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Who is Michael Lowry and what’s everyone’s problem with him?

The Tipperary TD is the subject of the latest political controversy, but why is everyone talking about him?

A Michael Lowry election poster
A Michael Lowry election poster
Image: RollingNews.ie

YOU’VE PROBABLY BEEN hearing the name of Tipperary’s independent TD Michael Lowry a lot over the past few days.

At the weekend, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was asked repeatedly by TheJournal.ie and others whether he would rule out doing a post-election deal with Lowry.

Such a deal would involve negotiating a list of spending and policy commitments for deputies and their constituents in return for them offering their support to the government in Dáil votes.

On current polls, the Fine Gael-Labour government will be short of the necessary support to have a majority in the Dáil and therefore may need to hammer out such deals with independents.

Kenny’s refusal to explicitly rule out the prospect of a deal with Lowry in particular has sparked a political controversy. This evening, his spokesperson outlined the official position:

We are asking the people to choose stability and re-elect the current government so that we can keep the recovery going. We are not contemplating engaging with any independent.

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But in contrast to that slightly open statement (note the use of ‘contemplating’), Labour ministers and backbenchers are firmly ruling out the idea.

Labour’s deputy leader Alan Kelly said his party will “never work with or ask for the support of anyone like Michael Lowry”. This evening, a spokesperson for Joan Burton said:

The Tánaiste does not think it would be appropriate that the individual concerned would be part of any future government.

Several Fine Gael backbenchers have told the Irish Examiner and other media that they are against the idea. But Fine Gael ministers have been more reluctant with Paschal Donohoe among those who refused to enter into a discussion on Lowry when asked by this website yesterday.

This morning, Fine Gael’s outspoken health minister Leo Varadkar broke ranks by saying he would not like to see the government dependent on independent TDs “who have issues with the law” when he was asked about Lowry.

Meanwhile, both the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have ruled out doing any post-election deal with Lowry.

But who is Michael Lowry? 

Born and bred in Tipperary, the 62-year-old has been a TD in Tipperary North since he was first elected in 1987 as a Fine Gael deputy. He is running for re-election this time around in the larger, five-seat constituency of Tipperary.

Before entering the Dáil he was a county councillor for eight years and, in the early 1980s, was the youngest-ever chairman of the Tipperary GAA county committee. Later, as chair of the Semple Stadium development committee, he raised the necessary funds to refurbish the ground. According to Lowry’s website:

The stadium was on the brink of insolvency with €1.5million in debts following the 1984 GAA Centenary expenditure. The pop festival ‘Feile’, The Trip to Tipp was the brainchild of Michael who introduced it as a means of successfully repaying the outstanding debts. To this day it is known as one of the best pop festivals of all time in Ireland.

He also founded a commercial refrigeration business in the 1980s. It is one of a number of businesses that he is listed as a director of with interests ranging from construction to bloodstock and livestock.

In 1993, Lowry became chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party and the following year he led negotiations that paved the way for the Rainbow Government of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left. He was appointed Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications in cabinet alongside future taoiseach Enda Kenny, who was Minister for Trade.

IVAN YATES FINE GAEL ARD FHEIS Michael Lowry with former cabinet colleagues Michael Noonan and Ivan Yates at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 1996

The controversies

Lowry was forced to resign from cabinet in 1996 following a succession of political scandals. He was barred from standing as a Fine Gael candidate in the election the following year but ran as an independent and topped the poll.

The McCracken Tribunal later revealed that the supermarket tycoon Ben Dunne paid for the extension to Lowry’s home in Tipperary and concluded that he had evaded tax.

In 2007, Lowry was among the independents whom Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil negotiated deals with in return for their support of the government in the Dáil. The deal brought significant investment to Tipperary. Lowry’s website states:

Michael conditionally supported this Government as he believed that this was the best way to represent the interest of the constituents. He believes that “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. It is widely recognised that by supporting this Government he ensured significant investment for North Tipperary.

In 2011, the Moriarty Tribunal found that Lowry had an “insidious and pervasive influence” on the bidding process for the second mobile phone licence in Ireland when he was a minister in the 1990s.

