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The tribunal is dead, long live the tribunal: Ireland's messy love affair with 'the truth'

“The tribunal has risen from the shallow pool of our collective memory.”

Previous Tribunals Justice Fergus Flood, the first Chairman of the Planning Tribunal, outside his office In Dublin Castle. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The publication of the Mahon report in March ended the era of tribunals.

That was a line penned by Irish Examiner journalist Michael Clifford for his newspaper on 1 January 2013.

Citing Mahon and Moriarty, he finished that same (excellent) column with a farewell to an era of public inquiries that “cost an arm and a leg”.

“You provided endless realms of news for those of us in the news business. And you weren’t beyond the odd light moment, when sublime and ridiculous collided as tales of madness for days of yore poured out. We’ll not see your likes again. Thankfully.”

The irony that Clifford would be at the heart of a scandal that would wrench those very same, antiquated, unwelcome throwbacks from the brink of extinction.

For the past three years, while the word tribunal was packed away in a closet with Bertie’s yellow pants, Clifford has been writing about the plight of garda whistleblowers, specifically Maurice McCabe.

Yesterday, Enda Kenny dusted off the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act to confirm he would establish a public inquiry into allegations that a smear campaign was waged against the sergeant by senior gardaí.

A senior judge will be asked to investigate this central question and report findings to the Oireachtas. He will have the powers of the High Court to compel witnesses and to ensure their cooperation because, after all, these are probes only set up to inquire “into matters of urgent public importance”.

Previous Tribunals Former Fine Gael Minister for Communications Michael Lowry arriving at the Moriarty Tribunal. Source: Leon Farrell

To anyone who does not remember Mahon or Moriarty, that might sound a quite straightforward prospect. But, most will know that Ireland’s history with such probes has been nothing of the sort.

‘Tribunal’ became a dirty word because of their duration, their cost and, in many cases, their ineffectiveness.

They are essentially fact-finding missions. They cannot dole out justice but they can point fingers. They, in theory, can satiate an Irish desire to know everything about everything (and everyone). The truth is important to us as a society but tribunals often let us down. The truth – or the journey to it, to be more correct – is often too messy for our appetites.

In 1925, the State’s first ever tribunal investigated the ‘retail prices of articles in general consumption’ (or the Tribunal on Food Prices for short).

It was established at the time to figure out what was inflating the price of consumer goods. Moving a motion on the matter in the Seanad on 27 January 1926, Senator John Douglas explained why it was being called, in layman’s terms.

“There was evidence that the loaf in London, which is decidedly cheaper than the loaf in Dublin, is not the same loaf,” he said.

We can discover whether it is not, or whether there is an explanation of that, and then whether it is desirable, contrariwise, that we should have a somewhat reduced loaf. I give this illustration of a matter that the Tribunal might be instrumental in setting right.

shutterstock_352819853 The price of the humble loaf of bread led to a tribunal. Source: Shutterstock/Gamzova Olga

However, he also seemed to hit onto a problem with such investigations:

“The resolution provides that the Commission is to make practical suggestions for the reduction of prices. Now, I have no objection in asking them to do so, but I do not wish to be taken as one of those who really believe that the Commission can effectually reduce prices.”

In any case – and whether it worked or not – the entire cost of the exercise was an estimated £1,667.

Throughout the 1920s, tribunals remained in vogue with probes into various scandals to do with ports and harbours, the marketing of butter, maize and cereals and the shooting of Timothy Coughlan (an IRA volunteer linked with the assassination of Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins) all brought forward.

They were still popular in the 1930s and 1940s – to look at pig production, the grading of fruit and veg, town tenants, public transport and fires at Pearse Street and St Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan – before hitting a lull in the 1950s.

By then, politicians had been burned by the public’s outrage at the £4,389 cost of a 1946 examination of allegations against a parliamentary secretary in de Valera’s government.  As a result, the Oireachtas established just one public inquiry over the following decade (at almost half the cost).

Eight years passed but soon public sector pay landed the government of the day in hot water, leading to what would now probably be an inevitable inquiry. And then the death of Liam O’Mahony in custody on 30 May 1967 and subsequent claims that the deceased had received injuries in a garda station prompted Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan Senior to establish a tribunal.

In their 65-page report, three judges looked at questions of garda conduct and the use of batons which circulated in media reports.

They found no wrongdoing by gardaí, ruling that O’Mahony – who was intoxicated at the time of his detention – died from injuries sustained in a fall from a barstool. Evidence and re-enactments were seen and heard by the three-strong panel.

The judges, however, did criticise the intemperate language used by journalists in two newspapers which stirred the public’s disquiet and ultimately forced the £13,000 tribunal.

Two years later, an RTÉ programme called Seven Days aired a report by Bill O’Herlihy focusing on the victims of illegal money lenders.

O’Herlihy tracked down those who worked in the black market and talked to them about their behaviours. It caused huge controversy at the time because of the use of hidden cameras, microphones and actors which eventually led to a full-blown inquiry entangling the soon-to-be household sports name, the national broadcaster and the government.

ADRIAN HARDIMAN MORIARTY TRIBUNALS Senior Counsel, the late Adrian Hardiman, arriving at the Moriarty Tribunal in Dublin Castle. Source: Eamonn Farrell

The first 23 tribunals held in this State between 1925 and 1982 cost either hundreds or thousands of pounds (the lowest coming in at £622 in the 1920s).

