Ben Dunne was the central figure in the unravelling of the story of the unhealthy relationship between business and politics in Ireland in the 1980s.
It is interesting to ask whether, had he not been arrested after appearing on a Florida balcony in 1992, the story would ever have been told.
Dunne’s cocaine-fuelled episode set off a chain of events which were to shock the Irish public and dominate the headlines through the work of two tribunals of inquiry and the uncovering of offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands – the so-called Ansbacher accounts – which were established to hide the money of wealthy Irish people from the tax authorities and from public gaze.
Retail bosses were among the most prominent figures in Irish business at the time – regularly appearing in the media to promote their chains in a series of supermarket “wars” as they fought for market share.
Having built Dunnes Stores into a company with a turnover of close to £1 billion after he took over following the death of his father, Ben snr, Dunne was among the best-known. He had first shot to national prominence years earlier, in 1981, when he was kidnapped by the IRA and held for a week as they demanded a ransom.
And so it is hard to overstate the level of interest when the story from Florida appeared, with Dunne arrested for cocaine possession and soliciting, having appeared on a hotel balcony threatening to throw himself off.
Dunne returned, and apologised, though behind the scenes the episode had set off tensions in the family empire, with his brother Frank and sister Margaret Heffernan moving against him. The first big fallout from that night in Florida came the following year, when Dunne was ousted by his siblings from Dunnes Stores.
And that might have been that, had details of the legal dispute between the two sides surrounding that removal – eventually settled without going to court – not started to seep out a few years later.
First, in November 1996, the Irish Independent reported that Dunne had funded a house extension for then Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry, who later resigned and subsequently left the party.
Shortly afterwards, The Irish Times reported that Dunne had also paid £1.1 million to a senior Fianna Fáil figure, later confirmed to be former taoiseach Charles Haughey. Crucially, this newspaper also discovered the way the money was channelled through accounts in the Cayman Islands, involving a company known as Ansbacher (Cayman).
Under pressure following the revelations, the Fine Gael-led government established the McCracken Tribunal to examine the payments to Lowry and Haughey, made by Dunne without knowledge of the rest of the family. The Moriarty Tribunal was to follow, eventually moving on to the granting of the second mobile phone licence by Lowry to Denis O’Brien’s Esat Telecom.
But in relation to Dunnes, McCracken outlined the details of the payments to Lowry and Haughey and also uncovered what became known as the Ansbacher Accounts. This was a scheme established in the 1970s by Haughey’s former accountant, Des Traynor, through which rich Irish people could hide money away on the Caribbean island, but still have ready access to it in Dublin via Guinness & Mahon Bank. It had a subsidiary in the Cayman Island, later taken over by Ansbacher. The hiding place used for Haughey’s money was the same used by many of the wealthiest in society for their cash.
A later report by a High Court-appointed inspector, published in 2002, found that 190 Irish people availed of the scheme, including senior politicians, businesspeople, bankers and the wealthy. At a time when there were marches through Dublin to object to the penal level of income tax on ordinary workers, the rich had found a way around the problem, able to deposit and withdraw money in Dublin which was then whisked away and hidden offshore.
In the mid-1980s, as much as £200 million sterling was deposited in the accounts. Subsequent action by the Revenue Commissioners has involved payments of well over €100 million from Ansbacher account holders
Perhaps the Revenue crackdown on the rampant issue of offshore accounts and assets in that period might, at some stage, have uncovered the Ansbacher operation.
But the sequence of events starting on a balcony in Florida was what ensured that the underbelly of that particularly period of Ireland came to light as it did, with dramatic consequences.