At one of the long tables, reserved for lawyers, former Dublin City and country assistant manager, George Redmond, nibbled on a sandwich. Then, he got down onto the carpeted floor, and, belying his 82 years, began a series of press-ups. It was early spring, 2004, and all was quiet in the surreal world of the planning tribunal.
At the door, a prison officer kept a wary eye on Redmond. The prisoner had been brought to Dublin Castle that morning from Wheatfield, where he was serving a sentence for corruption. His exercise complete, Redmond got up and wandered over to the reporters’ bench. The prison officer moved slightly, as if readying himself for action.
Redmond approached the Irish Examiner reporter Juno McEnroe. He said to McEnroe that in prison he was only allowed three brief phone calls and he asked McEnroe if he might borrow a phone to give his wife a quick call.
McEnroe told him he couldn’t oblige as he had to be in constant contact with the newspaper’s office. Redmond ambled off, wearing the hang-dog expression that had been his face of choice while attending the inquiry. Nearby, the actor Joe Taylor observed what had unfolded. Taylor performed re-enactments for the Vincent Browne radio show and had developed a cabaret based on the tribunal. He reckoned he’d just seen his latest material and he already had a name for it; Juno and the Payphone.
The publication of the final Mahon report on Thursday was a dark day for politics and planning. There has been much reportage, analysis and comment. But behind the cold print and high dudgeon, there was a human side to the inquiry. Real people were hauled forth to explain themselves, under the gaze of forensic lawyers, a media horde and, quite often, a populated public gallery. Many of these witnesses had never imagined they would one day have to account for their actions. Now, they were grappling with an excavation that hauled their respective pasts into the glare of the public square.
Just being seen walking into the inquiry had become a perceived sanction in itself. Mahon’s equivalent of the ‘perp walk’ — the ‘Castle shuffle’ — was the long and winding entrance to the print works building where the inquiry was held.
Knots of cameramen and photographers walked before the subject, clicking, filming, recording the entry for posterity. The subject was most often a politician.
The majority who entered did so at a pace, to shorten their ordeal. Padraig Flynn was different. He walked at a considered stride when he attended, his tall frame ramrod straight, an arrogant smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He didn’t blink once as the flashes went off around his head.
Inside, in the witness box, the air of arrogance persisted. He kept a straight face as he explained that a developer — Tom Gilmartin — had given him, as then minister for the environment, a cheque for £50,000 for his own political use. Gilmartin disputed this, claiming he was told to make a contribution to Fianna Fáil, and that was what he thought he was doing. The greedy beanpole from Castlebar simply trousered money, which Mahon deemed to be a “corrupt payment”.
Frank Dunlop was unfailingly polite when he did the ‘Castle shuffle.’ He remained a PR man to his fingertips, showing his best side to the photographers. The man who was at the nexus of corrupt planning maintained a business-like pace. It’s hard to believe, but when he admitted in April 2000 to bribing councillors, he was co-host of a late-night political programme on RTÉ. He blazed a trail for Vincent Browne, but don’t ever say that to Browne.
On that day, when Dunlop admitted his role in extensive corruption, he appeared to shrink in the witness box. He grew smaller with each new revelation, his voice falling weak, as if the old Frank was disappearing on the road to Damascus.
Dunlop never made it to the Biblical city. The report accepted much of his subsequent evidence, but not all of it. Mahon described him as “an unreliable witness”.
Gilmartin walked through the front door in slow, deliberate strides. He was there to tell how he had been “blackguarded” when he had tried to get developments ‘off the ground’ in the late 1980s. At every turn, a politician or public figure had extended paws at him, regarding him as an easy touch for money. Now, he was back to tell what had befallen him. He was here to do a job of work, to help with the digging into the corruption that had permeated public life.
For the most part, he kept his composure in the witness box, but on at least one occasion he broke down as he traced those dark times in his life. One of his main tormentors had been Liam Lawlor, a man who used public office as a calling card to turn a buck. When told, at one point, that Lawlor described himself as a ‘consultant’, Gilmartin replied: “I wouldn’t have that man consulting on a shithouse.”
Lawlor was a law onto himself at the inquiry, particularly when he conducted his own legal representation. He resembled, to the inch, the towering and aggressive hurler he had once been. But more than anything, he displayed a neck like a jockey’s nether regions.
Bertie Ahern was excused the ‘Castle shuffle.’ On one of his early appearances, he was whisked magically into the print works building through some underused, secret entrance. Back in the day when Britannia ruled, the crown forces may well have retained the passage for emergencies in case of insurrection. Now, the democratic leader of the Republic was availing of it to play down his appearance at an inquiry into grubby men fumbling in the greasy till.
Ahern kept his tight smile in place for most of his appearances. In the witness box, he meandered through his tales of dig-outs and whip-arounds, fumbling his words in the manner that had become his crafted trademark.
Ahern tried vainly to explain how so much money had flowed gaily through the bank accounts of a man who claimed to care not a whit for the material world. Mahon nailed the lies. The evidence demanded no less.
And as the fare on view rose and fell like the sea, a small clutch of ‘lifers’ in the public gallery kept coming back for more. These were, for the most part, retirees who had been in the prime of their lives when much of the parsed corruption had been afoot. Back then, the titans of public life, Haughey, Burke, Flynn, Ahern, had been untouchable. Now, they were being laid low, their secrets and lies exposed.
For the most part, the men and women who regularly frequented the public gallery were not so much enraged as astonished.
While they had struggled in a country which claimed not to have the resources to properly cater for all its people, those at the top were running their own little kleptocracy.