Resident watchdog should replace obscenely expensive tribunal circus

Property developers named at the tribunal — such as the Bailey brothers, found guilty by Flood of a litany of tax evasions and obstructions, in addition to making corrupt payments — continued to bank tens of millions of euro in profits each year.

They even turned up at fundraisers for FF at Galway races

The tribunal of inquiry into certain planning matters — known as either the Flood or Mahon tribunal depending on which judge was in charge — has finished its public hearings.

The final bill for this 11-year-long circus is not known yet (and the final reports could be years away). The bill is likely to be much nearer to €1 billion than the €300 million that has been quoted, given that many of the witnesses have not yet put in for their costs. There may also be further revenues to come from those who have been identified during the tribunal’s work as illegal tax dodgers, but the deficit is going to be massive nonetheless.

It’s worse than that. Major bills are going to come at a time when the State cannot afford to pay them.. Schools will lose teachers when State money instead is diverted to pay those who have given evidence at the tribunal (and who paid lawyers to tell them what to say).

And what did we get for all of the money spent? At first glance, not a lot it would seem. In its early days we had moments of high drama and apparently serious political repercussions, but in latter years, with the exception of the days involving Bertie Ahern, we had few of those.

In a strange way we enjoyed all the antics of the late Liam Lawlor as he brazened out demands for information to the point of going to jail three times, and railed entertainingly against the injustices he felt he had to endure.

How we savoured the drama involved in the unmasking of Ray Burke as a cynical liar who pocketed more than £200,000 illegally while holding public office. How we rubbernecked during the public breakdown endured by serial briber Frank Dunlop when he was forced into a position where he had to spill his secrets.

How we laughed at the entertainment provided by grumpy old James Gogarty, since deceased, whose bitter revelations of truth were accompanied by the most colourful of language.

Apart from that it all became so dull and possibly even pointless because it did little to inform about corruption among the powerful and then punish and reform. And it did all of this at a snail’s pace.

Instead, it turned into political and legal soap opera based on variations of the same plot, changing the cast occasionally and recycling much of the same old bad script.

Evidence was produced, or accusations made, that politicians, national and local, were on the take. They denied this until evidence was waved in their faces at which time such payments became “legitimate political contributions”. Every politician insisted that any decisions made — even when clearly to the benefit of benefactors and possibly to the ultimate cost of constituents — were based solely on their merits. They had nothing to do with whatever money they received from any source.

Builders confirmed they gave money to third parties, such as lobbyists. But they denied they knew any of this money was to be used for bribes and expressed horror at any such idea. Any donations they made themselves directly were motivated by their desire to enhance the operation of the democratic process and nothing else. For some, the mere requirement that they explain themselves was painted as an unfair attack on their rights as citizens.

What’s often forgotten, though, is that Flood did produce a major report in 2002 into the initial allegations about Ray Burke’s behaviour and that many people were named as having behaved appallingly. But apart from some brief embarrassment there were adverse consequences for only a very small number of the phalanx of chancers and crooks — some of them multi-millionaires, some of them hustlers publicly endorsed via the polls — who had been named.

The majority of politicians continued in power, save for the fall of a couple of high-profile examples. The property developers named at the tribunal — such as the Bailey brothers, found guilty by Flood of a litany of tax evasions and obstructions, in addition to making corrupt payments — continued to bank tens of millions of euro in profits each year. They even turned up at fundraisers for Fianna Fáil at the Galway races.

Of course, the tribunal did finish up with a big scalp, even before it has produced its final report into the allegations that Cork property developer Owen O’Callaghan paid a variety of bribes via Frank Dunlop to smooth the progress of his Quarryvale/Liffey Valley shopping centre. That prize was the resignation of then Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, the subject of a consistently denied allegation that he had received £80,000 from O’Callaghan, something that remains unconfirmed even now.

In some respects this was the tribunal’s finest hour (even if it took years and tens of millions of euro to deliver). The tribunal had no option but to investigate — both publicly and privately — the allegations made against Ahern.

It was in the course of those inquiries that it discovered a multitude of strange financial actions by Ahern and it had to continue to find out if some or all of the money had come from O’Callaghan, as alleged. It had no option but to follow the money trial into and out of Ahern’s bank accounts. In doing so it uncovered a highly irregular situation, involving dodgy house deals, gifts called loans, mysterious currency transactions, irregular donations and the appointments of donors, bagmen and advisers to State boards and the courts. Was it supposed to look away from all of that and more just because it is not all linked to the original allegation? Of course not.

Ahern attempted to undermine the standing of the tribunal but for the wrong reasons. He made many statements complaining about leaks of information, unfair lines of questioning and intrusion on personal privacy, all of which has given rise to the false impression that he was some kind of victim of a McCarthyite-style campaign.

AHERN’S lawyers did the same. His acolytes complained about the cost — knowing that would resonate with the public — and one even went so far as to suggest that serving Taoisigh should be immune from investigation, a charter for corruption if ever there was one.

And in some respects this response perversely endorsed the principle for the existence of the tribunal, even if the method chosen was too expensive, took too long and delivered punishment to too few and by second-hand methods.

What all of this demonstrated was the need for a properly financed and staffed permanent body that could properly — and quietly for the most part — investigate allegations of impropriety against those holding public office and have the power to launch criminal prosecutions if necessary.

If we are to have a properly functioning democracy that requires elected politicians to subscribe to reasonable standards, then we need some form of permanent oversight. As the Mahon tribunal winds down, many people are saying “never again”.

My fear is that this will embolden corrupt politicians and businessmen who will feel they can operate with impunity, that there will never be the public appetite again to endorse expensive investigations via tribunals, while no other method has been put in place to do the job.

The real cost to the State from that could be much higher than the money spent on the Mahon Tribunal.

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