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Dublin: 2°C Tuesday 7 December 2021


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THE DÁIL this evening began a three-day debate on the findings of the final report of the Mahon Tribunal, which brought an end to its 15-year inquiry into corruption in the planning progress.

Here is our liveblog cataloguing the events of the evening.

Well, that wasn’t a great start. Matters had to be delayed for a few minutes because there was nobody on the Fianna Fáil benches – and when they do begin, there’s the usual warning from Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett that members shouldn’t make accusations about non-TDs who cannot defend themselves.

Eamon Gilmore, kicking off the debate, says the report is “little short of devastating” – not about individual councillors, but rather because of the systemic corruption in the planning system in Dublin. It made adverse findings against people at every level, from then-councillors to the then-Taoiseach.

Despite that, however, corruption was “overwhelmingly a Fianna Fáil problem”. All three of its leaders from 1979 to 2008 – all of them having been taoisigh – were the subject of adverse findings in successive tribunals, he says. (There’s also a mention for Pat Rabbitte, who was commended in the report for returning a donation from a developer.)

Some Fianna Fáil members can rightfully complain, he says, that their good work is being undone by others. This is true, but they are not the victims: the victims of corruption are those who live in poorly-planned communities. The question for Fianna Fáil must be why it took the party so long to act.

Gilmore: Yes, some people within FF wanted to get rid of Haughey, and others supported him for the right reasons – but that’s why it’s so disheartening when the same problems resurfaced under Bertie Ahern.

There is a higher standard that must be applied to some FF ministers, Gilmore continues, from both when they attacked the Tribunal and when they supported Bertie Ahern. His explanations were “little short of bizarre” and there was a widespread view that his evidence was unbelievable, but yet FF ministers continued to back him up.

The reaction of FF ministers was not to deal with the problem, but rather to attack the Tribunal – as embodied by Bertie yesterday when he attacked again (in an Irish Times opinion piece) knowing that the Tribunal could not defend itself.

“I don’t blame anyone who is utterly frustrated by the slow pace at which investigations into the banking collapse have been proceeding.”

There is more than one way to be bankrupt, Gilmore says – and the trust between public and politics is badly damaged. The Tánaiste asks people to consider what alternatives there are to democratic violence, and asks people to have new trust in public life, even though some individuals have betrayed that trust.

Gilmore says the government will consider the Tribunal’s recommendations and proposals for reform, including asking its points to be considered in the constitutional convention. The report has been sent to the Gardaí and DPP, and it’s been sent onto the Criminal Assets Bureau.

Gilmore concludes by saying each minister has agreed to consider the report and make proposals to Phil Hogan for how to act; he will then present proposals to cabinet in May. He ends by saying each generation has its own major challenge: the one of this generation is to rescue the public finances, and restore trust in public life.

Micheal Martin opens with hints that Fine Gael has ignored some of its own failings, but acknowledges and accepts the work of the Tribunal. The public can see the difference between people looking to exploit issues and those looking to direct proper changes. He says he has no intention of trying to avoid accountability for his party’s action, but won’t let others off the hook for reports on their own difficulties.

Last year, Martin says, ministers came and cherry-picked convenient parts of the Moriarty Report to discuss. He says he won’t do likewise.

Former FF minister Michael Smith was the first to attack planning in Dublin, he said, and led the split of Dublin’s local authorities in part because councillors were voting on the rezoning of areas they didn’t know. (There’s credit for Brendan Howlin, who followed this up in the 1990s.)

The Tribunal’s report confirms the picture laid out in earlier ones; planning in Dublin was “rotten to the core”, with a systematic subversion of the process by councillors who wanted to be paid to support rezoning they would have otherwise opposed.

Martin admits that many within FF acted ‘infamously’ and their legacy remains, and many were rewarded in 1991 by losing their seats. Since then, he notes, Fianna Fáil hasn’t controlled any of the four councils in Dublin.

Martin hopes the DPP can act on the evidence of the report, and says the report underlines how many didn’t see a boundary between personal and political finances. The major question, however, should be whether the planning system has been cleaned up – and the system still allows some councillors to create wealth on behalf of developers.

An attack: Martin wants to know why Phil Hogan cancelled six internal planning investigations in other areas, which had been begun by John Gormley. There is stony silence from Hogan and his cabinet colleagues.

The matters in the report deserved to be exposed; Pee Flynn corruptly sought a donation, and took money in his office from a developer putting a project before him. The Tribunal heard evidence, found a conclusion, and Martin says he fully supports and accepts it. He wants proceedings taken against Flynn, and says there was no excuse not to challenge Flynn on it.

There was a “high tolerance” of corrupt practices on all sides, he says, but legislation brought forward by FF since 1997 have helped to curb this.

