I welcome the final report of the Mahon Tribunal. I supported its establishment in 1997 and I believe that it has carried out important and valuable work. I have accepted the findings of every Tribunal of Inquiry which has reported during my membership of this House. I also accept the findings of Judge Mahon and his colleagues.
This is a very important report. It deserves a debate as serious as its contents. It raises issues relating to individuals but also to a wider political culture. As is acknowledged in the Report, the legislation regulating politics and politicians has been transformed since the events which it has investigated – but more action is required. Equally there is no doubt that there are still major concerns about planning procedures.
The principal events dealt with in this report are over twenty years old. Irrespective of this it is reasonable and fair for such practices to be exposed no matter how long ago they occurred. Each person honoured by the people with holding public office must be willing to be held to account for their action.
The basic challenge for this debate is to show that we understand the importance of what the Mahon Report contains and what it says to us collectively and individually. Do we genuinely believe in accountability, or is accountability just for the other guys? Are we willing to apply the same standards to comparable practices, or will politics triumph over principle?
Nothing will change if this is just another debate about finding new and more creative ways of kicking the other side while ignoring the implications for your own. The public can see the difference between politicians just trying to exploit issues like this and those who have a serious interest in addressing what happened and making sure it never happens again.
During this statement I will be making direct political points, as I am fully entitled to do particularly given the unequivocal evidence in both this Report and that of Justice Moriarty. However, it is my intention to fully acknowledge the scale of the problem which was present in my party.
I have no intention of seeking to avoid accountability for my party and those who held office as Fianna Fáil representatives. Equally I have no intention of letting others away with deeply cynical tactics of ignoring the implications of this and other reports for their parties and their representatives.
The biggest single point which comes from this Report is the need for everyone in public life to not just talk about high standards but to be willing to act on them no matter what the personal inconvenience.
It is a wide-ranging report which deals with the specific matter of the corruption of planning in Dublin as well as the broader facts of the behaviour of specific individuals and fundraising by national parties. I would like to address each of these in turn as well as some other points including the comment in the introduction concerning statements by former ministers. During last year’s Moriarty debate a succession of Ministers came to the House and chose to cherry-pick the more convenient parts of the report for comment. I will not follow their example.
It is important that we first of all remember the context in which the Tribunal was established in 1997. While it was a direct response to revelation about payments to Ray Burke it was actually part of a decade-long build-up of concern about issues relating to money and politics. It was explicitly seen as going in tandem with the Moriarty Tribunal.
Problems with planning in Dublin had indeed been clear for a number of years. My former colleague Michael Smith was the first minister to try to do something about it. He publicly attacked the councillors of County Dublin and said that, under them, planning had become a “devalued currency”. He acted as strongly as he could within the law as it was, as did his successor Minister Brendan Howlin.
Michael Smith split up Dublin County Council in large part because of the habit of councillors of pushing through controversial rezoning for parts of the county they had no connection with. It was clear that councillors across areas and across parties frequently coordinated such votes to allow councillors vote in accordance with their local voters’ views but still get the motion passed.
Michael Smith also began the drafting of legislation for limiting political donations and regulating them via a strong national body before he left office in late 1994.
It is not clear why the rising concern about what had happened in the early 1990s did not lead to any serious investigation during either the Fianna Fáil/Labour government or the Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left government. Equally it should not have taken the actions of private citizens in offering a reward for information before this House would act.
The Tribunal’s report confirms the picture which was laid out in Justice Flood’s earlier report. Planning in Dublin at this time was rotten to the core. There was a systematic subversion of the planning process by some councillors willing to seek and accept payments in return for pushing through rezoning which they would otherwise have opposed. This was in turn a systematic subversion of the democratic system and a betrayal of the people of County Dublin.
The Report shows how the promoters of rezoning were deeply networked within the council, having a level of influence over the decisions of many Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors which was far worse than was anticipated when the Tribunal was established.
The brazenness of some of this corruption was startling. Both Liam Lawlor and Tom Hand appear to have sought to effectively shake-down people coming to the Council with major proposals. Both are now deceased, but it is clearly documented that they received very large amounts in corrupt ways.
