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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Column ‘I thought it would last two months’ – the man whose ad led to Mahon
Colm Mac Eochaidh, one of the two men whose offer of a £10,000 reward for information about planning corruption led to the Mahon Tribunal, reflects on the past 15 years.

In July 1995, a small ad appeared on the back of The Irish Times offering £10,000 for “information leading to the conviction or indictment of a person or persons for offences relating to land rezoning in the Republic of Ireland”.

The ad had been placed on behalf of environmentalist Michael Smith and barrister Colm Mac Eochaidh  and was the starting point for what would eventually be the longest Tribunal in the history of the State.

Now Mac Eochaidh explains his motivation for doing it, his view of the tribunal, its findings, corruption in politics, and his thoughts on what needs to happen now.

I came back to Ireland in 1993 having lived out of the country for a number of years. I got involved in the Dublin city branch of An Taisce and the conservation movement just as it looked like the city was about to undergo significant development – a building boom was about to commence.

Both Michael and I were concerned about the environmental impact of any such building boom and in particular Michael was concerned about the fate Cherrywood lands in South County Dublin near Loughlinstown if there was development.

As we know from the tribunal, he was of the view that there was corruption in the rezoning of land and I, having an interest in political affairs growing up and in college, believed that corruption was a problem in Irish political life and in particular in the planning process.

So we decided to offer the reward of £10,000 through a solicitors in Newry. It was not in the belief that it would lead to a slew of information but really in the hope that the media would pay attention to the subject and begin its own investigation. There had been a failure of the gardaí and a failure of investigative journalism. That was a huge problem. When these two branches of society fail, what’s left?

Initially, we got about 50 or 60 responses and many of them were irrelevant but some of them were quite serious. The most serious of all was that of James Gogarty who told us that he had been part of the group that bribed Ray Burke in 1989. This information was invaluable but it took us a year to persuade him to allow us to use the information for the purposes of putting pressure on political figures to do something.

When we did, we leaked this information to journalists and eventually the Dublin media and political classes knew about the rumours surrounding ‘the unnamed senior Fianna Fáil politician’. When it emerged it was Ray Burke, he was forced to deny the rumours and that he had any contact with Gogarty. But almost immediately after he publicly denied it, Magill magazine got their hands on a letter which established that there were clear connections between Gogarty, Burke and the lands in question.

So Burke was forced to resign as a government minister and the tribunal was set up.

‘I thought it would all be over in two months’

Its terms of reference allowed it to examine not only Burke’s connection to the planning decisions but also decisions related to media control and it was asked to investigate other matters that were brought to their attention during the course of their investigations.

This included the role of councillors which would lead to the intermediary between some of these councillors and developers – Frank Dunlop. He was asked by the tribunal if he had any involvement in rezoning or corruption but he absolutely denied this.

He made an affidavit of discovery, revealing all his bank accounts but when giving evidence one day he accidentally disclosed one of the bank accounts he had not made discovery of. That was the slush fund into which all the corruption money was paid and from which he bribed the councillors. He was caught. So he turned from the problematic witness to the star witness and it went from there.

When the tribunal started I thought that the only thing they would ever get was Jim Gogarty giving evidence against Ray Burke. So in the end they were very, very lucky to end up with Tom Gilmartin and Mr Dunlop which could not have been anticipated. I thought the tribunal would just hear evidence from Gogarty that he bribed Ray Burke and it would all be over in two months. But that would not have been sufficient.

It was an enormous surprise that the thing became much more elaborate and involved inquiries to areas way outside the Gogarty/Burke corruption.

There was an element of chance to it. What if Pádraig ‘Pee’ Flynn had never given THAT interview to Gay Byrne? We would never have had Mr Gilmartin’s revelations and the Quarryvale module. What if Frank Dunlop had just watched himself a little more carefully? He wouldn’t have accidentally mentioned the slush fund.

The green field into the gold mine

We always strongly believed that councillors were being paid money for votes to rezone land but I didn’t think the sums were quite large. I was surprised by how small it was – a thousand here and a thousand there, at least that’s what he admitted – considering it was about turning the green field into the gold mine I would have thought that a vote would have been worth a lot more.

My own view is that there was corruption in the planning system and that were greater sums of money paid to people higher up the feeding chain than councillors and  I do believe that the tribunal is correct when it says that corruption was “endemic and systemic” at every level.

So because of that I think there are matters that haven’t been investigated. I think there are very many people who gave evidence in closed sessions and there’s no report from the Tribunal as to what happened with that. For example, I gave evidence in private session yet there is no mention of this in the report and I don’t know why.

That said, the tribunal was largely open to the public but I would actually like for it to have been televised. The Joe Taylor reenactments on The Vincent Browne Show on RTÉ radio were fabulous and a great public service but I think it should have been televised.

If Bertie Ahern had given evidence on live television, I think he wouldn’t have survived. If he had gone live on TV saying that he won it on a horse, people would have seen it and he’d be gone.

Is there still corruption in the planning process today?

Obviously, I don’t know but I have no reasons to believe it has stopped. If you are in the business of procuring rezoning through corruption you would know that the one thing about it is that it’s so difficult to prove you might be encouraged to carry on doing it. It took them 15 years to deal with three allegations. I think corruption will only ever be revealed if one of the people doing it admits it and that’s what happened here in the case of Gogarty, Gilmartin and Dunlop. It is a very, very rare thing.

‘The information gleaned is priceless’

A lot has been said about the cost but my view is that the information gleaned is priceless. So €100m or €200m is a small price to pay for something which is priceless.  The whole process is not susceptible to a value for money analysis. One doesn’t do it to achieve an economic end. The Dáil wanted an investigation done and asked that it happen in a certain way but there was never any question of a budgetary limit on it.

Having said that it is a scandal to establish something that is not all that complicated and for it to cost that much.

To avoid something like this in the future we could set up a permanent anti-corruption commission which would sit behind closed doors. This has two advantages. One, the allegation is made in private and if it turns out to be untrue the person whom the allegation is made against keeps their good name. Second, they don’t need the battery of lawyers which is required when the allegation is made in public. All the due process rights, which are all terribly expensive, are neutralised. If the inquiry reveals prima facia evidence it can then alert the police and ask them to prosecute in the normal way.

There will be no stomach for something like Mahon ever again. What politician would announce the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry that would countenance as many  howls of derision about the cost and length of time as this one?

I think we won’t have one even if one is needed and that’s why we need a strong legislative response from the government to put in place systems that will stop the problem resurfacing and if they do resurface there should be a proper mechanism for cheaper, more efficient, and focused inquiries.

Incidentally, no-one ever claimed that £10,000 reward. Shortly after people answered the ad, we wrote to those those who had offered information and asked them if they wanted the money but no one ever did. I’m not surprised as you would have had to have confessed to serious criminality and no one would do that for £10,000.

The reward was really about drawing attention to the subject and it did. It made headline after headline after headline and achieved its purpose which was to ask questions about corruption in Irish political life.

Colm Mac Eochaidh is a Senior Counsel and former Fine Gael candidate in Dublin South East. As told to Hugh O’Connell.

Full coverage of the Mahon Tribunal fallout on>

Colm Mac Eochaidh