Michael Clifford: The rise and fall — and continued local popularity — of Michael Lowry

One of the most promising ministers in 1994, Michael Lowry was Fine Gael’s great hope. A series of findings against him over the years continued with yesterday’s conviction. So how is he one of the richest TDs and still topping polls in Tipp, asks Michael Clifford

Michael Clifford: The rise and fall — and continued local popularity — of Michael Lowry

One of the most promising ministers in 1994, Michael Lowry was Fine Gael’s great hope. A series of findings against him over the years continued with yesterday’s conviction. So how is he one of the richest TDs and still topping polls in Tipp, asks Michael Clifford.

For some who have followed the life and times of Michael Lowry, the slow grind of the wheels of justice has finally achieved a result.

For others, “they” — the establishment, the Dublin media, the do-gooders — have relentlessly pursued a good man who has now been laid low.

Yesterday’s conviction of the Tipperary TD for tax offences was the culmination of a series of investigations into his activities reaching back over two decades. In that time, he has been found to have repeatedly evaded taxes and, far more seriously, interfered in the awarding of the lucrative mobile phone licence in 1995.

He divides opinion here in a way not dissimilar to that of Donald Trump in the USA. His supporters gather around a standard that casts him as a victim, continually hounded by “them”. His detractors point to evidence adduced from the Moriarty tribunal and the Revenue Commissioners which suggest he is somebody unfit for public office.

Yesterday’s conviction for two charges each of delivering an incorrect corporation tax return and failing to keep proper set of accounts comes over 21 years since his first transgression was uncovered. In that time he has been continually re-elected by the voters in Tipperary, and wooed by both main parties eager to coral his Dáil franchise.

And despite myriad legal woes which might have crippled most businesses, he remains one of the wealthiest members of parliament.

Once upon a time, Lowry was the great white hope for Fine Gael. In the early 1990s, he was seen as a rising star at a time when the party was tearing itself apart. Then, the big opportunity arrived. In late 1994 Fine Gael entered government and John Bruton handed Lowry the communications portfolio.

He was on his way.

Over the following two years in office he left an indelible mark. At the outset, he projected the image of somebody who had arrived to clean up dodge. He railed against the boards of semi-state companies which he claimed were stuffed with unsuitable Fianna Fáil appointments.

His gung-ho approach meant he made enemies with ease, which is all fine and dandy if one has nothing in one’s own cupboard.

Unfortunately for him, a skeleton or two lurked therein. In 1996, the journalist Sam Smyth met a man in a pub car park in Clontarf who had the keys to Lowry’s exit door.

Smyth’s newspaper, the Irish Independent, published a story that said the minister had around €450,000 worth of work done on his Tipperary home paid for by Ben Dunne. Lowry’s refrigeration company had a contract with Dunnes Stores.

Within 48 hours, the minister with a future became the ex-minister with a past. He resigned from cabinet, declaring that John Bruton was his “best friend, best friend for ever”.

And on that note, he took off for the wilderness of the back benches where he has since stubbornly laid down roots.

The McCracken tribunal, which investigated him, found he was a tax evader, making him vulnerable to McCracken recommended a deeper inquiry into both Lowry and Charlie Haughey. This tribunal began sitting in 1997 under Judge Michael Moriarty.

Michael Lowry, then a Fine Gael TD, with Esat chairman Denis O’Brien in 1997
Michael Lowry, then a Fine Gael TD, with Esat chairman Denis O’Brien in 1997

One thread of inquiry led to another and by 2002 the tribunal was examining whether Lowry had, during his short tenure in government, in any way assisted Denis O’Brien in winning the second mobile-phone licence.

Along the way, Lowry finally settled with Revenue, through his company Garuda, for €1.1m in 2005.

It was another six years before Moriarty issued his report, but he did find that Lowry had abused his ministerial position in a “cynical and venal abuse of office”. He had, Moriarty ruled, “without doubt” imparted information to O’Brien’s bid which was “of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence”.

The tribunal also found that O’Brien had made or facilitated payments to Lowry of £447,000 and a benefit equivalent to a payment by supporting a loan for £420,000.

Both men hotly disputed the findings. Lowry went into the Dáil and said if he had wanted to squirrel money away as Moriarty had outlined, he would have opened an offshore account.

This was what might be called a Trumpian declaration, because Moriarty had actually discovered four offshore accounts of which Lowry had a beneficial interest.

The devastating findings did nothing for his popularity in Tipperary, and unpopularity in sections of politics and among the media. Tipp saw their man being done down once more.

No doubt, had the offending politician hailed from the southside of Dublin or Cork City, the same folk would have seen a politician corrupting his office. But honesty when it comes to politics dances to a different tune when the parish pump is being worked.

In the 2011 general election, months after Moriarty was published, Lowry topped the poll in Tipperary, elected on the first count. Naturally, he was re-elected in 2016, completing an unbroken term of service of 29 years.

It’s not as if he needs the TD’s salary. A rich list compiled last May had him as the wealthiest parliamentarian in the lower house, with an estimated worth of €6.4m. Through all his tribunal and tax woes, he has continued to amass wealth outside politics

But for a man like Lowry, the past is never fully past. In 2013, an old business chum, Kevin Phelan, produced a tape recording he’d made of a conversation between the two of them dating from September 2004.

On it, Lowry references £250,000 that he paid to Phelan, saying “I never declared it”.

He goes on: “I’m asking you Kevin, for fuck’s sake, will you protect me just a small bit. For Jaysus sake, don’t land me in it, I’m destroyed as it fucking is. I can’t bring out that fucking 200 — that 250 — again. If that comes out I’m fucking ruined, I’m bankrupt.

The tape did little to dent his popularity with voters, but it certainly got under the skin of the taxman. Lowry had made a settlement with Revenue the year after the recording was made. If there’s one thing the boys and girls in Revenue don’t like, it’s being made a fool of.

Within months, they were raiding Lowry’s home. Charges followed, and yesterday the verdict was delivered.

The law, after all these years, has finally caught up with him.

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