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Frank Dunlop: A ‘problematic witness’ with a war chest

The former Fianna Fáil press secretary had over IR£535,000 in cash at his disposal for “making disbursements to councillors” in the early 90s.

Frank Dunlop.
Frank Dunlop.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

THE MAHON TRIBUNAL report has dedicated an entire chapter to Frank Dunlop, former broadcaster, government advisor and Fianna Fáil press secretary.

Dunlop was the Tribunal’s longest witness and gave evidence on 99 days, the last being in March 2008. The Mahon report says he was a “problematic witness” whose credibility was seriously questioned given the manner of his dealings with the Tribunal.

It says that Dunlop had developed a very simple but successful strategy in his lobbying for rezoning in which “the money did the talking”.

‘War Chest’

Dunlop held a number of bank accounts which were disclosed to the Tribunal, including two for his company Shefran, one at Irish Nationwide, one in AIB (the Rathfarnham account) and one off-shore in Jersey for his Xerxes Consult (Jersey) Ltd company which he referred to as a “war chest” account.

The Tribunal found that most of the transactions connected with rezoning proposals concerned the Irish Nationwide and the AIB accounts, and that these accounts were “effectively dormant after the adoption of the Development Plan in December 1993″. Both accounts were closed in October 1994.

Dunlop admitted to having substantial cash reserves throughout the relevant years concerning the Tribunal. These reserves had built up from cheques received from clients including landowners and developers as well as cash payments made to him.

The Tribunal found that Dunlop was paid €85,000 by the Monarch Group as a ‘reward’ for his efforts in promoting the Cherrywood development. It also gave him extra funds for “disbursement to councillors”.

During the 1991 local election campaign, Dunlop had access to at least IR£165,000 in cash, while between February 1990 and September 1993, Dunlop “had at his disposal a sum in excess of half a million pounds cash (IR£535,5017) for the purposes, inter alia, of making disbursements to councillors.”

The report concedes that this figure is likely a “conservative” one:

In 1991 Mr Dunlop had access to in excess of IR£230,000 cash, in 1992 he had access to IR£124,000 cash and in 1993 IR£50,000 cash. These sums did not take into account cash sums which came into Mr Dunlop’s possession and which were not lodged to or withdrawn from bank accounts. In the course of his testimony in the Quarryvale module, Mr Dunlop advised that, on occasions, he had cash sums ranging between IR£25,000 and IR£100,000 in his briefcase.

His access to large quantities of cash was possible through an arrangement with AIB under which he could cash large cheques, which bank management confirms he did between 1990 and 1993.

John Aherne, manager of AIB College Street, said that although Dunlop’s requests for large sums of cash were irregular, he had trusted Dunlop implicitly and said that “you do irregular things if  you value your client”.

The Mahon report says:

The Tribunal was satisfied that payments made to Mr Dunlop by landowners/developers, although intended, in part at least, by some landowners/developers to be passed on in the form of corrupt payments (albeit in some instances in the form of contributions at election time) to councillors were not always directly or immediately used for such purposes by Mr Dunlop.

He said that the funds made available to him for these purposes were part of a “confluence of funds” along with his ‘war chest’ and other funds and not allocated for specific projects.

However, when making certain payments to councillors and to Liam Lawlor, Dunlop made some payments on the basis that “of an expectation of payments being made to him in the future by landowners/developers, often by way of a promised or agreed ‘success fee’.”

The Tribunal says that Dunlop had a simple and successful strategy from late 1990/early 1991 in which the financial reqards for landlowners and developers “were enormous by any standards” – and substantial for Dunlop. In most instances, it says, payments to councillors were “relatively modest” at IR£1,000 or IR£2,000 and that he rarely ever explained the pros or cons of a development project.

“In reality, the money did the talking,” the report says.

Dunlop says he “did not invent the system” of payments to politicians, but that it he was introduced to it by Liam Lawlor (claims Lawlor denied). Dunlop said had “cooperated with it in the full knowledge that it was the only way in which to ensure that certain developments could take place in County Dublin”.

A ‘problematic witness’

The Mahon report says he was a “problematic witness” who had at times “defied the Tribunal’s efforts to obtain truthful information about him prior to April 2000″. Despite his later apparent willingness to cooperate, the report says he continued to cause difficulties for the Tribunal:

The Tribunal was satisfied that in a number of instances, and in many and important and fundamental respects, Mr Dunlop continued, post April 2000, to actively and purposely mislead the Tribunal. This created an enormous difficulty for the Tribunal and rendered the issue of his credibility to be a persistent complicating factor in its deliberations.

