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Fifty years of omerta on Ireland’s biggest company

CRH systemically flouts competition and company law with impunity.

By Séamus Maye

As I walked into the elegant Carlisle room at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire in April last for CRH plc’s latest AGM, many thoughts flashed through my head. Why am I here? Why have I been in Court with CRH plc for 27 years? Why are the political parties and regulators protecting CRH plc? Why has my family been blacklisted by the banks for over a quarter of a century? Where are the media?

Then it dawned on me like an epiphany. This is no ordinary plc, this is a mafia complete with criminal structures and behaviour and the usual protection rackets with every machination of the State and the banks, working arm-in-arm to protect what I now believe to be an OCG [Organisied Criminal Group]. The gang leader, Albert Manifold delivered his usual silky-smooth State of the Nation address. But the meeting was fronted by a decidedly uncomfortable Chairman, former Bank of Ireland CEO, Richie Boucher. You see Richie was tasked with shielding the Board of Directors from my unwelcome intrusion. Richie didn’t deny any of my allegations, just an unconvincing reply, “that’s your perspective, Mr Maye”.

So just how did this OCG survive and thrive?

CRH plc has been Ireland’s largest company for several decades and now ranks itself as the world’s No. 2 in the construction materials sector. The company is synonymous with controversy going back at least to the 1969 takeover of Irish Cement.

Then Fianna Fáil leader, Jack Lynch, had intervened to ensure that Roadstone was the preferred bidder for Irish Cement and former Taoiseach Seán Lemass was appointed as the first Chairman of the new Cement Roadstone Holdings (now CRH plc). The late Des Traynor, arguably Ireland’s most corrupt business figure, also figured on the board of the newly created monster.

Don’t worry, no cross-party stone was left unturned, CRH stalwart Tony Barry had his brother Peter to call on as long-time Fine Gael Deputy leader.

Labour too was captured, it was under Labour’s then Minister for the Environment, Dick Spring that the illegal cement certification scheme was introduced in March 1983.

The Progressive Democrats huffed and puffed about taking down CRH. In the end, Mary Harney and Michael McDowell played a good cop/bad cop blinder and frustrated any attempt to hold CRH to account. The PDs’ betrayed everything they (apparently) stood for in their efforts to protect this leviathan.

The Greens too huffed and puffed under John Gormley and his lieutenants but when they went into government in June 2007, they too back-pedalled and acquiesced in the protection racket around CRH plc.

That’s all the parties that have been in power since 1969.

Then Fianna Fáil leader, Jack Lynch, had intervened to ensure that Roadstone was the preferred bidder for Irish Cement and former Taoiseach Seán Lemass was appointed as the first Chairman of the new Cement Roadstone Holdings

By 1973, Ireland was immersing itself in the EEC. It had to introduce several new laws and regulations in order to make Irish Law compatible with EU Competition (Antitrust) and, later, Money-Laundering, Laws.

This is where it gets really sinister. Ireland brought in (on the face of it) strong competition law, starting with the 1991 Competition Act, the successor to the Restrictive Practices Act 1972, which created the Competition Authority. This was followed by the Company Law Enforcement Act 2001, which created the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement.

However, these regulators have proved chimerical. The lengths that these supposed regulators have gone to protect CRH plc is staggering. Taxpayers have been forced to pay enormous sums of money to fund these inept regulators for over fifty years.

So, what of the Garda, Ireland’s primary crime busters? The author has presented files to the last four Garda Commissioners complaining about unprecedented economic crime (allegedly) committed by CRH but there has been an ongoing failure to act. Indeed a Wexford family has made very serious allegations of fraud against CRH plc but while gardaí initially got involved and acknowledged the fraud to the Somers family, the family were subsequently told by local gardaí that, “we’re killing the case”.

And what of the legal system? Suffice it to say that my family’s proceedings (best known as “the Framus case” have been running for 27 years and the, almost identical Goode Concrete case for 13 years with little progress made. Add the Ballymore Properties pyrite case and we have a cumulative 50+ years of litigation against CRH plc, without a blow being landed. The above-mentioned Somers family have now spent eight years seeking effective legal representation against a background of chronic barriers to justice.

