He who pays the piper has yet to call the tune

Can FF continue to ride out corruption allegations? asks Political Editor Harry McGee

THE list of names you don’t hear being thundered anymore from the platform of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis is growing. Hard grafters like Charles Haughey, Ray Burke, Liam Lawlor and Denis Foley have already been inducted into the hall of infamy.

And the great FF silence is already beginning to descend over Pádraig Flynn, the self-styled Messiah from Mayo. A decade ago he was at the height of his powers within FF, elevated to the plum role of European Commissioner. Now, he has almost been revised out of its history.

Sure, he managed to get Bertie Ahern into a half-Nelson lock when the FF leader arrived in Castlebar during the 2002 elections. It was the only time the FF handlers got panicky during that seamless campaign. The picture made the front pages and gave Ahern high-octane publicity. But for all the wrong reasons. Memo from FF media monitoring unit to all sections: Pee Flynn is a liability.

When a new Government is appointed, the first thing they do is go in a cavalcade of Mercs to the Phoenix Park to get their seals of office and get their snap taken with the President. When you look at the FF pictures from 1987 and 1989 you notice how many are still around: Gerard Collins, Michael Woods, Bertie Ahern, Rory O’Hanlon, Mary O’Rourke, Seamus Brennan and Michael Smith. But three of those appearing in the photographs have been effectively airbrushed from FF’s collective memory: Haughey, Burke and Flynn.

There’s another group photograph from around the time, showing Haughey with all the other EU prime ministers at Dublin Castle during Ireland’s 1990 Presidency. Of the 15, at least two-thirds would later face allegations of corruption or underhand dealing. It’s a surefire sign of a mature democracy, some will tell you, when people sip lattés and politicians get fingered for graft and sleaze. But that ‘sure aren’t they all at it’ argument just doesn’t wash.

There are two remarkable things evident from those Haughey governments. The first is the obvious one; the kind of tricky stuff that Haughey and one or two ministers were up to. The second is the kind of Y2K effect it had on FF. When it all broke between 1995-1997 there was a hue and cry. FF would go into meltdown, the media claimed. But nothing happened. The party has continued to prosper despite all the sins of Haughey, Burke, Lawlor et all. FF won in 1997 and came within a whisper of winning an overall majority in 2002. Its punishment has been a 20-year stretch of power, with one small interruption.

It’s kind of surprising, though, to think that none of the other FFers ever copped on to what was going on, when senior members of the Cabinet were apparently making no distinction between donations to FF and donations to themselves. Goldfish that we are, it’s become an irrelevance to the great unwashed that the degree of influence curried with FF during the Haughey era depended on how many zeroes you could cram onto your cheques. Or that the party’s fundraisers kept a more-or-less permanent suite in the Berkeley Court.

There’s a strong sense that society is far more forgiving of the sinner than the opposition is.

In the Dáil this week, Bertie Ahern was being tested about the famous phone conversation with Tom Gilmartin, in which he accepted the property developer may have brought up the subject of the e50,000 he passed onto Flynn. If he brought it up, it didn’t register, said Ahern. But then he gave an insight into the kind of money that was being bandied about at the time and the kind of money that FF expected to get.

“It would have registered as a big amount, admittedly, although I do not know how many subscriptions we would have got at that time, but it would not have registered.

“With an enormous developer who was spending approximately £250 million on one project and a few hundred million pounds on another project, it would not have struck me as anything odd.”

He qualified it by staring at the opposition and warning: “We have encountered large amounts of money in regard to different parties so we should not get into that.”

Gilmartin has given an amazing description of another event that may or may not have happened at the time, his meeting with a clatter of senior Fianna Fáil ministers at Leinster House at the time. Mary O’Rourke has seemingly confirmed such a meeting took place but other ministers don’t recollect it. Gilmartin says he was introduced to Haughey and Lawlor was also present. He says at the end of the meeting another man, whom Gilmartin didn’t recognise, collared him and asked for an outrageous bung. All that was missing from the scene were a couple of pin-striped toughies carrying violin cases.

The excesses of Burke and Haughey have already been analysed to death.

But in a month’s time, the Mahon Tribunal will begin a process that will decide the reputation of Pee Flynn. The central allegation surrounds the £50,000 cheque Gilmartin gave to him at his ministerial office in the Department of the Environment in 1989. There seems to be little dispute that the cheque was handed over. Gilmartin claims he had intended it for FF but when he asked who the payee should be, Flynn told him to leave it blank. The former commissioner, for his part, is expected to tell the tribunal that Gilmartin had in fact given the money to him as a personal political donation. But it seems that Flynn also proved adept at borrowing the techniques of others when squirrelling away the money for a rainy day. He gave his residence as Chiswick, London, which, at the last time of checking, didn’t form part of the constituency of Mayo.

Flynn’s public utterances have caused him most grief. His first major gaffe came during the Presidential elections in 1990. Brian Lenihan’s campaign ship had already been holed by his own ‘mature recollection’ incident but was torpedoed completely after Flynn referred to rival Mary Robinson’s “new interest in her family, being a mother and all that kind of thing”.

When Gilmartin’s allegations first appeared in the late 1990s, Flynn, in an attempt to salvage his EU Commissioner’s job, made the tactical blunder of appearing on the Late Late Show to deny the claims. But in so doing, he made an unfortunate reference to Gilmartin, saying he had not heard from him for a while and making an ambivalent comment about Gilmartin’s state of health.

Flynn’s appearance was like a red rag to a bull. Gilmartin appeared on RTÉ to say that he’d given Flynn the cheque and he had intended it for FF and not for Flynn personally. More seriously, he spoke of telephone conversations he had with Flynn in 1998 after the story had broken.

Flynn, Gilmartin claimed, had asked him to effectively change his story. “He pleaded with me that to say I gave it to him for his own personal campaign.”

When Gilmartin refused he said that Flynn had “got very upset. He indicated to me that I was only about to destroy him. I was going to cost him £750,000 for a start and the . . . powers that be in Dublin were going to shovel it all on him. This would definitely destroy him.”

In that interview, Gilmartin also promised a “bombshell” that would expose unprincipled politicians.

When the Planning Tribunal begins its Quarryvale module early next month, it will determine whether another member of that 1987-1991 Cabinet will be airbrushed from FF history. Beyond that, though, will others be drawn into this tangled web by Gilmartin’s “bombshell”?

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