Welcome to Lowryland
The Independent TD Michael Lowry has been discredited by two tribunals and defied a Dáil motion calling on him to esign. Yet he insists his financial dealings are no different from most people’s and that he will not be chased out of politics by the media. Can we believe him?
THE PROBLEM WITH interviewing Michael Lowry, the Independent TD for Tipperary North, is that you constantly wonder whether you can believe him.
At the end of 1996, when he had to resign from the rainbow-coalition government and from the Fine Gael party, he made a long personal statement to the Dáil. He spoke about the work on his home at Holycross, in Co Tipperary, that was paid for by Dunnes Stores, and denied that the arrangement involved tax evasion. “If someone were trying to hide income, would he or she not be more likely to put it in an offshore account?” he asked.
A few months later the McCracken tribunal, which had investigated the Dunnes payments, expressed its astonishment at what Lowry had said, given that it had examined two offshore accounts Lowry had in his own name, one with Bank of Ireland in the Isle of Man and another with an AIB subsidiary in Jersey. It had also examined a third account held in the Isle of Man in a company name that also held money for Lowry’s benefit.
And there was another offshore account of which the tribunal was unaware. At the time Lowry addressed the Dáil, £147,000 was resting in the Isle of Man. It was in an account at Irish Nationwide – now part of Irish Bank Resolution Corporation – that had been opened in his name two months earlier, when he was still a minister. Last year, the Moriarty tribunal, which looked into payments to politicians, found that this money constituted a payment from the businessman Denis O’Brien.
Also, Lowry, who had availed of the 1993 tax amnesty, subsequently paid Revenue €1.4 million to settle his personal tax affairs and those of his refrigeration company in the wake of his fall from grace.
I have spent years reporting on the saga of Michael Lowry, Denis O’Brien, the second mobile-phone licence and the Moriarty tribunal, but my meeting this week with Lowry, at the Radisson Blu St Helen’s Hotel, in Stillorgan, in south Co Dublin, was the first time I had interviewed the Tipperary poll-topper. Over the course of two hours he appeared extremely anxious for his side of the story to be heard. But the problem remains: can you believe a word he says?
Lowry has been the subject of a series of official inquiries over the past decade and a half, and he has probably cost the exchequer more than any other politician in the history of the State. The Moriarty tribunal has rejected the most important elements of his sworn evidence.
The interview followed the recent disclosure that Lowry owns about 11 acres in Gortnahoo, Co Tipperary. That landholding is a few kilometres from the site near Two Mile Borris where the businessman Richard Quirke wants to build a big casino and racecourse, with strong support from Lowry.
Last week, I went to Co Tipperary to visit that site and several other locations and properties I had written about over the years. My first stop was Holycross, which is named for the abbey from which relics of the “True Cross” were stolen last October. It was a sunny day, and the village, which sits on the River Suir, looked wonderful.
Lowry’s large, well-maintained Georgian house is located some way along a winding country road, surrounded by fields and down a pretty driveway. Behind the house is a formal walled garden, recently remade as a “mini-Versailles”, according to the Irish Daily Mail.
Lowry’s refrigeration business, Streamline, is based in a modest industrial unit on the way in to Thurles. I had just stopped and rolled down the window when Lowry emerged from the building. He was escorting an elderly couple from his constituency clinic, which he holds on the premises. I pulled into his car park and we stood in the sunshine, discussing the sorry state of the country. He agreed to be interviewed, and this week we talked in the conservatory of the five-star hotel.
ON HIS CAREER: ‘I AM NOT GOING TO LET THE MEDIA RUN ME OUT OF POLITICS’
When asked why he didn’t walk away from politics in 1997, after leaving Fine Gael, he says he stayed because he enjoys politics. He also believes he has made a substantial contribution to his constituency over the past 10 years. “And there is also in my mind a defiance, that I am not going to let the media run me out of politics.”
He says that despite the “media campaign” against him, the people of Tipperary North continue to return him to the Dáil and this has given him great moral support over the years.