In terms of many within the Fianna Fáil group, their behaviour was infamous and their legacy remains. In the 1991 local elections the public rightly reacted against their behaviour by throwing many of them out. They built up a level of distrust which has been very hard for good people who stood in subsequent years to overcome. It is now twenty one years since Fianna Fáil controlled any of the councils in Dublin County.
It is right that councillors be held to account where they engaged in corrupt practices. Ray Burke, Liam Cosgrave, Liam Lawlor and others have already been through the courts. Other cases are following. As was seen in one of the cases which followed the McCracken Report, we have to be careful what we say here about individuals. We have privilege but we can still cause cases to collapse by being prejudicial.
I believe that the evidence uncovered by the Tribunal and independently available to the DPP is more than sufficient for a number of people to face serious charges. I hope that this will be progressed urgently.
Perhaps the most important question in relation to the planning element of the Report is whether or not these things could happen again. It is clear that there is no longer any doubt about the boundaries between personal and political finances. Many of the explanations offered to the Mahon Tribunal are firmly dealt with in legislation. What is a lot less clear is whether the planning process itself has been cleaned up.
Planning decisions by councillors continue to have the prospect of delivering huge gains to private individuals and to reward lobbying. The most recent Development Plan process saw widespread cause for concern, so much so that former Minister John Gormley decided to set up independent, expert and low cost investigations into planning decisions in six councils.
No credible explanation has been given by anyone in government as to why it was decided to close-down these investigations and go for administrative reviews instead. These reviews were already done before the investigations were set up. What is the government concerned about?
If the government is sincere in its response to the Mahon Report then it will reinstate the independent planning investigations. It should also bring forward proposals which implement the recommendations of Judge Mahon and his colleagues. Planning has been so devalued for so long that there is an unanswerable case for an independent regulator.
Last week I announced action to be taken by Fianna Fáil against a series of people against whom the most serious findings we made. There is a lot more in the report to be considered. It has been referred to our Rules & Procedures for a fuller analysis. They will bring forward recommendations to our Árd Comhairle and unlike other parties, we will be making these recommendations public.
While this was a tribunal set up specifically to inquire into Dublin planning matters it was empowered to follow different threads as they emerged. The Supreme Court and others said that it was not focused enough, but the matters outlined in the Report deserved to be exposed.
The report states that Pádraig Flynn corruptly sought a donation intended for Fianna Fáil and took it for himself. This finding is even more serious because it involved a Minister taking money in his office from a person who was promoting a project which might come before that Minister.
Mr Flynn had his opportunity to be heard by the Tribunal. It received evidence from many sources and reached a conclusion. I accept that conclusion and believe that it should be followed-up in the appropriate way by the appropriate authorities.
In relation to the £50,000 it should be received by the state through general proceedings against Mr Flynn.
There is no excuse for the failure to confront Mr Flynn with this allegation at the time. There is no doubt that it formed part of a political culture which ignored or dismissed allegations of corruption rather than properly investigating them.
This wider point is made by the Mahon Tribunal’s report and the accepted evidence that the then leader of Fine Gael refused to take any action when informed that one of his representatives had sought a bribe of £1/4 million. The Tribunal heard that his entire response was to comment “neither Fine Gael nor the world is populated by angels”.
In the Tribunal he waited until 2007 before acknowledging that he had been told about Cllr Hand’s bribe request.
There is no doubt that there was a high tolerance of unacceptable behaviour which aided and abetted the practices exposed by the Tribunal. I firmly believe that the tough laws introduced since 1997 by successive Fianna Fáil led Governments have completely changed this. There are now regular referrals to SIPO and none of the excuses used by both those offering and receiving corrupt payments are now possible.
A substantial part of the Mahon Tribunal’s report addresses its attempt to discover the source of significant amounts of money held in accounts directly or indirectly under the control of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The Tribunal has not made a finding of corruption against him but what it has said is nonetheless extremely serious.
The Tribunal could not define the source of the funding it identified because he did not disclose where it came from.