Typical of the connections that would make you paranoid is the conduct of the late High Court Judge, John Cooke (RIP). In the mid-eighties, John Cooke, then a senior counsel, was engaged by Hytherm, a new entrant to the EPS (insulation panels market). John Cooke’s mission was to obtain an injunction against CRH plc, the dominant player in the EPS market, to stop its relentless predatory pricing, collusion and market-sharing. Cooke was successful with his quest. So impressed was CRH plc with Cooke’s smooth performance against it, that it signed him up to appeal the EU Commission decision of 30 November 1994. It has also been established that Judge Cooke began accumulating CRH shares in 1994 and continued doing so, at least until 2010 (that we know of). Neither Judge Cooke nor CRH plc made disclosures in relation to the Judge’s relationship with CRH. Judge Cooke went on to give three damaging judgments in the Goode Concrete case (subsequently set aside by the Supreme Court) and to strike out the Framus proceedings in their entirety in 2012.

The Framus case is a spectacular example of the failure of the Irish Justice system. This can only be a failure by design on the part of the legislature with the object of protecting the defendants, CRH plc and its associates Kilsaran Concrete, Readymix plc and Grafton Group subsidiary, CPI.

Essentially, the Framus case alleges margin squeeze, price manipulation and abuse of dominant competitive position. CRH was allowed to acquire Irish Cement in 1979 and also got control over Irish Industrial Explosives, giving it access to two of the key ingredients in concrete manufacturing. It then relentlessly raised prices of both products while dropping prices for concrete products (it was already the dominant operator in the concrete products market). This was the classic ‘margin squeeze’. Independent concrete producers were making CRH rich while CRH was making them poor. Very many independents were forced from the market while a host of others were secretly taken over by CRH, which gave an illusion of competition in the market.

In my most recent sworn affidavit, November 5th, 2021, I made inter alia, the following averment, “I say that the CRH defendants’ and Kilsaran Concrete have been making a mockery of the Courts over the past 25 years by masquerading as two entirely separate companies. I say further that I have no doubt, from my intimate knowledge of the construction materials sector, that defendants are funding their defence of these legal proceedings from the proceeds of crime, while my family remains blacklisted with banks.”
There have been decisions that defy logic, e.g. the High Court Discovery decision of 2002 (Judge Daniel Herbert) and the subsequent decision on appeal by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, this terrible decision is now the ‘authority’ on discovery, so there is ongoing suffering for others.

Three of a host of barriers to justice are: a) there are still no class actions in Ireland, though representative actions are imminent; b) third-party funding is illegal; and c) contingency fees are illegal.

So where does one turn, in circumstances where one’s opponent is enjoying unprecedented levels of protection from the establishment; the media of course.
In the past, there has been some terrific reporting on CRH plc, Mick Clifford (Irish Examiner); Ted Harding, Vincent Browne and Kieran Wood (all Business Post); Jim Clarke (Ireland on Sunday); Gerry Byrne (Sunday Independent), Barry O’Halloran (Irish Times), Brian Lavery (New York Times) and indirectly Trevor Birney (recent author of ‘Quinn’). Sadly, reporting has entirely dried up, as CRH and its government associates have wielded their influence and shut the media down.

A special word for RTÉ: the author has been approached on eight separate occasions to do a ‘Prime Time’ programme on CRH plc and the construction materials industry. On these eight occasions, I was informed by RTÉ insiders that the proposed programme was pulled by senior RTé personnel. Back in 1998, one particularly experienced team described the proposed documentary as “the best we have ever worked on because it involves the political parties, the banks, Ireland’s largest company (CRH plc) and finally, the victim (Maye family)”.

Now, to put things in further context, let’s briefly take a wider look at CRH plc’s international activities:

Ireland: It is not possible to elaborate on CRH plc’s controversial activities in a short article. However, apart from the myriad anti-competitive complaints going back over 50 years, some will remember the secret sale of Glen Ding Woods to CRH plc by the State, the Ansbacher Scandal, the Moriarty Tribunal’s failure to investigate CRH plc, Judge Moriarty’s €500k shareholding in CRH plc, and illegal dumping and quarrying. The DPP failed to prosecute CRH plc for illegal dumping adjacent to Glen Ding in County Wicklow and CRH’s failure to comply with a High Court Order (in 1996) to reinstate lands from which it had legally extracted 67,000 tonnes of material (Wicklow County Council was the Plaintiff). Then there is the financial relationship between CRH plc, Des Traynor and Charles Haughey, former Taoiseach. All of this and more was contained back in 2000 in a lengthy submission to the Moriarty Tribunal by Philip Lee Solicitors, on behalf of the then Quarry and Concrete Family Alliance. Apart from an eventual token look at Glen Ding, the submission was binned.

