Established in 1997 to inquire into allegations that politicians — Charles Haughey and Michael Lowry — took cash to look after the interests of various developers or to treat certain businessmen favourably, it has taken 14 years to reach a final set of conclusions which were vigorously challenged even before the ink on the report was dry.
Nevertheless, even before the findings are considered, a series of failures are infuriatingly obvious.
Any investigation that takes 14 years and costs somewhere between €100 million and €150m is not fit for purpose. It is an affront to the essential idea that justice is blind and quickly administered.
This great delay makes it nearly all but impossible to root out the low, corrosive standards so central to our economic collapse. Fourteen years is far, far too long to spend trying to establish if Haughey or Lowry were — or is — corrupt. It is far too long to spend trying to establish if the State’s favours can be bought, or if our planning process can be influenced by the highest bidder. This preposterous timeframe undermines the principle accountability in our public affairs and makes it difficult to pursue these vital issues with the force required in a functioning society.
Worse again it gives anyone indifferent to the kind of cultural and functional change we need — civil servants on a day’s holiday to celebrate Empire day, say — an excuse to cynically scoff and ignore reforms.
Even more destructively it sustains a culture where almost three years after our banking system collapsed in a quagmire of greed and wild west lawlessness we are still talking about sending files on bankers’ adventures to the DPP. It suggests, or maybe even confirms, that we are not serious about honesty or integrity in our public affairs or representatives. The tragic consequences of this are all around us. Surely we have learnt the lesson even at this late stage? Maybe the election suggests we have — let us hope that it has.
Michael Lowry, who has rejected the report, saying it is “factually wrong and deliberately misleading”, resigned from John Bruton’s Cabinet in November 1996 and was not allowed stand as a Fine Gael candidate at the subsequent election. At that point the Tribunal had found he evaded tax. Later a company he owned — Garuda — paid €1.2 million after a Revenue audit. Mr Lowry then paid almost €200,000 to settle his own tax affairs.
Yet, at every subsequent election he has been elected to the Dáil by the people of North Tipperary — he doubled his vote this time out — as if his character was unblemished, his integrity beyond question. The report is unambiguous. Mr Lowry corruptly sought to have rents on a building owned by Ben Dunne increased significantly after approaches from the increasingly bizarre Mr Dunne. It also found that he had, at the very least, acted indiscretely when he gave Denis O’Brien inside information during the process to award Ireland’s second mobile phone licence in 1995.
On this thread the Tribunal so flatly rejects Mr Lowry’s evidence that it brings his credibility — and fitness for public office — into question. There was little room for equivocation: “In the cynical and venal abuse of office, the brazen refusal to acknowledge the impropriety of his financial arrangements with Mr Denis O’Brien and Mr Ben Dunne, and by his contemptuous disregard for his taxation obligations, Mr Lowry displayed qualities similar in nature (to Haughey) and has cast a further shadow over his country’s public life.”
Though billionaire Denis O’Brien reiterated yesterday “in the most categoric terms once again that I never made any payment to Michael Lowry in his capacity as a Government minister, as a public representative or as a private citizen,” the report concluded that it is “beyond doubt” that Mr Lowry gave “substantive information to Mr O’Brien, of significant value and assistance to him in securing the (mobile) licence”.
This confirmation of a golden circle of privilege and influence, and that it took nearly a decade and a half to confirm it, puts it up to all of us.
There is today an appetite for reform based on the realisation that we cannot afford another brush with chaos like the one we seem to have just about escaped. This Government needs to prioritise the establishment of an investigative process with real teeth. One that is well funded and can compel witnesses, demand answers and present its findings as matters of fact. This is as important as sorting out our economy because without one we are unlike to have the other. Neither will we have a society where justice prevails.