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Column: The Mahon Tribunal failed - and the media did too

Michael Smith, one of the two men whose offer of a reward for information about planning corruption led to the Mahon Tribunal, explains why the investigation was a damp squib.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

In 1995, Michael Smith joined with barrister Colm Mac Eochaidh to place a newspaper ad offering a reward for information on planning corruption in Ireland. That ad was the starting point for the investigation that led to the Mahon Tribunal.

Yesterday Colm Mac Eochaidh gave his views on the future after the tribunal. In this piece, Michael Smith explains how Mahon – and the media – failed in their task.

I AM NOT sure if it was ever reasonable to rely on the sort of minds that took 15 years and up to €300m to deal with an ‘urgent’ examination of corruption in one county to then produce a radical and dynamic report.

The Mahon Report nails easy targets among the rezoners: four dead dinosaurs (three FF, one FG), five red-toothed, long-sidelined rezoning machines (three FF and two FG) and well, for example, Olivia Mitchell (Olivia was done for inappropriate behaviour in one case only).

But in the rezoning that I was opposing 20 years ago, Cherrywood, as with most of the rezonings, the findings fall short of implicating anyone who still could be described as the political establishment.

In 1993 the residents’ group I was involved with published  a leaflet wondering why local councillors who voted for Cherrywood in 1993, consigning the beauty-spot to concrete, had voted against it in 1992, with no change of circumstances.  Six of them.

We said changing their minds was suspicious in 1993.

That was before we knew that 60 politicians and community groups took money from the developer, Monarch Properties, which disbursed £167,000 in cheques and £161,000 in untraced cash.

This was before several councillors were charged with corruption concerning the adjoining ‘Jackson Way’ site.

Before Frank Dunlop (jailed over Jackson Way) who had taken over lobbying for the Cherrywood rezoning in late 1992 confessed himself a crook.

Before we knew that Albert Reynolds had received a £5,000 donation that referred to the positive role of FF councillors in facilitating the rezoning.

And before it was known John Bruton received £2,500 from Monarch for Fine Gael in between the crucial votes.

Nine out of the 12 FG Councillors who would talk to their party’s  internal Inquiry in 2000 had received money from Monarch or Frank Dunlop (or both) in the 1991-1993 period when I was concerned with the Cherrywood vote.

‘Most journalists have not even read most chapters of the report’

The tribunal didn’t even attempt to ask the councillors why they changed their minds after receiving donations from Dunlop or Monarch, though that didn’t stop it hauling them in and asking them endless other questions.

The report almost entirely omits conclusions on this endless stream of dodgy evidence. Someone needs to do a survey of on what percentage of the evidence heard by the tribunal reached no conclusions at all.

I have been speaking to many of the journalists covering Mahon in the last few days and most of them have not even read most chapters of the report. Most of them struggled with the one-chapter summary.

This, of course, replicates their failure over Moriarty – where for example the ineptitude of civil servants was never properly accounted for in the media. Even the Irish Times managed only a few sad paragraphs on most of the 13 Mahon modules. Lots of stuff about Quarryvale, but then again everyone can picture, and everyone hates, Bertie –  so that sells newspapers.

If you’re looking to the Irish  Times for objective ‘newspaper of record’-style coverage you might note its torpidly inadequate commentary on Mahon-reviewed rezonings apart from Quarryvale, and correlate them with the Irish Times’ failure to note Phil Hogan’s collapsing of John Gormley’s investigation of seven local authorities countrywide in June 2011 (apart from a short comment from an An Taisce spokesperson the following month).

And indeed the misreporting, and failure to note the significance, of the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) ethics  finding against Labour stalwart Oisin Quinn last month – only the third negative finding in the 11-year history of SIPO.

The Irish Times published three articles which misrepresented the essence of the Quinn case and included eight errors of fact, half from Oisin Quinn, half from Stephen Collins whose article we describe as “unprofessional” in the current edition of Village. The misreporting included on the number of instances of illegality found against the councillor. Four instances not one.

Take this representative media failure in combination with the governmental failure to implement the recommendations of Moriarty (it was promised every relevant government department would come up with a list of measures within four weeks), the continuing planning and environmental chaos countrywide (Dublin continues to sprawl, one-off housing accounts for more than 50 per cent of national housing, septic tanks go unmonitored and turf-cutters breach minimum EU standards, for example) and the failure of FG to curtail Denis O’Brien’s  grandstanding with its grandees; and, unfortunately, the optimal response to Mahon seems, once again, to be cynicism.

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Michael Smith, the editor and publisher of Village Magazine. It originally appeared on

Village Magazine is in shops now.

More: ‘I thought it would last two months’ – Colm Mac Eochaidh on Mahon

Full coverage of the Mahon Tribunal fallout on>


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