'Feeding frenzy at the speculator's trough' not a hidden secret
BACKGROUND: YOU COULD smell it in the air at Dublin County Council meetings, that unmistakeable whiff of bribery and corruption.
Former Fine Gael councillor Martin Lynch said the council was more like a “real estate agency”, while former Labour councillor Joan Burton, now Minister for Social Protection, likened the atmosphere in its lobby to a “cattle fair”.
In 1990, the late Nuala O’Faolain wrote that “one of the most . . . truly shaming ways of spending an afternoon is to attend a meeting of Dublin County Council” and see its small “public gallery” [with all of eight seats] occupied by developers and agents watching and waiting for the result of land rezoning votes that could make them millions.
“After any meeting of the council you can see, in the pubs and hotels near the council chamber , jolly builders having drinks with jolly Fianna Fáil councillors,” as O’Faolain noted. And it wasn’t just Fianna Fáil councillors; others also climbed on the gravy train, selling their votes to those with huge vested interests.
The Green Party’s Trevor Sargent was assaulted in the council chamber by Senator Don Lydon (FF) after brandishing a £100 cheque from a developer and asking if others had received similar “donations”.
(In October 2010, Lydon was charged with having received a corrupt payment, which he denied; the case has yet to be heard).
During the land rezoning frenzy in 1993, Burton was sued for libel by 42 of her one-time colleagues after she referred to property developers and their agents “crowding the council’s ante-chamber and gallery, ticking off lists of councillors as they arrive and vote for decisions that multiply at a stroke the value of lands they own or control”.
The culture of denial was so pervasive that a firm of solicitors acting on behalf of the 42 councillors who sued Burton insisted there were “absolutely no grounds to suggest bribery or corruption in Dublin County Council”.
And, of course, the defamation laws meant the identity of those in receipt of corrupt payments couldn’t be revealed.
After years of reports in this newspaper hinting at what was going on, Mark Brennock and myself finally blew their cover with a front-page story on July 12th, 1993, headed “Cash in brown paper bags for councillors”, quoting four separate sources – a property developer, a developer’s agent, a serving councillor and a former councillor.
The developer’s agent said: “There is a certain number of people in that council chamber who put a value on their votes.
“They are the powerbrokers who can bring five votes with you, or five votes against you, depending on how they’re looked after.”
The system worked on the basis of “straight cash in brown paper bags”, he told us.
We interviewed a businessman from west Co Dublin, who said he had handed a white envelope containing £2,500 in cash to one councillor in a successful effort to persuade him to change his vote on a key rezoning decision.
The businessman had offered the same amount to another councillor who turned it down “because he wanted more”.
We couldn’t name any of them, of course, as we had no direct evidence of money changing hands.
Usually, this happened in local hostelries – most notoriously Conway’s pub on Parnell Street, opposite the Rotunda Hospital.
As my colleague Frank McNally once wrote, it wasn’t only expectant fathers there waiting for their “bundles of joy”.
The six-part series of articles led then minister for the environment Michael Smith to request a Garda investigation. But this, the third in 20 years, got nowhere because the Garda could not guarantee immunity to those making allegations of corruption and, in any case, the law in this area had not been changed since the foundation of the State.
In July 1995, an unusual advertisement appeared in The Irish Times. Placed by a Newry firm of solicitors, Donnelly Neary and Donnelly, it offered a £10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone involved in corrupt land rezoning.
The sponsors, it later emerged, were barristers Michael Smith and Colm MacEochaidh.
They had to go outside the State and engage the Newry firm to act for them because several firms of solicitors in Dublin had declined to do so.
Not only was their initiative seen as unorthodox; its subject matter was regarded as too hot to handle. But within weeks, Donnelly Neary and Donnelly were contacted by 30 people – including James Gogarty.
He would later play a starring role at the planning tribunal in Dublin Castle. But it was not until lobbyist and former government press secretary Frank Dunlop started reeling off details of payments in April 2000 that the Sicilian-style omertà was broken, and the “can of worms” at the core of the council’s business turned into a truckload.
The 25 or so councillors who repeatedly took money to turn green fields to gold, as I wrote, “were honest only to the extent that, once bought, they stayed bought,” in Boss Croker’s definition.
“Their statutory duty to have regard only to ‘the proper planning and development of the area’ in making the county plan was suborned by ravenous greed.”
None of the corrupt councillors have served time in jail for corruption, although Dunlop – the reluctant whistleblower – served 14 months of a two-year term of imprisonment after pleading guilty to bribing councillors.
The late Liam Lawlor was also jailed briefly on three occasions, but for contempt of court rather than corruption.
Ray Burke, who chaired Dublin County Council for two years in the mid-1980s, pleaded guilty to making false tax returns on concealed payments he had received as minister for communications from the promoters of Century Radio.
He was sentenced to six months in prison in January 2005 and released in June of that year for “good behaviour”.
A week after he was jailed, Socialist TD and former Dublin county councillor Joe Higgins queried in the Dáil why the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern had appointed Burke as minister for foreign affairs in 1997 and had later “savaged those who questioned him for taking that decision given that he vindicated Mr Burke in the strongest terms
“The taoiseach must explain because when Fianna Fáil was mired in corruption and sleaze in the 1980s, nobody believes he did not know what was going on.
“He was the party fixer and the runner for party leader, Mr Haughey. It is simply not credible that he did not know what Mr Burke and his team of cronies were up to regarding rezonings and land corruption.
“The taoiseach may have kept his own face out of the feeding frenzy at the speculator’s trough but he knew it was there, he knew who was bucketing the swill into it and he knew the biggest snouts who were slurping from it, but unlike when I was a young fellow on a farm in Kerry when we had to take a stick to the greediest pigs, he simply left them at it.”