A country still in thrall to the likes of Lowry

Tue, Apr 21, 2009, 01:00

The Tipperary politician is a self-pitying cheat and a liar – yet still his career is deemed worth celebrating. Clearly, we have learned nothing, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE.

ON SATURDAY night in Thurles, 1,400 people gathered to celebrate the political career of Michael Lowry. Prominent among them were two important public figures. Ivan Yates, a former minister for agriculture and a successful businessman, is about to become a national broadcaster with Newstalk radio. Seán Kelly, a highly distinguished former president of the GAA, is a Fine Gael candidate for Ireland South in the European elections. Both are people of substance, with legitimate aspirations to influence public opinion and to help set the tone of public life in Ireland. That such men believe that there is anything worth celebrating in Michael Lowry’s political career tells us something quite simple. Nothing has been learned.

Michael Lowry is a cheat and a liar. He entered public life and rose to the highest level of public trust as a member of the cabinet but showed utter contempt both for the law and for his social obligations. Over a decade ago now, Mr Justice Brian McCracken pointed out the appalling damage 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 wasn’t a casual cheat.

His evasion of taxes was complex and organised and large-scale. His company Garuda under-declared both VAT and PAYE, and eventually had to cough up €1.2 million after a Revenue audit. He also diddled his personal taxes, and settled for almost €200,000. A key part of his business arrangement with Dunnes Stores was described in the McCracken report as “a sham”.

Lowry’s lies are legion.

He lied to the Revenue when he availed of the 1993 tax amnesty without declaring all his hidden income. He misled the Dáil in December 1996 by failing to mention a series of large payments from Dunnes. He told the Dáil that if he had been trying to hide 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: one in the Bank of Ireland in the Isle of Man; one in an Allied Irish Banks subsidiary in Jersey; another Isle of Man account held through a company called Badgeworth; and an Irish Nationwide Isle of Man account.

Only the first two of these accounts were disclosed to the McCracken tribunal – the existence of the other two emerged at the Moriarty tribunal. He indignantly denied in the Dáil that “my house in Carysfort, Blackrock, was somehow financed in an irregular way”. In fact the house was bought in trust for Lowry by a developer and the money for its extensive refurbishment was routed through the Isle of Man Nationwide account and came from a loan to him from the Smurfit executive David Austin.

Lowry, moreover, has shown no real remorse. He has never apologised. He regards himself, as he told the Sunday Independent as “a victim of my own success”, whose only fault was to “stick my head too high above the parapet”. He sees himself as a target of “State oppression”, who was “only judged by the hob-nobs”.

And why not? The impunity that Mr Justice McCracken highlighted has remained in place – Lowry has never been prosecuted. The good people of Tipperary North have repeatedly re-elected him, and he is a much-cosseted supporter of the current Government, which is happy to have him on board.

But why is a man like Seán Kelly, who has given every impression of being principled and courageous as well as intelligent and able, sucking up to Lowry? What exactly does he find worthy of celebration in Lowry’s career of contempt for the law, of brazen mendacity and of unrepentant self-pity? Has he no conception at all of the degree to which Lowry embodies the values that have brought this country to its knees?

Judge McCracken got to the heart of the wider meaning of Lowry’s career when he wrote: “If such a person can behave in this way without serious sanctions being imposed, it becomes very difficult to condemn others who similarly flout the law.” The culture of corruption in Irish politics set the public standards for the greed, cynicism, dishonesty and downright fraud in the banks and the property market for which all of us must pay such a heavy price.

If Lowry’s low standards make him not a pariah, but a respected public representative to be celebrated and honoured, nothing has changed. We’re still stuck with the culture that has corroded public faith in politics, encouraged cute-hoorism in business and finance and turned regulation into a game of nods and winks. We’re still in thrall to the self-pity and self-righteousness, the lethal cocktail of victimhood and entitlement, that turn basic notions of right and wrong into a sentimental mush.

When, either from misplaced notions of friendship or in blind pursuit of votes, media and political players bend the knee at the altar of Michael Lowry’s career, they are shaming, not just themselves, but a public realm that would be far better off without the likes of Lowry.

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