Colm Keaveney: the politician who switched sides
Denis O’Brien, renowned for his determination, had Keaveney in his crosshairs
Colm Keaveney: he was a somewhat nervous speaker in the Dáil
In the spring of 2016, Colm Keaveney’s options were running out.The Galway East TD lost his seat in the February 2016 general election, and was out of a job but with a family to support.
A relatively new recruit to Fianna Fáil, Keaveney sat as an independent TD from December 2012 until June 2013. Prior to that he was the constituency’s sitting TD for the Labour Party, of which he was then also chairman. But a social welfare cut to the respite care grant proved to be a step too far – Keaveney voted against the government, of which Labour was a part, and lost the party whip as a consequence.
His spell as an Independent included a dalliance, in early 2013, with the notion of running in the European Parliament elections due to take place in May 2014.
Keaveney thought he spotted an opening at the social conservative end of the political spectrum, particularly in the Midlands-North West European Parliament constituency. This was roughly the electoral territory conquered by Dana Rosemary Scallon in the 1999 European elections. Although Dana lost her seat in 2004, Declan Ganley, appealing to much the same electoral demographic, almost won the seat back in 2009.
And so it was that as an Independent TD in 2013, Keaveney approached fellow Galwayman Ganley in the hope of winning his endorsement in the upcoming European elections, and, crucially, gaining access to Ganley’s political and campaigning network, much of it built around the pro-life/anti-abortion position, an outlook Keaveney shared.
“Colm was looking for a political future,” according to a member of his political team at that time and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Ganley had run and done reasonably well...The main thing was, really, looking for his support to get access to that canvassing network and funding network because it is difficult to build these things up from scratch.”
The prospect of actual funding from Ganley personally was also enticing for Keaveney, who lives near Tuam. Ganley lives not far away, in Abbeyknockmoy, from where he runs his Rivada Networks, a public safety communications company that operates mainly in the United States.
The pair also shared an antipathy towards Denis O’Brien – based in Ganley’s case on his deep anger at the way O’Brien had secured his Esat mobile phone licence.
The Moriarty tribunal had found that the then communications minister Michael Lowry “secured the winning” of the licence for O’Brien, whose payments to Lowry, as well as a loan support, were “demonstrably referable to the acts and conduct of Mr Lowry”.
While O’Brien rejects the findings, dismissing them as merely the “opinion” of Mr Justice Moriarty, Ganley sees them otherwise, and is suing the State and O’Brien in a case that, after some 15 years’ delay, may start by the end of this year.
Keaveney’s overture led to a series of meetings, in Ganley’s home, Moyne Park, and other venues locally, including the Correlea Court Hotel in Tuam, involving, variously, the two men, and their respective right-hand advisers – John McGuirk in Ganley’s case, and Alan Hynes in Keaveney’s case.
McGuirk, a long-standing associate and employee of Ganley’s, had been buzzing around the political firmament for many years, via Fianna Fáil, Libertas (Ganley’s ill-fated pan-European, pro-federalist party), political PR and lobbying, and also dipping in and out of various pro-life campaigning groups.
From within this broad milieu, McGuirk had come across, and become friends with, Alan Hynes, Colm Keaveney’s parliamentary assistant. He also knew Johnny Fallon, a PR consultant with a Fianna Fáil background and with whom McGuirk occasionally sparred on Marc Coleman’s former late night Newstalk FM radio programme.
Fallon was drawn in briefly to the Ganley/Keaveney European election discussions with the prospect of work but it didn’t materialise.
Recollections as to what was said at the meetings around the notion that Keaveney might run for Europe vary between participants and may yet become a detour in the now long-running saga of O’Brien’s pursuit of Red Flag Consulting. But whatever about content, trust was not a commodity in abundance.
Whenever meetings took place at Ganley’s office, mobile phones had to be left outside the room, dropped into a basket on a table, while conversations took place behind doors.
“It was very much relationship-building, trying to establish trust between the two men,” said one source.
Talk about O’Brien, who was not the focal point of the meetings in any case, tended to be around open source information, material already in the public domain. None present was a paid up member of the Denis fan club; Keaveney and Ganley’s dislike of the businessman was “visceral”.
The discussions about running for Europe came to nothing because, in June 2013, Keaveney threw his lot in with Fianna Fail and was not a candidate in the 2014 European elections.
In 2015, Keaveney fought to make an impact as a new Fianna Fáil TD. When the controversy over O’Brien’s banking affairs with IBRC flared up, and his related purchase of Siteserv, Keaveney saw an opening – perhaps he too could bring his long-standing antipathy towards the controversial businessman to the fore and garner some of the sort of headlines Catherine Murphy TD was getting.
He asked Alan Hynes to draft a speech for him.
“Colm was always quite suspicion of O’Brien, quite hostile,” said a person politically close to Keaveney at that time (mid-2015).
Hynes drafted the speech that Keaveney eventually delivered in the Dáil on June 9th. In it he excoriated political colleagues for failing to deal with O’Brien, whom he referred to as “one citizen in this country and the influence he has with respect to favours and becoming a favoured person within society”.
He continued: “Criminality was already uncovered by the Moriarty tribunal which confirmed the largest single act of public corruption in monetary terms. Where is the Garda investigation? Where is the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB? Why is the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, not seeking to prosecute the criminality that was identified?”
It was strong stuff but little different to earlier Keaveney attacks on O’Brien.
When Hynes finished drafting the speech (and making sure delivery would remain within the 10 minutes allotted) he showed it to Keaveney.
Like many TDs, Keaveney had sought PR advise and had been in touch with Red Flag’s chief executive, Karl Brophy, (whom he knew, along with the company’s Seamus Conboy, a former operative in Labour). He contacted Brophy and asked him would he have a look at the draft speech.
