Fifteen years after the longest running inquiry into political corruption in Ireland was established, its final findings have been published.
Q. So, what was it all about?
A. Corruption. Politicians being bought off in Dublin land deals by developers and speculators. Labour minister Joan Burton raised concerns over a cash for votes scandal as far back as the 1990s and has since warned how councillors were used as voting fodder. The final module focused on Quarryvale — land on which the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre sits near Lucan, west Dublin — and subsequently the sometimes bizarre private finances of senior politicians.
Q. Who’s already been named and shamed over bribery, corruption or payments?
A. Former minister Ray Burke was stoutly defended by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern before being found to have accepted corrupt payments.
The chief villain of the inquiry, if you like, he went on to be jailed for tax fraud. His notoriety was summed up beautifully in a remark attributed to him when asked by a builder if he’d be keeping a receipt for a £30,000 bribe: “Will we fuck”.
George Redmond, former assistant Dublin city and county manager, took payments, the inquiry found. He was jailed but his conviction for corruption was later quashed. The late Liam Lawlor, who died in a car crash in Moscow in 2005, was jailed for six weeks in total for refusing to co-operate with the tribunal.
Former government press secretary Frank Dunlop snapped at the tribunal in 2000 and began naming names. A lobbyist, he had acted as bagman for developers buying councillors’ votes as huge swathes of land in Dublin switched from farming to industrial, commercial or residential use. He was also jailed for corruption.
Q. But how did former taoiseach Bertie Ahern end up in the thick of it?
A. Allegations were made by developer Tom Gilmartin that Mr Ahern had been paid off by Cork developer Owen O’Callaghan. His evidence — including allegations that Fianna Fáil “make the mafia look like fucking monks” — has gone down in tribunal folklore and sparked the expose of a bizarre money trail linked to Mr Ahern. The trawl found digouts, whiparounds, various bank accounts or lack thereof, currency swaps, bags of cash, and secret handovers.
Mr Ahern’s excuses dominated and scandalised the political landscape from 2006 to 2008 and ultimately, after 14 days of evidence over four years and no findings against him, he had no option but to resign.
The then taoiseach had sued Denis “Starry” O’Brien, a businessman from Cork, for making “utterly completely and absolutely false and untrue” bribery allegations in 1999.
Q. You say Mr Ahern’s personal finances were bizarre, but how unusual are we talking?
A. Let the colourful evidence speak for itself. His bus driver friend Mick Wall ferried generous donors to a meal in Manchester, but “didn’t eat the dinner”, and the businessman walked away with an stg£8,000 whiparound, out of the blue. Four other friends, including Paddy “The Plasterer” Reilly, gave him £16,500, also unsolicited, which may have been to buy a house.
In another digout in 1993-94, the then finance minister received £22,500 collected unbeknownst to him by friends including Paddy Reilly, Des Richardson and publican Charlie Chawke around Christmas 1993. His funds also came in various denominations — dollars, sterling and punts.
Further untangling produced explanations that £8,000 — the profit of racing bets — was lodged into accounts held by his daughters, best-selling author Cecelia and Georgina, wife of Westlife’s Nicky Byrne.
Gráinne Carruth, a compelling witness and Mr Ahern’s former faithful secretary, broke down in tears after two days questioning and asked to go home. She finally went on to change her story to say she lodged sterling cash for her boss, once best known as the Teflon Taoiseach for his ability to dodge mud-slinging and sleaze allegations.
Q. Any criticism of the inquiry?
A. Without doubt — after 15 years and spiralling costs. But some credit and leeway is deserved for the planning corruption and labyrinthine money trails exposed. The only other critics are those having their finances inspected. A series of lawsuits to thwart the inquiry ended last autumn when the High Court cleared the way for the final report to be published with no advance warning for concerned parties.
Q. And why did the inquiry cost so much?
A. Thanks to rules under which it was set up — ironically by Mr Ahern to show his government wanted a new era of politics — legal fees rocketed. Barristers for the tribunal were being paid about €1,000 a day and a handful became millionaires on the back of it.
Third-party legal fees are a huge part of the estimated €300m costs and are normally only denied for refusal to co-operate.
Q. Is the Mahon and Flood Tribunal the same thing?
A. The Tribunal of Inquiry Into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, commonly known as the Mahon Tribunal, was set up by Dáil Éireann in 1997 to investigate allegations of corrupt payments to politicians regarding political decisions. It has mostly investigated planning permissions and land rezoning issues in the 1990s in the Dublin County Council area. Judge Alan P Mahon chaired the tribunal. The original chairman, who was the sole member until soon before his retirement, was Judge Feargus Flood, giving rise to the original common name of the Flood Tribunal.
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