He rejects my suggestion that his career has damaged the reputation of Irish politicians and politics. He is, he says, one of “countless thousands” who have made settlements with the Revenue Commissioners, and “80 per cent of the population at that stage” had money hidden in accounts.
Asked if he believes that, as an elected representative and, at one stage, a government minister, he should observe high standards, he says he had always observed high standards. “The people who know me will tell you that I have always been honourable and honest in my dealings with them. I was one of hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland that had offshore accounts at the time, and the reason was that we were told by AIB and Bank of Ireland, or what have you, that that was the way you managed your affairs.”
Is he someone people could rightly feel should not be elected to the Dáil? “The ultimate test of anybody’s character and standing is to be judged by your own community. I have a democratic mandate from the people of north Tipperary, and I think they are as astute and as intelligent as any other community in Ireland.”
He says he walks about with his “head high” because he knows that the chairman of the Moriarty tribunal, Mr Justice Michael Moriarty, was wrong in his findings. “The Moriarty report will not withstand a judicial test.”
ON MONEY: ‘I WAS LIKE EVERYONE ELSE AT THE TIME’
Events since Lowry’s fall from grace in 1996 have cost him a lot of money. His €1.4 million settlement with Revenue, of which more than two-thirds comprised interest and penalties, involved three payments on account from 1998, with the final amount, €664,000, paid in 2005. Around that time he split up from his wife and arrived at a financial settlement.
Over the years, he has had to incur substantial professional fees.
He says he has never had any offer of assistance from O’Brien in relation to his legal costs.
In November 2006 Lowry took out a mortgage with Irish Nationwide and bought the 11-acre site in Gortnahoo. The land was registered in the name of a nominee company belonging to Lowry’s solicitor until May of last year, when it was put into the name of his own company, Abbeygreen Consulting.
In March 2007, Lowry bought a detached house in the Dún Lia estate in Thurles for a member of his family, from “my own resources”. The houses were selling for about €300,000 at the time.
In April 2008 a mortgage for €550,000 with Irish Nationwide was registered against his home.
Last year he took legal action against the journalist Sam Smyth over his coverage of the Moriarty tribunal. If Lowry’s action fails, he will incur substantial legal costs.
Lowry rejects any suggestion that he has any undeclared source of income, pointing out that his financial affairs have been scrutinised by the Moriarty tribunal and by Revenue.
“My property transactions all involved loans,” he says. He also points out, correctly, that although the Moriarty tribunal said he had received payments from O’Brien, a finding he disputes, the Revenue had never sought to assert any liability.
This is because Lowry did not keep the money lodged to the Isle of Man account, and because he never profited from two land deals in England that the tribunal said were supported by O’Brien.
The purchase of the land in Gortnahoo in 2006 was a response to the financial strain he was under, he says. “I was like everyone else at the time. I saw a potential, an opportunity, and I borrowed the money to do that. If you are from a business background your natural instinct is to look for opportunities . . . I can say to you that that land is now nursing a substantial loss.” He says reports that he took out a loan of €600,000 are incorrect, but he will not give a figure. He says his land would not benefit from any casino development in Two Mile Borris.
Lowry had hoped to build houses on some of the land in Gortnahoo and to use more of it for a house for a family member. “The loan is a performing loan, and I have never had any difficulty with a financial institution. It is not a burden on the State.”
Asked if the loan is now held by the National Assets Management Agency, he is not categoric, saying he has never had dealings with Nama.
Asked if he has other land interests or business dealings that were not in the public domain, he says his business dealings are “quite well known at this stage”.
ON THE TRIBUNAL: ‘THE SAGA IS NOT OVER YET’
On Thursday, March 31st, 2011, the Dáil passed the following motion without a vote: “The Dáil believes the conduct of Michael Lowry set out in the [Moriarty] tribunal report was completely unacceptable, and calls on Deputy Lowry to resign voluntarily his membership of Dáil Éireann.” Lowry did not resign.
During our interview, he produces a copy of the speech he made to the Dáil in the run-up to the motion, which he says received scant coverage and contains his views on the Moriarty tribunal. He asks that I read it and publish some of its content, and says that it contains elements of a case he may take against the tribunal. “The Moriarty tribunal saga is not over yet,” he says.