On Bertie: The Tribunal couldn’t discern where funding came from; although he had a tough personal time, this doesn’t excuse his affairs. At no stage, anywhere, has anyone ever alleged a corrupt act on Bertie’s part during his time as Taoiseach. The findings of the Tribunal are serious enough without people trying to extend them and make partisan points. Martin goes on to defend some of those governments’ achievements, including in Northern Ireland.

The FG tactic of looking to inflict damage on FF is cynical, Martin says, especially when nobody ever suggested corruption against him. He adds that Ruairí Quinn, as a former colleague of Ahern’s in cabinet, is on the record as saying he did not suspect Bertie of taking corrupt payments.

On Albert Reynolds: there is no question that FF fundraising, though legal, was wrong. What Albert did was precisely what Justice Moriarty said in his own report last year. There was a pattern of donations to parties by interested businesspeople. One of Moriarty’s report said only one donation was unsolicited – Denis O’Brien said consistently that Fine Gael were asking for funding.

He mentions a corporate fundraiser at the K Club – criticised by Lucinda Creighton – at which Denis O’Brien gave a ‘secret’ donation. FG has been “deeply cynical” in trying to whitewash Moriarty’s findings, he says.

“Are we willing to clean out the stables when it comes to historical cases of abuse… are we wiling to expose wrongdoing without fear or favour?”

Vincent Browne has never gotten explanation about how FG managed to erase its large debtgs in the mid-1990s, he says. Surely Gilmore will agree that the funding of his former party Democratic Left was hardly transparent, either: shouldn’t that be investigated? SF killed 200 people, knee-capped and exiled more, during the time of the Tribunal: how come there is no accountability there?

About the FF attempt to ‘collapse’ the tribunal: I do take the comment seriously, but this is a matter in which the Tribunal heard no evidence and offers no attempt to substantiate it. Dermot Ahern’s been attacked for quoting Susan Denham’s complaints about the Tribunal; Denham is now the Chief Justice. Ministers have a right to criticise, but there is a difference between criticising the Tribunal and trying to get it collapsed.

There was an accusation made against Martin himself, which was later withdrawn, but which Fine Gael have been press releasing lately. There were some promises and attempts to collapse this and other tribunals from people who are now in government.

Mahon is a severe indictment of corrupt behaviour, and shows even the legal funding of politics was questionable. As FF leader Martin says he will sort out his own house, but he will not tolerate unfair criticism from the government benches. FG/Lab still has no problem about Moriarty and will still share a podium with Denis O’Brien with only belated questioning. Moriarty hasn’t gotten the attention that its findings require.

Being asked to end, Martin says it’s an “outrage” that journalists and commentators have been targeted for their discussion on the Moriarty Tribunal. Mahon is serious precisely because it discusses a systematic problem: to be inconsistent about accountability does not help rebuild trust. FF has been held to account, and correctly so. My message to the public is simple: there is no task I take more seriously than fixing my party.

Gerry Adams, quoting from the Tribunal report, says corruption in Irish political life was “endemic and systemic” – but this only touches on one kind of corruption. Business elites were also elite, and together with politicians “golden circles” were formed. Gombeenism was part of British colonial rule, and that survived and thrived in independence.

Adams quotes Liam Mellows in the Treaty debates in 1922, and says the people of independence had a different view for the new state. Power has been abused in self-interest; partition created two conservative states, and both were marked by conservatism on social issues.

Senior civil servants, bankers, judges, big business, politicians… All created systems “which entrenched their own privilege”. Corruption, backhanders, brown envelopes became acceptable. Cronyism became endemic. “Who you knew was more important than ability, fairness, or what was right.”

The result is a double standard where people feel above their own advice; this was best illustrated by Charlie Haughey’s TV address. For those who don’t know what he means:

Adams points out that Fine Gael doesn’t have a perfect history either, and points to Garret Fitzgerald’s finances which at one point were so weak that he had millions of loans simply written off. What some struggling people would give now to have their debts forgiven, he wonders.

Adams wonders whether Martin will take action against those who questioned the Tribunal, and tried to attack it. He says more needs to be done to restore public confidence and to clean up politics. One proposal is to impeach members who are corrupt: it’s obvious, he says, that former politicians should have their pensions stripped if they’re corrupt, especially if they’re former ministers.

Adams points out that Mahon only reviewed corruption in Dublin – but says such practices could not have been unique to the Pale. He also attacks Hogan for abandoning plans for independent investigations, including one into a relief road in Carlow which led to a compensation case for €11m. The public needs confidence that every decision is taken for the right reasons.

The Republic our founders died for in 1916 is encapsulated in the words of their proclamation - a charter of liberty, freedom and rights as important as anywhere else. That country guaranteed liberty, equal rights and a commitment to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. His general point (while wearing an Easter lily) is that Ireland needs a “genuine Republic” fit for its purpose, “where orange and green unite”.

