Still topping polls despite frequent falls from grace

Wed, Mar 23, 2011, 00:00

THE MAIN PLAYERS: MICHAEL LOWRY:The Tipperary man’s rapid rise in politics is often attributed to his ability to ask for money, writes COLM KEENA

POLITICIAN AND businessman Michael Lowry (57) has maintained a strong support base in his Tipperary North constituency despite his fall from grace in November 1996 and a series of subsequent negative disclosures concerning his honesty.

Lowry was re-elected a TD on the first count in the recent general election, having secured more than 14,000 votes.

In the June 2009 local elections nine candidates belonging to the “team Lowry” group went up for election to the North Tipperary County Council and the team doubled its representation from two to four, with the elected councillors including Lowry’s son, Michael jnr.

The group also ran successful candidates for town council elections and Evelyn Nevin, a member of the team, was elected mayor of Thurles.

Lowry consistently tops the poll at general elections and was one of the Independent deputies who negotiated with Bertie Ahern in the wake of the 2007 election, agreeing to support his government in return for certain pledges to the Tipperary constituency.

Money has played an important role in his political career. When he left school he began working with a local family-run firm that installed and maintained refrigeration equipment. He left the firm and set up a similar business in controversial circumstances, and became a major supplier of services to the Dunnes Stores group.

He ran his business, Streamline Enterprises, while pursuing a political career. He was the youngest ever chairman of the GAA county board and played a prominent role in the raising of funds for Semple Stadium in Thurles. He was first elected to the Dáil in 1987 and his subsequent rapid rise in the Fine Gael party was in no small part due to his willingness to ask for money. In 1993, he was made chairman of the party’s board of trustees and played a prominent role in the party’s drive to pay down its debts during the period of the 1994-1997 rainbow coalition. His success in this role made him a very significant figure in the party.

He availed of the 1993 tax amnesty but later told the Dáil that in the 1992-93 tax year he received £208,000 from Dunnes Stores, which was not declared for tax purposes. He had a number of offshore accounts which he has accepted he used for the purposes of tax evasion.

He was minister for transport, energy and communications in the rainbow coalition but resigned after a media report disclosed that he had had extensive work carried out on his Co Tipperary home that was paid for by the Dunnes Stores group.

In a lengthy personal statement in the Dáil, he said if he had been trying to hide a lot of money he would have “put it in an offshore account”, creating the impression that he had no such account. In fact, he had at least four.

The Moriarty tribunal discovered offshore accounts that had not been disclosed to the earlier McCracken tribunal. Lowry was heavily criticised in the 1997 McCracken report, with tribunal chairman Mr Justice Brian McCracken writing that great damage was done by the public perception “that a person in the position of a government minister and member of cabinet was able to ignore, and indeed cynically evade, both the taxation and exchange control laws of the State with impunity”.

Lowry’s company made a €1.2 million settlement with the Revenue, while Lowry himself had to pay €200,000. In a statement at the time he said the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided he should not be charged with any offence.

Lowry continues to run Streamline and to have other business activities. The Moriarty tribunal heard evidence about his property dealings in England and evidence that he had had dealings with a land agent based in Northern Ireland, Kevin Phelan, who did not come to Dublin to give evidence.

In 2009, he set up a new company, GDLC Business Consultants Ltd, with an address in Dublin. He has a quarter share in the business, along with his partners: Peter Cassidy, Vevay Road, Bray; Dermot Gaskin, Malahide, Co Dublin; and Seán Devine, Strabane, Co Fermanagh.

Devine is a former business partner of Phelan’s and has extensive investments in land in England and Ireland, including in Co Tipperary and a large site opposite the Ikea store in Dublin, which may be the site of a station on the Metro North line.

Lowry told The Irish Timesthat the consultancy was set up for a project he said was now not going to happen.

Also last year he came out as a strong supporter for a proposal from businessman Richard Quirke for a €460 million development featuring a casino and racecourse, at an 800-acre site close to Two-Mile-Borris in Tipperary, near a site owned by Devine.

KEY FINDINGS: WHAT REPORT SAYS

Lowry displayed appreciable interest in the substantive bidding process, had irregular interactions with interested parties at its most sensitive stages, sought and received substantive information on emerging trends, and made his preferences as between the leading candidates known.

Disgracefully brought a guillotine down on the work of the project group set up to decide on the successful bidder.

Imparted substantive information to Denis O’Brien, of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence.

Sought to influence the revised levels of rent payable by the then Telecom Éireann for a property on Marlborough St in Dublin which had been bought by Ben Dunne.

Lowry’s financial arrangements in general disclosed palpably inadequate book-keeping.