It was certainly the case that he had a difficult personal situation at the time, but this is not enough to excuse or explain what was revealed.
The Tribunal reviewed his personal and constituency accounts from both before and after he stepped-down as Taoiseach. At no stage under privilege of the Tribunal or elsewhere has any person made any allegation about any corrupt act by Bertie Ahern during any of his three governments. This is no excuse, but the findings against him by the Tribunal are serious enough, without people trying to invent others or extend them so that they can make partisan points.
I do not believe that any politician elected to this House in the last twenty years could have achieved what he did in the Peace Process. While others followed their personal or party agendas in negotiations, he worked doggedly to bring them along so that they also ultimately became peace makers.
That achievement is real and enduring, but it cannot absolve him.
In last Friday’s edition of the Evening Herald, Fine Gael sources were quite open in saying that their strategy in response to Mahon is simply to try and inflict as much political damage as possible arising from the Report’s publication. Part of this has been to promote the idea that everyone must have known and refused to say anything. The line was taken up with enthusiasm in many quarters.
It’s a strategy which is as cynical as it is flawed.
The fact is that it took a judicial inquiry with large powers and an unlimited budget to get the information and draw it together. Nothing was alleged by the opposition about Bertie Ahern during debates on the original or amended terms of reference for the Tribunal.
In terms of people who were around him in the period 1991 to 1994, if anyone outside of a small few knew about this money they kept very quiet. In Colm Keena’s book on Bertie Ahern he asked one of only two people still in this house who served in government with him at that time if he had any idea at all that Bertie Ahern was receiving large amounts of cash. The former ministerial colleague of Bertie Ahern’s said that he had no idea and was “shocked” by what has emerged. I believe Minister Ruairí Quinn when he says that he noticed nothing, for the very reason that the activity was hidden. The same applied for the rest of Bertie Ahern’s colleagues.
Last year the Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan told the House that no one had the right to imply guilt by association because he and others had worked closely with a former colleague exposed in a Tribunal. He was absolutely right.
The question for him and for the government deputies ready to deliver their attacks is; are you willing to apply the same standards to yourself that you demand be applied to others?
The Tribunal report makes a very serious point in relation to a particular instance of fundraising by Fianna Fáil ministers. It is stated that the donor felt pressurised to give a donation and that the fact of making a donation from someone who might seek government support for projects was an abuse of office. The Tribunal does not state that any action was sought or received specifically because of this donation but does say that it should never have been sought.
This is not a matter which received a lot of attention during the Tribunal and I am very conscious that the Tribunal accepted that Albert Reynolds was not in a position to have this criticism put to him.
There is no question now that such fundraising was wrong even though it was legal. If we all accept that government’s using their position to increase donations is wrong then I presume that deputies will take the time to note how Justice Moriarty pointed to exactly the same thing in his report.
This needs to be explained give the number of Government deputies who continue to refuse to acknowledge the clear facts. Justice Moriarty showed how there was a pattern of donations to Fine Gael by bidders for the second mobile licence which began shortly after the party entered government. In relation to ESAT, he laid out how 15 donations were made to the party in the run-up to the awarding of the licence.
One of the many things in the Moriarty Report which has been ignored was the finding that only the first of these donations was unsolicited. When asked about why he had agreed to give money to Fine Gael even though ESAT was financially strapped, Denis O’Brien Senior said “because Fine Gael asked for it”.
In relation to the $50,000 New York donation which Fine Gael chose to hide from Justice Moriarty for four years until Deputy Noonan insisted it be revealed, the Report is equally clear. In paragraph 41.47 Denis O’Brien said Fine Gael asked for the donation and further that he felt that Fine Gael shouldn’t have asked for it.
The then Taoiseach and three ministers in cabinet today received donations in their constituencies which were solicited from ESAT.
Other money was put into the form of bank drafts as part of a successful effort to ensure that the origins of the donations were known to the office holders but not to the wider public. This is what led to the well-known correspondence to the Minister for the Environment. To remind deputies, I will read it:
Please find enclosed a draft for the Golf on 16th.