“The people of Ireland deserve more than what we have at this time.”

Adams says this republic is not a pipedream; Ireland has the resources to create that republic, and should start now. It was 19 years ago when Adams and John Hume issued a joint statement looking for a peaceful and democratic accord. Hume was vilified; five years later the Good Friday Agreement was achieved. What’s needed now is a vision of a different Ireland, and that can be done.

From the technical group, Richard Boyd Barrett: The Tribunal confirms what we all suspected. There is a rotten political culture in Ireland, which has dominated this state for three decades. It’s not just Mahon, though Mahon builds on other tribunals from decades ago, beginning with Beef. “The entire political culture of this state has been absolutely corrupted to a rotten state”, he says.

Not all apples in the barrel were rotten: the barrel itself, Mahon makes clear, was absolutely rotten. Both of the major parties were implicated in this. The legacy of this culture has been devastating for tens of thousands.

The provision of social housing ground to a halt in a period when developers were allowed to run amok, RBB says. Development, driven by greed and greased by corruption, meant that the biggest building boom in Irish history left housing lists at their biggest ever.

RBB has taken the debate to a financial angle, saying the culture of safeguarding the wealthy and refusing to tax them has helped to create the problems we have.

“Fianna Fáil should disband,” he adds. “The record is just appalling – a record of corruption from top to bottom.”

A Rossport angle: Ray Burke, the minister who set up “an unprecedented” tax regime to give away natural resources, was implicated in the report. Was there some connection there?

More reference to the Moriarty Tribunal, and Denis O’Brien’s “inappropriate payments” – and yet a year later, O’Brien is stood beside the Taoiseach on the balcony at the NYSE, and invited to events at Dublin Castle. (Speaking of which…) RBB also wonders how €3 million was raised to win the last election – will Fine Gael publish a list of their donors?

There appears to be assent from the FG benches, to which RBB pulls out a list of former winners at FG golf classics, including the likes of JP McManus and Treasury Holdings developer Johnny Ronan.

“Big money, in and of itself… may exert a corrupting influence,” RBB points out. This is a point borne out by the evidence, he says – adding that the response of successive governments has been to protect those elites, not just in Ireland but around Europe.

In case you want them, by the way, the full text of Eamon Gilmore’s speech can be found here; Micheál Martin’s response is here.

Back in the Dáil, meanwhile, RBB is making the case for wealth taxes – and says the government’s defence, that wealth is too difficult to tax, is bogus.

Environment minister Phil Hogan – whose predecessor Noel Dempsey was the man to officially establish the report – will get 20 minutes. He says the report has brought an end to a long process, with 900 public sittings, 400 witnesses, and hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence and correspondence. It may have cost more and taken longer, but its work was important.

Last Thursday was a dark day, he says – not just for the people implicated in the report, but for the system as a whole, which was infected at every level. Hogan says he sent the report to the DPP, Gardaí, Revenue, SIPO et al. It’s up to them to decide if any action should be taken.

It’s too early to give a comprehensive report to the Tribunal’s 64 recommendations, but the cabinet has considered it, and appropriate ministers have been asked to urgently consider various recommendations. An early glance suggests that some have already been addressed. (So far, this all sounds like Eamon Gilmore’s earlier speech.)

In particular, Hogan points to the Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Bill 2011 – the one bringing in gender quotas – which he says will open the books of political parties to greater scrutiny. This will help to tackle the corrupt donations process, he says.

Hogan addresses the charges that he blocked John Gormley’s planning reviews: he says they were only planned seven months before Gormley left office – and contrary to opposition claims, no work was undertaken on them at all. There’s also a barb for Richard Boyd-Barrett’s “innuendo” that Hogan himself, or other FG ministers, sought to interfere in any investigation.

The report’s recommendations are of “the most profound kind,” Hogan concludes, saying he hopes TDs will pay appropriate tribute to the work of the tribunal, and will leave the appropriate agencies to follow its recommendations and punish any wrongdoing.

Despite the party’s apparent wrongdoing, he says, FF brought forward a dozen acts to regulate public life; he adds that FF initiated two bills last year to ban corporate donations entirely, but Fine Gael and Labour blocked both.

Hogan says he will soon be writing to Alan Mahon asking how long it might take to process third-party legal requests, and will make the appropriate arrangements

The culture in politics at the time of the Mahon events was totally different, he says; although those actions were condemned, they should be seen as symptomatic of the culture that existed then which does not exist now. That said, some FF leaders betrayed their office.

And with that, it’s 7:30pm, and the Dáil will move onto other business. Thanks for reading.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly