A system that ‘made the Mafia look like monks’

The corruption endemic in our system is clear from the fate of developer and whistleblower Tom Gilmartin

Tom Gilmartin leaving the Mahon Tribunal at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Tom Gilmartin leaving the Mahon Tribunal at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Tom Gilmartin: The Man Who Brought Down a Taoiseach and Exposed the Greed and Corruption at the Heart of Irish Politics


Frank Connolly

Gill & Macmillan

Guideline Price:

Tom Gilmartin came to know very well how troublesome it can be to tell the truth. Just like the Garda whistleblowers, but in a different context, he was isolated, abused and vilified for spilling the beans on a coterie of corrupt politicians, officials, bankers and bagmen, who “make the f***ing Mafia look like monks”.

Born in Sligo, Gilmartin had spent most of his working life in England, doing very well for himself in the engineering sector, and he felt for the often destitute young Irish emigrants, fleeing the hopelessness of Ireland in the 1980s, whom he saw on the streets of London. And, being the man he was, he wanted to help out.

I spoke only once to Gilmartin, by telephone to his home in Luton, to ask him about allegations doing the rounds in 1991 that he was the victim of men in power “tapping” him for money. Maybe it was all too sensitive, but he denied it then and said his only interest in Ireland was to “end the human cargo” of emigration.

With some property experience under his belt, he had ambitious plans to develop two sites in Dublin, at Bachelors Walk, in the city centre, and Quarryvale, on the western outskirts, where the N4 would meet the yet-to-be-built M50. He was gobsmacked to discover that nearly everyone he met wanted some bung or other.

If he didn’t pay he would “go nowhere”, as the notoriously corrupt Liam Lawlor warned him at the time. Lawlor, dubbed Mr Big, had turned politics into a business, with a clear eye on enriching himself. As Frank Connolly writes, he had no fewer than 110 bank accounts in several jurisdictions to sink his ill-gotten gains.

Insatiable for money, Lawlor kept turning up unannounced at crucial meetings, either to help things along or to hinder them, depending on how he was being looked after. So it’s no wonder that the packed audience at the Mahon tribunal laughed out loud when Gilmartin recalled Charlie Haughey asking “if Liam was taking good care of me”.

Tribunal revelations
Everyone who remembers the tribunal’s revelations about what went on during those lean years will be familiar with the recitation of events in this book, largely told from Gilmartin’s viewpoint. Only those who were incommunicado in some other part of the world, unaware even of the basic outline, would be shocked by Connolly’s account.

Inevitably, he relies extensively on evidence given to the tribunal by Gilmartin and a long cast of characters, culminating in appearances by Bertie Ahern, who was still taoiseach at the time. Even though the tribunal could not link the “dig out” monies he received to the Quarryvale saga, his appearance at the tribunal finished his long political career.

Gilmartin, who died in November last year, and his family co-operated with Connolly for the book, so we now know much more about his poor background in Lislary, Co Sligo. One revelation is that one of Gilmartin’s sisters was involved in a boundary dispute with an adjoining landowner who happened to be Haughey. This is Ireland, after all.

We are still none the wiser about the identity of a shady character who approached Gilmartin in the corridors of Leinster House, after he had met Haughey and a number of ministers, including Pádraig Flynn and Bertie Ahern, and gave him the number of an Isle of Man bank account, with a request to lodge £5 million in it.

Gilmartin concluded then that “the place was totally corrupt”. After he was interviewed by gardaí investigating allegations of corruption, one Garda officer told him he should “f**k off back to England”. Neither Lawlor nor George Redmond, the assistant Dublin city and county manager, was interviewed, yet both were cleared of any wrongdoing.

In his preface the author says a chapter dealing with “the mistreatment endured by many in the Irish community in Luton during the conflict in the North of Ireland” was omitted at the request of Gilmartin, who had been encouraged to collaborate with Connolly by his son Thomas, his great support throughout the ordeal.

It was also Thomas who persuaded his father to co-operate with the tribunal, after the entire family was incensed by Pádraig Flynn’s infamous “three houses” interview on The Late Late Show , in which he told Gay Bryne that things hadn’t worked out for Gilmartin: “He’s not well. His wife isn’t well. And he’s out of sorts.”

This was Flynn’s response to the allegation, then in circulation, that he had accepted £50,000 from Gilmartin, who intended it as a donation to Fianna Fáil – in the hope that this would help iron out the difficulties he was facing. But Flynn asked for a cheque without a payee and lodged it in his own account at Bank of Ireland on College Green.

Gilmartin poured out his story at several meetings with tribunal lawyers. Essentially, it revolved around his acquisition of the 70-hectare Quarryvale site, the controversial way it was rezoned in 1991 and the ultimately successful efforts by the Cork-based developer Owen O’Callaghan and AIB to wrest control of the project.

His long-awaited appearance at the tribunal’s public hearings was delayed still further by legal challenges from O’Callaghan that went all the way to the Supreme Court. But there was comfort for O’Callaghan from the minority (of one) judgment by Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, who also took a dim view of Gilmartin’s allegations.

“I was depicted as some kind of crazy fantasist that made outrageous allegations against people,” the Sligo man said later. “Some of the allegations which people thought were fantastic were later proven to be true. That did not stop sections of the media and the politicians from attacking my credibility, week in and week out.”

There were also dirty tricks at play. As a result of “false information” supplied by one or other of his enemies in Ireland, Gilmartin was forced into bankruptcy in England by the Inland Revenue over an alleged debt of £7 million. This took a toll on him and his family, particularly his wife, Vera, whose multiple sclerosis it aggravated.

Centre for Public Inquiry
Curiously, there is no mention of Connolly’s executive directorship of the Centre for Public Inquiry either in his brief biography or in the index, although it is in the text. The centre folded after Michael McDowell, as minister for justice, alleged that Connolly had travelled to Colombia on a murky mission using a false passport; he denies this.

Frank Dunlop is there, too, mainly for his role as the bagman who bribed councillors on O’Callaghan’s behalf to change the zoning at Quarryvale, so that it could be developed as the Liffey Valley shopping centre. (O’Callaghan has said he was not aware of the bribes.) But anyone who believes that the tribunal got to the bottom of it all is wrong. A lot, lot more probably went on.

Much of the story Connolly tells is about the abuse of power and the culture of entitlement that sustained it for so long, whether the issue was about rezoning this or that parcel of land, granting designations for tax incentives or purging penalty points for drink-driving.

The system is still in need of a serious dose of accountability.

Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times