The reward that cost €250m and was never claimed

A small newspaper ad offering a £10,000 reward led to the establishment of the Mahon tribunal, writes Michael Clifford.

IT started with a small advertisement which was to act as the lid of a Pandora’s Box. On July 3, 1995, hidden among the low-cost getaway offers on the back page of The Irish Times, there was a small ad entitled: “£10,000 Reward Fund.”

The money was offered for “information leading to the conviction or indictment of a person or persons for offences relating to land rezoning in the Republic of Ireland”.

The ad was issued through a firm of Newry-based solicitors Donnelly Neary & Donnelly. The clients were environmentalists Michael Smith and Colm MacEochaidh. Both men had grown increasingly frustrated at what they saw as wholesale corruption in the planning process — particularly in the Dublin area — over the previous five years.

There were 52 replies to the ad, but most ran into the sand. One man, however, arrived at the Newry office weighed down with gold.

James Gogarty was a 77-year-old retired engineer. He told the solicitors of a grievance he harboured with his former employer, Joseph Murphy, over a pension. Murphy was a millionaire Kerryman who had made his money in the UK.

Gogarty said Murphy’s firm, JMSE, paid former government minister Ray Burke £30,000 to get lands in north Dublin rezoned. Burke was a senior Fianna Fáil figure who had served in a number of governments. There had always been a whiff of cordite off him. Down through the years, he had been investigated three times by the gardaí in relation to corruption, but nothing ever came of it.

Gogarty said the bribe had been paid in Burke’s house in Swords during the 1989 general election campaign. He also alleged another builder, Michael Bailey, had been present, along with Murphy’s son, Joe Jr.

Smith and MacEochaidh introduced Gogarty to journalist Frank Connolly. He began running stories in the Sunday Business Post about a “senior Fianna Fáil” politician who had received a large sum of money for planning favours.

The country had been down this road a few times over the previous decades. Allegations, rumours, even the odd prosecution. Nothing ever came of it.

This time, it was different. Ireland was opening up. The obsequious attitude towards authority was fading. And crucially, by early 1997, a government minister, Michael Lowry, and former taoiseach Charlie Haughey, had been exposed as recipients of the largesse of businessman Ben Dunne. A tribunal was set up to investigate their activities. The old order was rapidly changing.

The issue hung around the fringes of the June 1997 general election. A Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition replaced the Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left combination, and Bertie Ahern became taoiseach. Burke was appointed foreign affairs minister. A fortnight after the election, The Sunday Tribune named Burke as the politician who had received 30 grand.

Ahern dismissed calls for a public inquiry. He said he’d conducted his own inquiry, in which he had “been up every tree in North Dublin” and hadn’t found a thing. In time, it would emerge that his inquiries had been less than rigorous.

By late August, PD leader Mary Harney wasn’t prepared to put up with the smell any longer. She demanded of Ahern that an inquiry be set up. The stories kept coming. In September, Ahern agreed to set up a tribunal. Burke was a friend of his, whom he regarded as being hounded. Ahern insisted that the terms of reference include more than just Burke.

In fact, the terms were left so wide, the tribunal would eventually ensnare Ahern himself.

Establishing the tribunal, Ahern told the Dáil it should finish its work by Christmas. He didn’t say which Christmas. Over the following 14 years, the inquiry sat in public for 917 days, ending on Dec 3, 2008.

Burke resigned his ministry and Dáil seat in Oct 1997. The tribunal eventually found he had been a kept and corrupt politician throughout his career. In Jan 2005, he was sentenced to six months in prison for tax evasion.

Gogarty became something of a public hero as a result of his evidence and the truculent manner in which he confronted lawyers for those whom he was accusing. He died in Sept 2005, aged 88.

If the inquiry had been confined to Burke’s activities, it would have taken three years or so. As it was, the tribunal was obliged to investigate all allegations that came within the terms of reference. And so on it went, costing a fortune, but providing a crystal clear picture of how planning was rife with corruption.

After Gogarty, another disgruntled builder, Tom Gilmartin, provided extensive evidence of what he alleged was corruption. Gilmartin led the inquiry to, among others, Bertie Ahern, who must have regretted his insistence on the broad terms of reference.

The reward that kicked it all off was never claimed. In the late 1990s, the two barristers issued a press release asking that anybody who had given information to notify them if interested in claiming the reward. Nobody did.

“We always knew nobody would be interested,” MacEochaidh told the Irish Examiner last week.

“The reward was an attempt to capture the attention of the media. It was a hook to hang the story on, to get them back interested in the rezoning scandals that had gone on. But we always knew there would be little interest in claiming the reward. Gogarty certainly never mentioned it to us.”


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