, of course, was no: the only person to be prosecuted as a result of the beef tribunal was Susan O’Keeffe, the journalist who uncovered the scandal in the first place. Not only that but, in the long term, Larry Goodman suffered no real damage. He regained control of his companies and is still one of the largest beef processors in Europe. In 2005 it was revealed that the EU, which had been defrauded by his company, was paying him 500,000 euro a year under the Single Farm Payment scheme. The following year, after the US invasion, the new Iraq government paid him $72 million he was owed by Saddam.

And so it goes. Charles Haughey’s astonishing venality (he took in the equivalent of almost 50 million euro during his political career) was exposed by the McCracken and Moriarty tribunals. He was not prosecuted, either for evading tax on his vast secret income or for lying to the tribunals. Instead he was given a State funeral and hailed at his graveside by his successor Bertie Ahern as “a patriot to his fingertips”. Many of the great and the good of Irish business were found by the Public Accounts Committee to have either colluded with or turned a blind eye to systematic tax evasion by the banks on whose boards they served. Not one of them suffered the slightest damage, even to their reputations in the business community.

No one was prosecuted for the Ansbacher Cayman scam, which encompassed a wide range of well-connected men, including a director of the Central Bank.

Even Ray Burke, one of the very few people who did suffer from his exposure as a corrupt fixer, receives a State pension of well over 100,000 euro a year.

Michael Lowry has become a local hero. His ambitions to be taoiseach were derailed by the scandal, but his vote has substantially increased since he was first exposed. In 1992, when he was apparently untainted, he got 7,400 votes in North Tipperary. Last month he got 14,100 votes - almost twice as many.

In all, almost 20 years of investigations have resulted in a grand total of 112 weeks behind bars: 56 for the lobbyist Frank Dunlop, six for Liam Lawlor, 14 for Ray Burke and 36 for the former assistant Dublin city manager George Redmond, whose conviction was subsequently quashed. Two years’ jail for two decades of scams - for anyone thinking of enriching themselves corruptly, not bad odds.

This is why the most significant revelation this week was not the appalling behaviour revealed by Moriarty but the collective swagger and absolute confidence of Denis O’Brien, Michael Lowry and Ben Dunne. They clearly feel untouchable, shielded in O’Brien’s case by vast wealth, in Lowry’s by his massive vote, in Dunne’s by his absolute conviction that the millions he funnelled towards politicians were just part of the way Ireland is.

The Big Fella ended his performance on Liveline by boasting that he was able to get a brain scan for a friend: “There was a long, long waiting list, but I was able to ring somebody who rang somebody.”

Circumventing waiting lists or ringing ministers: it’s all part of doing business. “In the business world, there is an old saying: it’s not what you know but who you know.” He was trying to think of the word for it and came up with “internetting”. Perhaps, Joe Duffy suggested, the word he was looking for was “networking”. And the Big Fella happily agreed.

After all the money and all the lies, all the lapses of memory and sickening revelations, we at least have a word for it. Networking.

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