Past 50 years have seen big changes in the way Irish business is reported
Everything changed the beef tribunal, and we have been living with investigations and business scandals ever since
Then taoiseach Charles Haughey arriving to give evidence at the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef Industry in October 1982.
When you look back at Irish business journalism over the past 50 years and business journalism in The Irish Times in particular, the temptation is to divide it into two periods. The years prior to the collapse of Larry Goodman’s beef empire and the 20 odd years that followed.
The events of 1989 and 1991 – which culminated in the setting-up of the Beef tribunal – were not the first big Irish business controversy. There had been plenty of them before then, including the collapse of Patrick Gallagher’s Merchant Banking in the early 1980s, but business journalists seemed reluctant or unable to dig deeper. The true extent of Gallagher’s bankrolling of the then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey would only emerge at the Moriarty tribunal in 1999, almost 20 years later.
Something seemed to change after Goodman, and we have been living with tribunals, investigations and business scandals ever since. As the Beef tribunal got under way there was controversy brewing over the purchase by Telecom Éireann of the Johnson Mooney and O’Brien site and allegations that well-known business figures such as Dermot Desmond profited from the sale. The financial interest of certain executives including Chris Comerford in subsidaries of Irish Sugar also caused consternation.
The McCracken tribunal was set up in 1997 following revelations of payments from businessman Ben Dunne to the then Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry. Details of Dunne’s payments to Haughey soon followed, and the Moriarty Tribunal was born. But not before McCracken found that a secret offshore banking operation called Ansbacher had permeated the upper echelons of Irish business including the boardroom of CRH. Reputations tumbled as another tax-avoidance scheme was revealed at National Irish Bank, and AIB was rocked by allegations of overcharging and massive fraud by a foreign exchange trader named John Rusnak, who worked at its US subsidiary.
The awarding of Ireland’s second mobile phone licence to rank outsider Denis O’Brien, ahead of some of biggest names in the business, spawned bribery allegations which the Moriarty tribunal only finished investigating last year: concluding he paid large sums of money to Lowry, who improperly assisted him in winning the licence.
The turn of the century brought the dotcom crash which set in train events resulting in the fall of Jim Flavin, one of the country’s most respected business figures, amid allegations of insider trading.
Global credit crunch
The global credit crunch revealed the weakness of the regulatory system; the incompetence of many bankers and the breathtaking venality of a handful.
It is tempting to see the collapse of Goodman’s ABP as some sort of Watergate moment which changed the relationship between business journalists and business in Ireland and resulted in a light being shone into the hitherto dark corners of Irish business.
It is a pleasing narrative and appeals to journalists’ abundant vanity. (The thesis is also undermined by our collective failure to see the bomb ticking away in the banking sector, a subject tackled by Kevin Rafter in the pages that follow.)
It is fair to say that the people entering business journalism around that time approached their job in a different way to their predecessors, but that is not in itself enough to explain the relentless
excavation of the dark side of Irish
business that followed.