The Tribunal says that at one stage it even contacted the FBI for assistance in forensically analysing Dunlop’s diaries as it believed certain entries and been intentionally obliterated or altered. It was particularly critical of what it says were his efforts to conceal the extent of his engagements with developer Owen O’Callaghan and Liam Lawlor.

Dunlop’s changing position between maintaining a “false position” and giving truthful evidence diluted his credibility as a witness and made it seriously consider dropping his evidence altogether, according to the report. It is also particularly critical of his evidence regarding developer Owen O’Callaghan, whom he said he believed was unaware of acting corruptly in paying councillors over Quarryvale – a statement the Tribunal later found had not been the case.


Dunlop’s name was first brought to the attention of the Tribunal within months of it being set up, during a telephone conversation between counsel for the inquiry and whistleblower and former property developer Tom Gilmartin.

Gilmartin had claimed, according to the Tribunal, that Dunlop was “a major bag-man for cash payments to Fianna Fáil”. He also claimed that Dunlop had had “major input” in council decisions over zoning and that he had “paid off” a number of councillors, and that he was involved in meetings with Liam Lawlor and Owen O’Callaghan “in Dáil Éireann and elsewhere”.

The Mahon report says that once Dunlop became aware that his lobbying activities concerning zoning and a number of development projects could be investigated by the Tribunal and that Gilmartin was likely to make disclosures to the Tribunal which could affect him, he contacted his accountant and instructed them “to make limited disclosure to the Revenue Commisioners to deal with his tax liability” from payments to his company Shefran.

In 1998, Dunlop was invited to make written or oral submissions to the Tribunal and after a series of refusals and delays, he was served with a summons and gave public evidence in April and May 2000.

Dunlop furnished lists to the Tribunal which the Mahon report says contained “revealed important information in relation to alleged payments made to, and by, Mr Dunlop and which were of particular relevance to the Tribunal’s Terms of Reference”.

In particular, in a number of the lists Mr Dunlop identified politicians to whom he paid money and politicians who solicited money from him within specific periods of time, as well as the identities of landowners/developers whom he alleged paid him money, some or all of which was subsequently allegedly paid to politicians.

In his submission, Dunlop confirmed that apart from those lists, “no other payments or political contributions of any kind had been made by his firm or on its behalf or on behalf of anyone else to elected representatives of Dublin County Council or to any other politician,” according to the report.

One of the nine lists prepared by Mr Dunlop on Day 145, contained just one name, that of Cllr Tom Hand (who was by that time deceased), who was identified by Mr Dunlop as the only elected public representative who had requested money from him in return for supporting the rezoning of the Quarryvale lands. Mr Dunlop was to, controversially, subsequently, identify a number of other councillors whom he claimed also sought money from him in relation to Quarryvale and in relation to other land rezoning matters in County Dublin.
On Day 146 Mr Dunlop explained that he had received requests for money, for what he described as legitimate electoral reasons, from councillors whom he identified in a list (described as the ‘Preliminary List’) entitled ‘Members of Dublin County Council who requested monies from Frank Dunlop.’

At the time this list was created, Mr Dunlop did not state that he had ever made improper or corrupt payments. However, Mr Dunlop would go on to testify that the list included the names of individuals who had requested what he termed legitimate political contributions, and individuals who had requested money in connection with rezoning matters. This distinction, which Mr Dunlop would later make, was not apparent on Day 146.

When questioned by Tribunal counsel about an apparent coincidence between activity in an AIB Rathfarnham account he held and zoning motions concerning Quarryvale, Dunlop said that a coincidence was undeniable, but denied any wrongdoing:

I do not think you are so suggesting given that you have now said that there are no allegations against me; if you are suggesting that any monies out of any account in my name were used for illicit or improper purposes, the answer to that is an emphatic ‘No’.

After hearing this response, counsel advised Dunlop to try to refresh his memory of those transactions. “Perhaps you might
reflect overnight and tell us what was the purpose of the bank account,” the then-Tribunal chief Justice Flood suggested.

The following day, Dunlop disclosed a list outlining a number of withdrawals from the account totalling IR£112,000 disbursed to 16 councillors during the 1991 local election campaign. However, Dunlop was found to have given those councillors money from other sources such as cashed cheques from his company Shefran.

He subsequently named a number of developers or landowners who it was alleged had given him payments relating to the 1983 Development Plan.

Frank Dunlop was charged in relation to a number of corrupt payments connected with rezonings and was sentenced to two years, with the last six months suspended. He was released from prison in July 2010.

FBI called to analyse Frank Dunlop’s ‘redacted’ diaries >

Mahon Tribunal final report published – Here are its recommendations >

Liveblog: Mahon Tribunal rejects Ahern evidence>

More: Full coverage of the Mahon Tribunal, including timeline and who’s who>

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