But by the 1980s, with television, radio and newspapers clamouring, scandals got bigger – and more costly.

When the Kerry Babies Tribunal was formed, it was a talking point for the entire nation.

There were protests outside the offices and it provided a conversation starting point for such lofty topics as women’s rights, Ireland’s attitude toward reproduction and sex.

Also involving the gardaí, it was asked to examine how they investigated the discovery of a newborn baby’s body at the White Strand near Cahircaveen. A young woman living in the village of Abbeydorney 75 kilometres away – who had given birth to a child who had also died – became implicated following a search for its mother and the discovery of a second body.

Both the woman at the centre of the horrific case, Joanne Hayes, and the investigating gardaí were criticised by the final report, but no charges were ever brought. Hayes continues to contest the finding that she precipitated the death of her baby.

00106855_106855 A protester outside the Kerry Babies Tribunal in 1985. Source: Rolling News

More than 30 years on and the harrowing images of Hayes being questioned at the Tribunal in Dublin Castle endure. Not only was the public interest heightened in the case, but the bill was also higher (£1.645 million).

The 1980s had nothing on 1990 tribunals, however.

For starters? The Beef, of course.

That will be £27.233 million (in 1991). And a government collapse (four years later).

The Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef Processing Industry was launched following an ITV programme which put the spotlight on Larry Goodman’s food empire.

His links to Fianna Fáil’s Charlie Haughey and Albert Reynolds became unsettling – enough so that Progressive Democrat leader Des O’Malley threatened to pull the plug on their coalition if a tribunal wasn’t set up.

00102468_102468 Albert Reynolds - then Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader - after finishing giving evidence at the Beef Tribunal. Source: RollingNews.ie

In the end (August 1994), Reynolds said the judges’ 580-page report left him “fully and totally vindicated, both personally and as a minister”. But his Tánaiste Dick Spring wasn’t feeling in the same spirits and eventually their coalition ruptured.

The lukewarm findings of the Beef Tribunal didn’t stop the train. In rolled Finlay (into Hepatitis C infection of pregnant women; £4.7 million), McCracken (into Alleged Payments by Dunnes Stores; £6.56 million) and Lindsay (HIV and Hepatitis C infection of haemophiliacs; £46.649 million).

They had nothing on the length and cost of the pleasantly named trio of Morris, Moriarty and Mahon though.

The Tribunal of Inquiry into complaints concerning some Gardaí of the Donegal Division was led by Justice Frederick Morris – and, yes, also involved allegations of poor policing.

Six years and €70 million after being established, its sixth and final report outlined a shocking web of lies and corruption, as well as a ‘blue wall of silence’, in the investigation of the death of local cattle dealer Richard Barron.

In July 2013, the Irish Times published a story with the headline: Morris tribunal recommendations yet to be implemented by An Garda.

As Morris dragged into the bowels of 2008, so did Moriarty. Despite starting the job years earlier, Justice Michael Moriarty was still up against it.

Previous Tribunals Former Esat chairman Denis O'Brien outside the Moriarty Tribunal in 2001, where he had been giving evidence. Source: Graham Hughes

Officially called the Tribunal of Inquiry into certain Payments to Politicians and Related Matters, it began in the late 1990s to look into the financial affairs of Charlie Haughey and Michael Lowry. It was still chugging along in 2008, and beyond.

It cost over €46 million and eventually – after 14 years – found that former Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry had an “insidious and pervasive” influence over the awarding of Ireland’s second mobile phone licence in the 1990s to Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone company.

Lowry is currently still a sitting TD for Tipperary. He rejects the findings of the Tribunal, as does O’Brien.

And we come back to Mahon – the Tribunal to End All Tribunals.

It cost an estimated €159 million. It took a staggering 15 years to complete, running from 1997 until the publication of a final report in 2012.

It heard from 600 witnesses over 1,200 days. All to figure out why councillors rezoned land which planners had advised against. Why, indeed.

Although it stopped short of finding him corrupt, Bertie Ahern rejected the findings of the tribunal. It did conclude that the former taoiseach had lied about the source of over STG£215,000 lodged in bank accounts connected to him.

The report made findings of corruption against former Fianna Fáil minister Padraig Flynn, developer Owen O’Callaghan, the late Fianna Fáil TD Liam Lawlor and 11 councillors.

It was still heartily criticised for being mostly toothless, with many forced to resign from the Fianna Fáil party (including Bertie) but facing few other sanctions. While the tribunal was ongoing, former Justice Minister Ray Burke was sentenced to six months in jail for tax evasion after being found to have taken corrupt payments.

Testimony about him was some of the more memorable and explosive. During one public hearing, whistleblower James Gogarty revealed how he had been with property developer Michael Bailey in 1989 when an envelope filled with cash was handed over to Burke.

Afterwards Gogarty said he asked Bailey if he would get a receipt for the money. Bailey’s response was succinct:

Will we fuck.

And, so here we are. The tribunal has risen like a phoenix from the country’s collective shallow memory pool.

We still have to learn the who, the how, the when and the where but for now, Mick,  welcome back the sublime and the ridiculous.

Oh, and in case you missed it, Fianna Fáil has an 11-point lead in the latest opinion polls.

PastedImage-39364 Source: Statista

Explainer: What exactly is a Tribunal of Inquiry?

LIVE: There will be a Tribunal into alleged smear campaign against Maurice McCabe

More: Another garda whistleblower says Tusla investigation also opened in his case

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