What a difference a decade makes! Since the opening of public hearings ten years ago, there has been a sustained effort to transform the perception of the Flood/Mahon tribunal into corruption from a role as ethical saviour of Irish politics to one of a glorious waste of public money.
At the outset it was going to expose the depths of corruption in Irish political and corporate life, the role of senior and local politicians as well as public officials in distorting the planning process in Dublin and the manner in which payments totalling millions of pounds were made by businessmen in return for lucrative re-zonings.
After its first four years of public hearings in the Printworks in Dublin Castle evidence was presented which resulted in Feargus Flood’s devastating, and hugely popular, report in September 2002 confirming systemic corruption involving former minister, Ray Burke, and a cast of business interests who were greatly enriched by decisions he forced through the political process. Exposed along with Burke was the former city and county manager for Dublin, George Redmond, and the multi-millionaire builders who bribed them, Michael and Tom Bailey. They paid almost €25 million in settlement of unpaid taxes to the Revenue as the result of the investigation while at least the same amount was collected from other errant business interests exposed by the inquiry.
In the 588 days of public hearings since three new judges were appointed to the inquiry in 2002, more than 400 witnesses have given evidence which has provided a further insight into the manner in which the planning, and democratic, process was corrupted by illicit payments. A key figure involved in infecting and undermining the integrity of the political system, Frank Dunlop, opened the eyes of the tribunal and the watching public to an even more intriguing web of official deceit and bribery when he had his so called Road to Damascus conversion on Spy Wednesday, Easter week, 2000.
Dunlop, a former Fianna Fáil press officer, provided a road map of other corrupt re-zonings across Dublin during the preparation of the 1993 County Development Plan which set out the land banks which would be allowed for residential, industrial and commercial development after consideration by the 78 elected members of Dublin County Council. The largest and most politically sensitive of these concerned the Quarryvale development in west Dublin, now the location for the Liffey Valley retail centre which is currently valued at almost €1 billion by its owners, Cork property developer Owen O’Callaghan and the Duke of Westminster.
The closer the tribunal came to investigating the votes at Dublin County Council between 1991 and 1993 on Quarryvale and the allegations of corruption surrounding the development aired by Sligo-born Tom Gilmartin the louder, it found, was the political and media criticism of its work. The main, but not exclusive reason for this growing resentment towards the tribunal was the gradual entanglement of the country’s most powerful politician in the tribunal’s investigation into Quarryvale.
Gilmartin had made a series of allegations, many dismissed as “outrageous” and “fantastic” by his detractors during a series of private conversations with tribunal lawyers from early 1998 when he was first contacted by the inquiry at his home in Luton. Later that year he spoke to a couple of journalists, including this writer, about his experience in trying to get two major business projects off the ground at Bachelors Walk in the city and at Quarryvale at a commercially-strategic site on the junction of the N4 and the planned M50 motorway.
In his early statements he referred to his contribution to Fianna Fail in 1989 through party treasurer and environment minister, Padraig Flynn, who pocketed the money for himself; the demands for money by former west-Dublin Fianna Fáil TD, Liam Lawlor, for himself and his double act partner George Redmond in return for site maps at Quarryvale and other advices; a demand for £5 million by an unknown man in Leinster House in February 1989 just after a meeting with the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey and several cabinet ministers; the role of Dunlop in bribing named councillors; and a series of claims by his former business partner, O’Callaghan, of illicit payments to senior politicians including former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. He also made several claims which were incidental to the Quarryvale issue, some of which proved to be inaccurate but others which were established to have a basis in fact as the Quarryvale hearings continued, with frequent interruption, between 2004 and October last.
Among the more apparently outrageous claims was Gilmartin’s suggestion that the line of the Lee tunnel in Cork was routed to emerge at land owned by O’Callaghan at Mahon near the city and that his politicallypowerful partner had contributed to the “demise” of former Fine Gael defence minister, the late Hugh Coveney. Both of these claims were cited, among others, as reasons why the tribunal’s investigation into Quarryvale should be halted, in a minority 2007 Supreme Court judgment by Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman. There was also deep scepticism over the credibility of Gilmartin’s claim that Albert Reynolds was handed £150,000 by O’Callaghan after a Fianna Fáil fundraising dinner in Cork in March 1994 after which the then Taoiseach left in a helicopter in the early hours before connecting to a flight to the US for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations. But the real political tensions, and growing antagonism towards the tribunal, were provoked by Gilmartin’s description of alleged payments to the country’s most powerful political figure, Bertie Ahern, between 1989 and 1994. He claimed that he was told by O’Callaghan in 1990 that Ahern was paid £50,000 in return for his assistance with a land acquisition at Quarryvale a year earlier. He was told that Ahern received a further £30,000 in return for a promise by the then finance minister in 1993/94 that a rival retail development at Blanchardstown would not be granted a lucrative tax designation. In the course of his tribunal evidence in more recent years Gilmartin also suggested that Ahern, according to his former partner, had been “looked after” in respect of his decision to grant tax designation to O’Callaghan’s retail development at Golden Island in the dying hours of the Fianna Fáil-Labour Party administration in late 1994.