File Photo Taoiseach Enda Kenny has refused to officially rule out a link up with Mr Lowry. Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has said that the leader of the Labour Party, the deputy leader and all members who have already censured Michael Lowry and Denis O'Brien in 1997 Source: Eamonn Farrell

The licence was granted to the Denis O’Brien-owned Esat Telecom in 1995. The tribunal found that O’Brien made or facilitated payments of hundreds of thousands of sterling to Lowry. Lowry and O’Brien have both rejected the findings.

Shortly after the report was published the Dáil passed an all-party motion to censure Lowry and called on him to resign his seat. The motion was non-binding so Lowry was under no obligation to resign.

It was recently reported that the Criminal Assets Bureau is actively investigating the tribunal report.

In 2013, the ‘Lowry Tapes’ controversy centred on a 2004 phonecall between Lowry and land agent Kevin Phelan in which they discussed a sum of between STG£200,000 and €250,000, which the Sunday Independent reported Lowry as saying he paid to Phelan, but that the TD added during the call: “I never declared it”. Lowry has denied wrongdoing.

Later that year, Lowry’s home was raided by officials from Revenue investigating his tax affairs. He was later charged with several counts of filing incorrect tax returns during the period between 2003 and 2007.

MICHAEL LOWRY

The Tax Appeals Commissioner later found he has no tax liability and his returns are correct. Off the back of that Lowry is currently seeking to have Revenue’s case against him thrown out. His lawyers recently told the High Court that the prosecution is unfair, unjust, fundamentally oppressive, and should be halted.

Last year, Lowry became embroiled in a sexism controversy when it emerged that he passed a note to Enda Kenny in the Dáil asking him to reappoint Valerie O’Reilly to the board of the National Transport Authority. In the note, Lowry asks Kenny if he would consider reappointing O’Reilly, describing her as “a woman, bright, intelligent and not bad looking either!”.

Enduring popularity 

Despite these and other controversies, Lowry has topped the poll in every election since 1997 and secured over 14,000 first preference votes in 2011. This is because Lowry and his team of local councillors, including his son Michael Lowry junior, are widely perceived as delivering a quality service for the local area.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 16.54.48 Michael Lowry's website

The so-called ‘Lowry Team’ make themselves available to deal with constituents at every available opportunity. They efficiently deal with their concerns and queries over issues like health and social welfare. Lowry’s 2007 deal with Ahern and Fianna Fáil delivered significant infrastructural investment in Tipperary.

“I represent the people, they are very happy with the service that I deliver to them,” Lowry told Newstalk today. He dismissed the current controversy as a “media frenzy fuelled by political opponents”.

He is open to a post-election deal and insists he would act in the bests interests of the Irish people. But he has also repeatedly said everything must wait until after the election, when the people have had their say. He insists that no one has been in touch with him about a deal.

The problem

The concerns about Lowry arise from the controversies listed above, the ongoing legal actions in relation to his tax affairs and a CAB investigation into the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal.

Lowry is viewed as a political pariah in Leinster House circles and has been the subject of constant media scrutiny in recent years. This has only strengthened his popularity at home with many in Tipperary believing the Dublin elite have it in for the ‘local boy done good’.

screenshot.1453828071.72041 Source: www.thejournal.ie

But for the political parties, Lowry’s association with tribunals, tax controversies and the divisive media baron Denis O’Brien present unwelcome headlines were they to align themselves with them.

Fianna Fáil’s decision to do a deal with Lowry in 2007 raised eyebrows, but today Micheál Martin insisted things had now changed from his party’s point of view:

I think the Moriarty Tribunal has come in the intervening period and that says very strong things in terms of Michael Lowry’s involvement and interference in the awarding of that particular mobile phone licence, and that is something that all political parties cannot fudge.

As for Fine Gael, the party effectively blacklisted Lowry nearly 20 years ago when he resigned from cabinet. Doing a deal with him after the election would be seen as regressive and has already caused considerable disquiet among backbenchers.

Kenny’s failure to explicitly rule out the possibility is becoming increasingly problematic. The party hierarchy will have to outline a more coherent response to questions that are likely to continue in the coming weeks.

Read: Is Michael Lowry about to be brought in from the cold?

Read: Enda was asked whether he’d work with Michael Lowry, he didn’t say no

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