Shock! Horror! The Truth Is Revealed! Rich business people pay money to politicians in exchange for favourable decisions and politicians comply. Headline news it ain’t. If you live in Ireland then not only do you know how corrupt politics is but also how cheaply government ministers can be bought.
After a mammoth fourteen years, the Tribunal of Inquiry into certain Payments to Politicians and Related Matters (the Moriarty Tribunal) has just concluded and not before time either. Fourteen years of evasion, lies, legalities, misrepresentations and rumour. Fourteen years of barristers fees, investigators fees, salaries and miscellany. To date, the whole affair has cost in the region of €40 million but that does not include the final costs. Those will be revealed in time.
Moriarty was set up by the Irish Government to investigate the awarding of a mobile phone licence to Esat Digifone by Michael Lowry; to probe the financial affairs of politicians Charles Haughey and Michael Lowry; and to establish who had paid, how much, to whom, for what and into which offshore bank account it was lodged. A single high court judge, Michael Moriarty, was appointed to shift through the evasions, lies, half-truths and known unknowns and find the nugget of truth in the dross of public relations.
Moriarty is one of many such tribunals that meander along investigating corruption in Irish governments past, suckling the finances of governments present. The difficulty is how to investigate top level politicians as their appointees infect government departments and quangos for decades to come. Sympathetic governments have tried to frustrate tribunals and to give them the chop by leaking false rumours about the judge or manufacturing spurious ad hominem criticism. In Irish society, the tribunals represent the excesses of the past and slowly reveal what we thought we all knew already. Shackled by a serious lack of political will, the regressive slandering and libel laws, and a natural tendency to cheer on those who cock a snook at authority, the lumbering tribunal beast is a dinosaur in today’s bankrupt economy.
Of course, the case for the tribunals was not helped by the length of time it took to deliver the final report. Fourteen years later and no smoking gun. Unlimited resources to investigate the awarding of the most lucrative state contract ever by a known criminal, and no smoking gun – not even a smoldering spear.
The tribunal’s final report refers to the actions of the former Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications Michael Lowry as
‘cynical and venal abuse of office’, ‘brazen refusal to acknowledge the impropriety of his financial arrangements’, ‘most pervasive and abusive’
and declare him to be corrupt. That’s all well and good but it was one of the known knowns. The McCracken Tribunal had ticked that box. What Moriarty draws back from is declaring that the awarding of the mobile phone licence to be corrupt despite the leaked information to the press, and the hundreds of thousands of Irish pounds paid in a roundabout way from Denis O Brien to Lowry when he was in charge of awarding the licence.
Business and politics is a good old fashioned forbidden love. The two want to get together and make beautiful money together but crusty lawyers and ethical crusaders keep them apart. For years, the press was leashed, bound by the libel laws from reporting on the flagrante delicto that greased the Irish economy.
Michael Lowry is the epitome of a man out for all he can steal. A master at the clientalist parish pump political circuit, bestowed with the common touch, brass necked, deeply corrupt, and a perfect imitation of injured innocence – the latter being the most vital component.
His dodgy dealings are many and varied. He excels in evading tax and has been prosecuted for same – his company Garuda had to pay up €1.2 million after a Revenue audit and he was required to pay almost €200,000 in personal taxes. With several offshore accounts and personal donations from rich businessmen – it was the IR£395,000 paid by Dunnes Stores (grocery, clothes and homeware multiple) for work on his home that brought him down initially – he had to resign as Minister. He even initiated a legal action against journalist Sam Smyth personally “seeking exemplary damages for this most grievous and unwarranted libel” following a television programme.
What might astonish citizens of mature democracies is that after resigning in disgrace and being found guilty of tax evasion, Lowry stood for election as an independent and topped the poll in that and subsequent elections. He is a blemish on national politics and a living example that white collar crime is not taken seriously in Ireland. He is the representative for Moneygall, Barack Obama’s ancestral home, and will be in line to greet the US president when he visits in May. To our shame, Lowry is planning to ask Obama for the White House specs because Lowry is building a casino on that model. Like many politicians, he is impossible to shame. The Dáil (Irish Parliament) voted through a motion to censure him but he has no intention of resigning.
But Lowry is not the first or the last to trouser the perks. Our former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey was investigated and it was revealed that he stole much of the money raised for his friend and colleague Brian Lenihan’s medical treatment. His entire political career was funded by donations from big business and he never refused money for services. He was so corrupt that he inveigled enough money to buy a private island off the coast of Kerry and a helicopter service to ferry him to and from his domain. Haughey was accepting bribes and living a lavish lifestyle while he told the nation to tighten their belts. And yet for all his corruption, his thieving and his economic illiteracy, Haughey is remembered as a rogue, a charming rogue who was a great statesman. Some of this came from the Fianna Fáil propaganda paper ‘The Irish Press’ but there is great support in certain sectors of the community for the little man battling the forces of authority, even and especially, when that man is the authority.
Bertie Ahern, another former Taoiseach, used to talk about ‘dem up dere who would not let him push his projects’. He would say this while being Prime Minister, the supreme temporal authority in the state at the time – our presidents are merely ceremonial dinosaurs – and people could not or would not see the inherent farce. Bertie himself was corrupt, admitting that several businessmen got together to give him a ‘dig out’ – essentially passing an envelope around and stuffing it with cash. UK£56 000 was one such dig out. Bertie had the following to say
What I got personally in my life, to be frank with you is none of your business. If I got something from somebody as a present or something like that I can use it… broken no codes – ethical, tax, legal or otherwise… I might have appointed somebody but I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me.
Bertie’s other claims to explain away substantial sums were spurious – I had no bank account, so the money is just my savings; I won it on a horse; I don’t remember; and people just try to help me out – and were rightly dismissed by the tribunal. In addition to his corruption, Bertie defied the English language until all meaning had evaporated. It was difficult to understand his admissions.
“It is not correct, and if I said so, I was not correct — I cannot recall if I said it, but I did not say, or if I did, I did not mean to say it — that these issues could not be dealt with until the end of the Mahon Tribunal.
Lowry is merely the latest Irish politician to be caught out. The attitude is one of, ‘everybody else is doing it, why not me?’
After the Moriaty report was handed down, Denis O Brien and Michael Lowry have got back together again to relive their old romance, trashtalking the Moriarty report and undermining the public’s confidence in the judiciary. Over the past week, the air has been full of hyperbolic phrases such as “slow, Chinese torture”, “witch hunt[s]”, “grievous errors” and many other attack words. The best defence is a good offence and Lowry’s expression of injured innocence has seen a lot of play.
In true conspiracy fashion, even now O’Brien and Lowry back each other to the hilt. They stand together, united in corruption while the proles just try to understand how these two got together in the first place and why we vote in such easily corruptible men.