In late November 2005 tribunal lawyer Patricia Dillon made a two-day opening statement into the Quarryvale II module in which she referred to alleged payments to Bertie Ahern in relation to Quarryvale including the £30,000 which Gilmartin claimed he received in relation to the non-tax-designation of Blanchardstown. The public hearings were immediately suspended when the High Court ruled that O’Callaghan was entitled to proceed with an application that the proceedings be halted on the grounds of bias by the tribunal against him, his partner and solicitor, John Deane, and their companies.
Only when the Supreme Court upheld the High Court decision allowing the tribunal to proceed, notwithstanding the minority opinion of Judge Hardiman, did the hearings resume in the Spring of 2007. Throughout that hiatus the tribunal continued to seek details of Bertie Ahern’s financial transactions between 1989 and 1996 in order to establish whether there was any basis to the allegation that he received £80,000 from O’Callaghan during that period. The details of some of the then Taoiseach’s explanations emerged in September 2006 when the Irish Times revealed that Ahern had told the inquiry that he had received large sums of money in dig-outs from friends in 1993 and 1994 which could explain large transactions through his accounts at the time.
As the time for his planned appearance to give evidence in April 2007 – and a general election – approached, further details of his finances were released in the Irish Mail on Sunday which raised further questions about Ahern’s receipt and lodgement of an alleged $45,000 sum in December 1994; the strange circumstances surrounding his rental from Manchester businessman Michael Wall in 1995 and later acquisition, in 1997, of a house in Drumcondra; as well as his continuing failure to disclose details of various transactions through his accounts to the tribunal. When he rushed to the park and called the election on 29th April 2007 he managed to avoid his expected appearance at the tribunal scheduled for two days later. After a bruising campaign which was dominated for its first two weeks by the questions surrounding his bizarre finances Ahern was returned as Taoiseach for the third time in ten years.
Although Tom Gilmartin knew nothing, and had said nothing in his various statements, concerning Mr Ahern’s diverse bank accounts and the source of several hundred thousand pounds which went through them after he finally opened an account in his own name in December 1993, the tribunal’s minimodule into this issue served to bring a premature end to the Taoiseach’s political career with his abrupt resignation last April.
This followed the embarrassing disclosure that the politician had lodged significant amounts of round-figure sterling amounts to his account and other accounts under his control which he had previously sought to hide from the tribunal investigators. In the course of his dozen appearances between 2007 and 2008 he crossed swords with its most effective interrogator, Des O’Neill SC, who became the target of increasingly vituperative attacks by Ahern’s colleagues and media friends.
Meanwhile, Gilmartin was also the continuing subject of vilification over his contribution to the former Taoiseach’s downfall while Ahern’s lawyers sought to damage and destroy his credibility during their crossexamination of the tribunal’s key witness in the Quarryvale 11 module. While they managed to expose some contradictions and confusion between his many different private statements and his public evidence the general thrust of his claims, including his socalled “outrageous” allegations, by and large stood up to scrutiny.
It was not until the final weeks of the public hearings that the efforts of the tribunal’s team in the course of their decade of public and private inquiries began to show fruit. Not only was Ahern forced to concede during his last appearance in September that he had misled the inquiry in relation to his sterling lodgements but he also agreed that he had previously failed to disclose a series of meetings and contacts with Owen O’Callaghan and his lobbyist, Frank Dunlop between 1993 and 1998.
These discussions revealed a further damaging link between the former finance minister and Taoiseach and the Cork developer in connection with a number of business projects which he had failed to disclose in previous correspondence between his lawyers and the tribunal. He met with O’Callaghan’s US brokers, Chilton O’Connor in Los Angeles in March 1994 in connection with the developers attempt to build a sports stadium at Neilstown in west Dublin. A few weeks later he met O’Callaghan when, they both testified, they discussed his decision to refuse tax designation for the Blanchardstown retail scheme. A month later he met Frank Dunlop on the day a sum of £30,000 was lodged to Ahern’s AIB account. He met O’Callaghan, Dunlop and Bill O’Connor from the Los Angeles brokerage to discuss the stadium project in November 1994.
