Goodman centre stage for first grand inquiry of tribunal era
Larry Goodman coverage, 1989-1994
Meat Entrepeneur Larry Goodman poses while exiting proceedings of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef processing industry in Dublin Castle in March 1993.Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
On February 15th, 1989, The Irish Times carried a front-page story by Dick Walsh with the somewhat enigmatic headline: “FF TD fails to attend meeting on Irish Sugar Company”. It hardly sounded like big news, but it was the first hint that the affairs of one of Ireland’s most remarkable businessmen might be uncomfortably entangled with those of the State itself.
The “FF TD” was Liam Lawlor. The meeting he had failed to attend was that of an Oireachtas committee that he himself chaired. Its members wanted to question him about an apparent conflict of interest: Lawlor had access, through the committee, to a detailed report on the internal affairs of the Irish Sugar Company. Lawlor was also a director of Larry Goodman’s Food Industries which was actively interested in buying Irish Sugar.
Up to that point, Goodman had received extensive but largely uncritical coverage in The Irish Times. This was hardly surprising. In a battered and underdeveloped economy, his private beef processing company, the Goodman Group, controlled an extraordinary 4 per cent of Irish GDP.
Yet, he was almost routinely described as “enigmatic”. “Secretive” might have been even more apt.
Jim Dunne, then the paper’s business editor, noted later that month that “there is no good reason why the information about a nationally important business should be concealed from the public at large”.
Over the next five years, however, Goodman’s very private companies would become very public business.
The story in the media
Interest in Goodman, sparked by the Lawlor affair, was intensified by a Dáil debate in March 1989, when two backbench TDs made serious allegations of malpractice at the group’s plants.
Barry Desmond claimed that there was a fraud squad investigation into a scam at certain factories. Tomás MacGiolla claimed that labels on meat going into EU intervention storage were being changed by a team acting on behalf of a Goodman company. Goodman issued a strong denial of both allegations, which it said were “untrue”, “grossly distorted” and “irresponsible”.
In fact the allegations were true. Mark Brennock and Seán McConnell broke the story in The Irish Times that the firm had been fined £1 million by the EU for malpractice at its plants in Waterford and Ballymun.
Later that year, Mark Brennock also reported on another rather startling story concerning Goodman: the State had insured substantially more Irish beef supposedly being exported by Goodman to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq than was actually exported.
The obvious conclusion was that Goodman was using very risky Irish guarantees to support the export of beef that was not even Irish. This, too, turned out to be true.
The story was displaced for a while, ironically, by an even bigger one: the imminent collapse of the Goodman Group, triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that froze payments on the country’s debts.
Such was Goodman’s political clout that Charles Haughey sensationally recalled the Oireachtas in August especially to pass examinership legislation to stop the group going under.
Then, in May 1991, malpractice at Goodman plants came back into focus when ITV’s World in Action programme ran Susan O’Keeffe’s investigative documentary. (It was notable that RTÉ had run no such programme and indeed broadcast an apology for an accurate report on abuses of export credit on its Farm Diary radio programme.)
Under pressure from his reluctant coalition partner Des O’Malley, Haughey agreed to a public inquiry into the earlier allegations made in The Irish Times, the Dáil and elsewhere. The first grand inquiry of the tribunal era was born.
I came to the story in 1992 when the then editor of The Irish Times, Conor Brady, told me that, although the paper was devoting great time and space to the tribunal hearings, readers were finding it very difficult to follow the evidence. Would I take a look at it?
For the first week, I struggled to figure out what was being discussed, never mind what was being said about it. The issues – intervention regulations, cuts of meat, export credit – were arcane. No one was sure, moreover, how far reporting could go in analysing and interpreting the evidence at a tribunal. I decided to carry on unless someone stopped me.
Although it resulted in an opaque and poorly organised report, the tribunal established that the Goodman group (alongside some other companies in the industry) systematically stole EU beef, that it operated organised tax evasion on a huge scale, that official stamps and documents were often tampered with, and that the Goodman Group had drawn Irish taxpayers into underwriting non-Irish exports to Iraq.
It failed to investigate the possible influence of Goodman’s substantial donations to Fianna Fáil and, indeed, Haughey’s relationship to Saddam Hussein. (At one point Haughey offered his own bankers a £10 million deposit from the Iraqi state bank.) But it did establish that Larry Goodman enjoyed extraordinary access to Haughey and his ministers.
Did it change anything? Not much. No one was prosecuted for the huge tax scam and a convenient amnesty meant that Goodman got away with a very favourable settlement.
No prosecutions followed the original (proven) allegations. Some middle-ranking managers at the Goodman plant in Rathkeale were prosecuted and given suspended sentences because, as the judge put it, they were not the real beneficiaries of the fraud.
Larry Goodman regained control of his empire, with the banks writing off enormous debts, and is again the largest beef processor in Europe. One of the key players in the frauds that originally prompted the tribunal even turned up earlier this year in the strange story of horse meat being sold as beef.