In his speech Lowry complained that the tribunal had lasted for 14 years – “14 years of intrusion, examination, scrutiny, interference, stress and vilification”. Not a single day had passed during that period when the tribunal had not affected his life in some way. “This Chinese torture has taken an enormous toll on me in every respect.”
He also told the Dáil that the confidential provisional findings issued by the tribunal in November 2008 contained very serious negative findings against the State that did not appear in the final report as they were undermined by new evidence the tribunal was pressurised into hearing in the interim. He criticised the tribunal process for not operating the rules of evidence that apply in courts and for the way the chairman was able to make a finding in relation to Lowry interfering in the mobile-phone licence competition when all the witnesses who gave evidence in relation to the matter had said the opposite.
In our interview Lowry says that because of the legal view that tribunals are without legal effect – that is to say they cannot lead to fines or imprisonment – it is difficult to challenge their findings. The tribunal will soon have to decide whether it will grant him his costs, however. If his costs are refused, the tribunal will have had an effect, and he will be in a better position to challenge it, he says.
“I have had detailed and prolonged discussions with a legal team in relation to what my options are, and I think it is quite possible that in the near future new legal options will open for me,” he says.
“There is a serious question mark over the legality and the constitutionality of subjecting me as an individual and a citizen to an inquisition over a 15-year period.”
Asked why he should bother, given the risk that he would lose and be saddled with substantial costs, he says he is motivated by his view that the tribunal’s findings were “unfair” and that a range of people were affected by them.
ON INDEPENDENT NEWS & MEDIA: ‘THERE HAS BEEN A CAMPAIGN SINCE THE WORD GO’
Lowry says the rainbow coalition displeased Anthony O’Reilly and the Independent media group with decisions it made that affected O’Reilly’s commercial interests. These decisions included a refusal to allow the Independent group to buy the Irish Press titles and a refusal to close down certain pirate TV-deflector groups. Lowry says the failure of a consortium of which Independent was a part to win the 1995 mobile-phone licence competition also annoyed O’Reilly.
“Immediately after the licence was granted, a campaign was started to discredit the licence, and that campaign was fronted by the Independent group, and it has sustained that campaign on a consistent basis.”
The fact that the recent publication of the Mahon tribunal report led quickly to the revival of coverage of the findings of the Moriarty tribunal that were published in 2011 has to be seen in this light, he says. “There has been a campaign since the word go, a media agenda. Independent Newspapers . . . immediately forgot about Mahon and went straight to attacking me.”
Asked whether he believes the Independent group’s coverage of his affairs will change now that the O’Reilly family is no longer in control of the group, Lowry smiles and says: “Definitely.” O’Brien is now the largest shareholder in the group.
ON MICHAEL FINGLETON: ‘I WILL ALWAYS BE GRATEFUL’ TO HIM
In August 1996, while still a government minister, Lowry bought a house in Blackrock, Co Dublin, for £200,000. He secured a 100 per cent loan from Michael Fingleton, then chief executive of Irish Nationwide Building Society, within a day of approaching him about the matter.
In October 1996, the offshore account with Irish Nationwide in the Isle of Man was opened and £147,000 was lodged to it.
When Lowry was financially stressed because of his Revenue and family settlement bills, he went to Fingleton for support.
“I had a relationship with Michael Fingleton. I have no difficulty in saying that publicly or privately. I think that over a period of time Michael Fingleton has assisted and supported many enterprises that were very good enterprises.
“At the time of that Revenue bill I went to resource it, and I found it difficult to raise the money, and I will always be grateful to Michael Fingleton for giving me access to the funds that I needed. Any funds that were advanced to me were either repaid or are in the process of being repaid.”
ON HIS POLITICAL FUTURE: ‘THE LOWRY TEAM WILL GO ON IN TIPPERARY’
Lowry says he intends running in the next general election. He says that despite all the “public humiliation” he has had to endure, he has managed to build up a local political organisation, the “Lowry Team”, with eight councillors, including his son Micheál.