Three weeks later he received a letter from O’Connor thanking him for the meeting, congratulating Ahern on his appointment as Fianna Fáil leader and looking forward to further discussions on the “project”. O’Connor also expressed a hope that Ahern would soon become Taoiseach. A week later a sum equivalent to $45,000 at one of the rates on that days trading was lodged by his then partner Celia Larkin to an account she opened for the politician in the AIB, O’Connell Street. While Ahern said he had told the promoters he was against their stadium plan at the meeting in early November he agreed that he continued to meet O’Callaghan in relation to the proposal over later years. He rejected a suggestion by Des O’Neill that the dollar payment was made in the context of him becoming Taosieach as he expected to be in early December 1994.
When O’Callaghan took the stand as the final witness in the Quarryvale module he was exposed to an equally torrid examination by tribunal counsel, Patricia Dillon SC, which continued until late October 2008 but which was largely ignored by a “tribunal- weary” media.
Over the course of several weeks he was forced to accept that there was a substantial basis to many of the claims made by Tom Gilmartin although he continued to insist, as Ahern’s lawyers had, that his substantial allegations of bribery and corruption of senior politicians were untrue. He could not explain how Gilmartin was able to tell the tribunal in early 1998 of payments he made to named members of Dublin County Council and others that were made by his lobbyist Frank Dunlop in connection with Quarryvale in the early 1990s.
He could not explain how Gilmartin was able to recount to tribunal lawyers an assurance given to O’Callaghan by then finance minister Bertie Ahern that Blanchardstown would not receive a lucrative tax designation many years before the tribunal called public evidence on the claim.
He could not explain how Gilmartin was able to refer to the circumstances surrounding the designation of his Golden Island retail development in late 1994 and a violent incident at the home of Mary O’Rourke during the local controversy over the scheme in Athlone earlier that year.
Details of the controversy originally imparted to the tribunal by Gilmartin over Golden Island were subsequently confirmed to the tribunal by Ms O’Rourke and broadcaster, Eamon Dunphy, who said that he had been told by O’Callaghan that Ahern had been “looked after” in respect of the tax-designation decision.
O’Callaghan was also forced to confirm that there was a fundraising dinner in Cork after which Albert Reynolds left by helicopter to connect with a flight to the US in March 1994 although he denied giving £150,000 to the politician. He agreed that the Lee tunnel met lands he owned at Mahon in Cork although he did not own the lands at the time the route for it was chosen. He accepted that he was aware of the controversy which led to the resignation, or political “demise”, of former minister and Cork TD the late Hugh Coveney in 1995. Coveney resigned after it emerged that while a serving minister he had improperly lobbied Bord Gas for a tender for his firm of architects. O’Callaghan was a Fianna Fáil appointee on the gas board at the time, he told the tribunal.
He insisted that he did not know Dunlop was paying councillors with money he provided to the lobbyist in relation to Quarryvale. He accepted that he made direct payments to a number of influential councillors including Liam Lawlor, Colm McGrath and Sean Gilbride although he insisted these were all above-board political donations or payments for legitimate services. He also defended significant, direct, contributions he gave to current cabinet ministers Michael Martin and Batt O’Keefe and to former Dublin North TD, GV Wright.
He agreed that he gave Dunlop in excess of €2 million in relation to the scheme in consultancy and other fees including a sum of £300,000 in October 1998 just as Dunlop’s role in Quarryvale and with the tribunal’s investigation – was emerging in public. He said he gave the lobbyist a further sum in excess of £500,000 including a huge amount to cover the lobbyist’s legal costs arising from the tribunal between 1999 and 2000. He accepted he made large payments to the lobbyist even after Dunlop admitted to bribing politicians in his evidence during Easter week 2000. He also conceded that there was substantial contact between himself and several leading politicians including Bertie Ahern in respect of his various projects up to 1998. But he denied making any improper payments, substantial or otherwise, directly or through Dunlop, to Ahern or other senior political figures.
Evidence to the contrary was circumstantial and the exhaustive trawl through Ahern’s and O’Callaghan’s accounts did not reveal any hard evidence of illicit payments to senior Fianna Fáil or other figures. But the tribunal only has to reach its conclusions on the “balance of probability” as Feargus Flood did so effectively and brutally in his 2002 report. It can make a finding that corrupt payments were made to senior political figures in connection to Quarryvale and will undoubtedly find that the pillars of society it investigated over the past decade have deliberately failed to co-operate, or obstructed its inquiries in a way which prolonged the tribunal’s investigation and significantly added to its, and the taxpayers, costs. As Mr Justice Flood once famously commented during his term as tribunal chairman; “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck”
By Frank Connolly