I understand Denis has requested that there are no references made to his contribution at the event.
Best of luck on the day!
I’ll give you a call soon.
The ‘Golf’ mentioned in this letter was a corporate fundraising event in the K-Club which has continued uninterrupted since that day. It was Minister Lucinda Creighton who said that this event is no different from the Galway tent – which was stopped four years ago.
As the Report states in paragraph 6.30, the entire episode most likely started on 7th February 1995 when a Fine Gael TD, employed by ESAT as a consultant, introduced Michael Lowry to Denis O’Brien at a meeting in Fine Gael Headquarters in Mount St.
The effort by Fine Gael to whitewash Moriarty’s findings from history is deeply cynical and the support they are receiving in this from Labour is striking.
The fundraising which the Mahon Report chronicles was wrong. However, it is simply not possible to look at the facts of fundraising under another government and view what Mahon reveals as unique. This is a much more serious point about the political system.
It has raised many questions which should be answered. Are we willing to clean out the stables when it comes to historical cases of abuse in political fundraising? Are we willing to expose wrongdoing without fear or favour? There has yet to be a full inquiry into all political fundraising at that time.
If there is a need for a further more detailed examination of the decade before regulations and limits were introduced I have no problem supporting it and promising full cooperation. I hope other parties would actually be willing to do the same.
Broadcaster Vincent Browne has failed to get any explanation whatsoever about how Fine Gael raised millions during 1995 to erase large debts. Given its newfound attitude towards historical accountability, the party should take this opportunity to finally answer.
The Tánaiste will surely agree that the funding of his former party was less than transparent given the involvement in counterfeiting of the party’s in-house printing company as well as the continued racketeering of the Official IRA, or Group B as they were termed. If he believes in accountability, then isn’t it time this was investigated, rather than continuing to insist on double standards?
Sinn Féin’s embrace of double standards on this issue is particularly brazen. Lest anyone forget, during just the period examined by the Mahon Tribunal, Sinn Féin’s movement killed over 200 people, kneecapped and exiled many more and ran this island’s largest racketeering, kidnapping and bank-robbing network. Its position has been a consistent one of refusing to expose its members to the law without an advance assurance that there will be no accountability.
Studies show that Ireland’s current system for controlling political finances is very tough in international terms. New measures are making it tougher, even if they do not go as far as the measures we introduced, but which were voted down by the government last year.
We believe there should be a stronger ban on corporate donations and that this is a matter which should be made crystal clear via the constitution.
Comments About Tribunal
In the Introduction to the Report the Mahon Tribunal states its belief that comments made about it by former ministers amounted to an attempt to ‘collapse’ the Inquiry in a vital investigation. This is not a finding but it has played a central part in the government’s PR strategy. Within minutes, it had supplied its representatives with instructions to emphasise this and say that it was a finding against me and other colleagues.
Unlike the partisan attacks, I do take the comment of the Tribunal seriously. Unfortunately, this is a matter on which they heard no evidence, provided no detail and gave nobody an opportunity to be heard in response. It is not a finding of fact and the government should stop pretending it is.
None of the quotes which have been produced by government spin doctors come anywhere close to justifying the claim of such a conspiracy. For example, Dermot Ahern is being attacked for effectively quoting the now Chief Justice. Other comments fall well short of criticisms of the Tribunal’s work, which was widely spread. In over 3,200 pages there is no mention of Deputy O’Dea and the only mention of former Deputy Roche is his signature on revised terms of reference.
I do not in any way accept that ministers had no right to criticise the workings of the Tribunal. There is a difference between legitimate criticism and trying to collapse it. It was not a Minister but a judge of the Supreme Court who used words like “grotesque” and “nothing less than appalling” to describe the cost and duration of the Tribunal.
While I am very happy with how the report deals with a donation I received, at the Tribunal a wild and unfounded accusation was made against me. The allegation was later withdrawn and the accuser apologised. However, the accusation was left hanging for days and I criticised the Tribunal for allowing that to happen.