“If I’m knocked over by a bus, it won’t be the end of the Lowry Team. The Lowry Team will go on in Tipperary.”
Life of Lowry The TD who went into the cold
March 1954 Born in Co Tipperary.
1971Starts work as apprentice refrigeration engineer with Butler Refrigeration, in Thurles. By 1987 the company is carrying out a substantial amount of work for Dunnes Stores.
1979Elected to North Tipperary County Council.
1987Elected Fine Gael TD for Tipperary North. Leaves Butler Refrigeration.
August 1988Garuda Ltd, trading as Streamline, is incorporated. During the year, Lowry does refrigeration work for Dunnes Stores, controlled at the time by Ben Dunne.
January 1989Dunne tells Lowry he is ending the company’s contract with Butler Engineering and offers the work to Lowry. Streamline begins to supply services to Dunnes Stores, its only customer.
1990-1992Lowry receives payments from Dunne that are lodged to accounts in Jersey and the Isle of Man. In 1992 Lowry purchases his house in Holycross; Dunne tells Foxhill Homes Ltd, which had worked on Dunne’s own house, to refurbish and extend Lowry’s new home. Dunnes Stores pays for work worth £395,107. Nothing in the Dunnes Stores books shows that the expenditure is for the benefit of Lowry.
1993Becomes chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Avails of the tax amnesty.
December 1994Appointed minister for transport, energy and communications.
1995Denis O’Brien’s company Esat Digifone wins the competition for the second mobile-phone licence, which is run by Lowry’s department.
May 1996Esat Digifone is issued with a mobile-phone licence.
October 1996£147,000 is lodged to an account opened in Lowry’s name with Irish Nationwide in the Isle of Man.
December 1996Lowry resigns in the wake of an Irish Independent report by the journalist Sam Smyth outlining the arrangement that Dunne had put in place for Lowry’s home.
February 1997The McCracken tribunal is established to investigate the Dunnes payments. On the same day, the £147,000 lodged to the Isle of Man account is returned (to the businessman David Austin, now deceased, who had received the money from O’Brien).
June 1997Lowry runs as an Independent in the general election and tops the poll in Tipperary North.
August 1997McCracken report says of Lowry that it is “an appalling situation that a government minister and chairman of a parliamentary party can be seen to have been consistently benefiting from the black economy from shortly after he was elected to Dáil Éireann”.
September 1997The Moriarty tribunal is established to investigate payments to politicians. A company law officer is appointed to inquire into Streamline.
1998Lowry and Streamline make an initial payment – or payment on account – of €434,000 to Revenue.
March 1999Lowry is involved in the purchase of property in Mansfield, England, for stg£250,000, with most of the funds coming from a London account belonging to O’Brien. The transaction involves O’Brien’s accountant Aidan Phelan, with whom Lowry had come into contact in the period after his resignation. Phelan told the tribunal the money was owed to Phelan by O’Brien.
September 1999A UK company owned by Lowry agrees to buy a property in Cheadle, England, for stg£445,000. Again Phelan is involved in the transaction. Some money left over from the Mansfield transaction is used, as well as a loan from Woodchester Bank.
2001The Moriarty tribunal learns about the English property deals and the Isle of Man account. Lowry tells the tribunal about the latter, though the tribunal later points out that by that stage it was likely to have discovered the account itself.
2002Lowry tops the poll in Tipperary North in the general election.
2003Lowry and Streamline pay €336,000 on account to Revenue.
2005Lowry and Streamline make a final payment of €664,000 to Revenue.
2007Lowry again tops the poll in Tipperary North and does a deal with the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, that includes his right to nominate three people to State boards.
February 2011Lowry tops the poll in Tipperary North.
March 2011Moriarty tribunal report finds that Lowry interfered in the 1995 mobile-phone licence competition to the benefit of Esat Digifone. It also finds that the £147,000 payment and the two English transactions were attempts by O’Brien to benefit Lowry and were “demonstrably referable” to Lowry’s interference in the licence competition.
2012Following the publication of the Mahon tribunal report, the Government is criticised for having dealings with Lowry and O’Brien since the publication of the Moriarty report.