Last July, I wrote to the CRH-dominated Irish Concrete Federation [ICF] detailing how CRH controls the sector through a myriad of control mechanisms and explained the huge ramifications of the so-called ‘Mica Crisis’ from which CRH and ICF, the protagonists, are receiving total immunity. The cost of deleterious building materials will come to many billions of euro, which government is intent on passing on to taxpayers. Why? I finished with the following, “The problem for ICF is how to unravel itself from the clutches of CRH plc. I say this notwithstanding the diktat of omertá which has served the construction materials sector so effectively for decades. It would be erroneous to assume that omerta will continue to protect the sector”.

One Prime Time team described the proposed documentary as “the best we have ever worked on because it involves the political parties, the banks, Ireland’s largest company (CRH plc) and finally, the victim (Maye family)”

Outside of Ireland here are the main controversies:

Europe: On 30 November 30, 1994, the EU Commission fined CRH plc subsidiary, Irish Cement Eco, €3.5 million for playing a lead role in the pan-European cement cartel. Notwithstanding the extensive appeals process through the EU Court of First Instance and EU Court of Justice, the findings and fine were substantially upheld by the European Court of Justice.

US: CRH settled with Miracon Technologies in 2015, Miracon had accused CRH of patent infringement, breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference with existing contracts, tortious interference with prospective relations, unjust enrichment, fraud and conspiracy against defendants.

US: The Port Dock antitrust case taken against CRH plc concerned the supply of aggregates to the New York market. This case had substance but was struck out on certain legal technicalities around “standing”. The court stated that “in crafting the following summary of facts, the Court accepts all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true”.

US, West Virginia: CRH settled a price-fixing and market-sharing case with the State of West Virginia in October 2020 for $101m plus costs; price-fixing is a criminal offence under the US Sherman Act.

Northern Ireland. Both CRH and Sean Quinn were found to have fixed cement prices. Author Trevor Birney in his book ‘Quinn’ states that the files in this case have been closed until 2081. Birney goes on “but what is known is that in the files is the evidence – and a subsequent guilty verdict – that Sean Quinn colluded with his once most vicious enemy, Cement Roadstone Holdings to fix the price of cement (products) in the North from 1985 to 1992”.

Poland: CRH plc was fined $530,000 in 2007 for obstructing the Polish Office for Competition and Consumer Protection’s investigation into allegations of its involvement in a price-fixing and market-sharing cartel. In 2009, the same office fined CRH plc $26million for price-fixing and other anti-competitive behaviour. Back in 2005, a Polish businessman, Marek Dochnal told a parliamentary inquiry that he had paid a $1million bribe on behalf of CRH plc to the former Minister for privatisation, Wieslaw Kaczmarek, in 1995, to facilitate CRH plc’s takeover of Ozarow cement plant in Poland.

Ukraine: Back in 2003, Ukraine’s People’s Deputy, Taras Steskiv, wrote an extensive article on the privatisation of Ukraine’s cement sector, in which he states that a large part of Ukraine’s cement and industrial capacity had been bought for as little as one-twentieth of its value by transnational businesses, including cement companies such as CRH plc, Lafarge and Germany’s Dyckerhoff. Deputy Steskiv had been Deputy Chair of the ad hoc Verkhovna Rada Commission investigating the violations of the rights of Ukrainian stakeholders in Nikolayev cement by Lafarge and others. The Commission found that after the privatisation of the cement sector, cement exports were banned by these transnational companies, thus cutting off a currency flow to the Ukrainian economy, and prices of cement, as a result, increased four- to five-fold.

Switzerland: In 2015, CRH plc was fined €32million arising from its involvement in a price-fixing and market-sharing cartel in bathroom fixtures and fittings.

China: In 2014, a Chinese cement company partly owned by CRH plc was fined €8million for its participation in a price-fixing cartel.

The lengths that supposed regulators have gone to protect CRH plc is staggering

It’s fair to say that on occasion there is no smoke without fire!

Back to this year’s CRH plc AGM, as I thought back over my lifetime in the construction materials sector and visualised my family’s eradication from the cement/quarry/concrete sector on four different occasions between 1983 and 1994, the eviction of my family from our home in 1993, the subsequent sheriff’s raids on our home and all the arrest and imprisonment orders against me from AIB, BOI and Ulster Bank, our subsequent blacklisting by Irish banks (with CRH directors on their boards), and our 27 years before the Courts, I saw through the opulence of the Carlisle Room and the expensive suits being modelled around the top table and realised that the Maye family has spent our lives and continue to do so as prisoners of an OCG.