Given that this criticism by me is now a core part of Fine Gael’s attack strategy, I hope its speakers in this debate will take the time to reflect on the fact that Fine Gael as a party made exactly the same criticism of the Mahon Tribunal for an exactly similar occurrence. On July 4th 2006 Fine Gael issued a press release attacking the Tribunal for the “outrage and disgrace” of letting an untrue allegation be made without being challenged. Fine Gael was right in this criticism and I was right in mine.
Fine Gael backbenchers enjoying this particular spot on the moral high ground should reflect on the fact that then Deputy Hogan threatened to close down the Moriarty Tribunal, in which he was a key witness, if he became a Minister. And Minister Alan Shatter actually introduced a resolution to collapse the Smithwick Tribunal.
I accept the Report and welcome the work of the Mahon Tribunal. However, the Tribunal is not immune from legitimate criticism and others have no right to announce that they know who is being criticised in a comment where no one is named and which is not a finding of fact.
Responding to the Report
During the Moriarty debate last year, the Government parties followed a strategy of deliberately seeking to minimise the significance of the Report. They claimed it was all about one rogue minister and ignored all inconvenient evidence. To this day the government has not said if it agrees with the findings. That is an extraordinary situation.
On the Mahon Report they have taken exactly the opposite approach, where they are demanding not only agreement with the findings but also to their claims of what the findings are.
The Mahon Report is a very serious indictment of many people who held public office at every level of public life. It involves individual cases of corrupt and inappropriate behaviour. Equally it shows how there was a fundamental question about even the legal funding of politics.
I accept the findings against members of my Party and we will continue to work to address these findings. What I will not accept is hypocrisy and double standards. I will not accept the right of parties who control this House to be selective in the evidence they point to when talking about past abuses – to demand accountability for others but refuse even legitimate questions about their own party’s record.
In the last 12 months not one single Fine Gael minister has acknowledged that it was wrong to seek and accept major donations from a company which was competing for the largest commercial licence ever awarded by the state. The Taoiseach has lectured about standards at length but has repeatedly refused to answer direct questions about whether it was correct to seek and accept these donations. In the debate last year he ignored a series of questions by me and Deputy Catherine Murphy about serious matters.
Last week’s events in the USA are only a reflection of the government’s indifference to and dismissal of the Moriarty Report. With other reports the Government rightly demands accountability and contrition – but for Moriarty, when the question is about its own conduct, it says ‘legislative plans’ are enough.
In the government benches nobody can be found to issue even a word of criticism of what happened under Fine Gael and Labour.
Deputy Broughan is the only TD elected for either party to stand up and criticise the targeted fundraising around that second mobile phone licence.
As Minister Creighton pointed out yesterday, many are uncomfortable with the behaviour of the government, but of course nobody is willing to do anything about it.
While the government’s effort to minimise Moriarty is clearly political, the reluctance of much of the media to follow it up in any sustained way is more disturbing. It is not possible to argue that it has received the sort of attention which the seriousness of its findings require.
Since Moriarty was published I’m not aware of any serious effort to question the Taoiseach or ministers whether they thought their fundraising was appropriate. Questions about relations with Mr O’Brien have been belated and limited.
More striking has been the lack of any concerted defence of those journalists who are being targeted through legal action. My party haven’t had many friends in the media in recent times, but I believe that it is an outrage that journalists and commentators should be targeted in the way that they have been for being forthright in talking about the findings of Justice Moriarty.
If we are now entering a new era in this country, where the standards and level of scrutiny being applied to public affairs depends on how a story aligns with the interests of media owners, we are actually going backwards.
The Mahon report is so serious particularly because it makes a point about systematic abuses. This is a large and challenging issue which goes to the core of public disillusionment towards politics and the failure to fully grasp it and to be inconsistent about accountability does not help rebuild trust.
My party has correctly been held to account for the behaviour of individuals in abusing public office. We are acting on the findings and support the recommendations.
I am conscious that people have heard similar sentiments from my party in the past. My message to them is simple. We understand the scale of the challenge we face in rebuilding trust, but there is nothing I take more seriously.