Sure, said Brophy, send it to me.
Keaveney later asked Hynes to email the speech.
Brophy and Conboy tweaked the contents, sexing up the speech with peppery phrases and observations, and sent it back to Hynes, who noticed immediately that it was longer and would burst the 10-minute speaking limit.
The morning before delivery Hynes looked at the additions and called Keaveney on the phone to read over the additions.
Neither of them particularly liked the changes, plus time was running out – Keaveney delivered the speech later that day as originally crafted by Hynes.
Keaveney was also a somewhat nervous speaker in the Dáil. He liked his speeches printed in 18 font letter size for ease of reading, double spacing between lines and no paragraphs running from one page to the next.
And he liked to have a speech in his hand at least 15 minutes before delivery so he could read it over and practice.
The speech garnered little of the publicity for which Keaveney yearned – “he was a bit put out by that,” – says a former associate, adding however, “it wasn’t a particularly clever speech”.
Whatever about that, it got O’Brien’s attention.
O’Brien wasn’t at all happy at what was being said under cover of Dáil privilege, and when the amended, but not delivered, version of Keaveney’s speech appeared on a USB memory stick which O’Brien says arrived in his office anonymously in the autumn of 2015, the businessman reacted.
Of the 300 or so separate files on the USB, most of them newspaper cuttings but some also original profiles and assessments of O’Brien and his business career, Keaveney’s amended but undelivered speech stood out and angered O’Brien.
On the basis that Red Flag put the amended speech into a Dropbox folder, from where it and all the other files were later put on to the USB, O’Brien claimed publication and hence defamation. (The assertion of publication has, however, been rejected by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal).
In October 2015, O’Brien launched his legal action against Red Flag, alleging criminal conspiracy and defamation, and seeking exemplary and punitive damages. His solicitor is Eames Solicitors of Dublin.
O’Brien tried to use an Anton Pillar Order, a legal nuclear option giving him, if granted, power to enter, by force if necessary, Red Flag’s offices and seize more or less anything he wanted. The High Court rebuffed this.
In the February 2016 general election, Keaveney faced a tough battle to hold onto his seat in Galway East, a three-seat constituency. He had a strong running mate in Anne Rabbitte, a Fianna Fáil councillor with a high profile locally for the previous seven years, and while Keaveney had also been a Tuam and county councillor, he was not a Fianna Fáiler tooth and claw.
During the campaign Keaveney detected what he saw as bias against him in media organisations controlled by O’Brien – commentators and analysts seeming, to Keaveney at any rate, to down play his chances and talk up Rabbitte’s.
“It happened. That’s politics. I got played,” Keaveney said later, highlighting also Facebook advertising which, to him, seemed targeted against him. “They were fashioning an outcome by saying it was going to happen – a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
During the campaign the Irish Independent on one occasion produced a graphic illustrating an article. The graphic, in Keaveney’s view, was defamatory. He felt it implied his Dáil speech on O’Brien was part of some sort of orchestrated campaign against the businessman. After the election Keaveney sued Independent News and Media (INM).
Meanwhile, O’Brien’s legal action against Red Flag was not going well. The PR company had been asking repeatedly for access to the USB so it could examine the dossier. Unknown to them at the time, O’Brien had given the USB to a Dutch-based car crash analyst for reasons that have never been fully explained.
In May 2016, three things happened in Keaveney’s life which can only have caused him concern.
First, he was in deep financial trouble personally; second, Ireland’s richest man and a seasoned litigant had come after him; and, thirdly, any hope of employment with Ganley was proving ill-founded. The outlook was bleak.
Having taken no proceedings against Keaveney, even though the draft speech was known to O’Brien since at least October 13th, 2015 (the day of O’Brien’s affidavit initiating his case against Red Flag), on May 10th, 2016, some weeks after Keaveney’s action against INM, O’Brien moved.
Using Eames Solicitors, he issued from the High Court a summons against Keaveney in which he claimed damages for defamation, seeking aggravated and exemplary damages, costs and other unspecified reliefs, all relating to the draft speech on the USB stick.
O’Brien, renowned for his determination and with seemingly inexhaustible funds to pay lawyers, had Keaveney in his crosshairs.
Ten days later Keaveney filed for personal bankruptcy, citing debts of over €1.23 million and no visible means of settling them. He was joint owner, with his wife, of his family home, valued at €130,000, but with a mortgage of more than €158,000. He owed a credit union €16,252 and solicitors €26,000.
In the same month Keaveney approached Ganley, hoping for some work – his Dáil salary was gone, he needed a job, what were the chances? There were none; the request for employment was rejected, according to several sources.
Around about July, Keaveney met Alan Hynes. According to Hynes, Keaveney told him he had taken a call from someone purporting to act for O’Brien’s side, inviting him to Dublin to talk.
Hynes has now sworn an affidavit, giving his account of what happened thereafter. Keaveney told him he had agreed to co-operate with O’Brien.
Hynes was shocked and alarmed. What Keaveney appeared to be suggesting ran counter to everything the former TD had ever said about O’Brien, apart from any other consideration.
Hynes told him he wanted nothing to do with what appeared to be being proposed.
A little later, Keaveney was back in touch. Despite his reservations Hynes met him not far from his (Hynes’) home at Cummer, near Tuam. The pair sat in Keaveney’s car parked outside Gill’s Pub on the Ballyglunin road, by the Athenry to Tuam road.
Keaveney updated him on what he, Keaveney, said had happened since their last meeting.
He had been in further contact with O’Brien’s side. He had met a legal figure in Dublin and then, separately but at the same time and location, a non-legal associate of the businessman.
According to Hynes’s affidavit, Keaveney’s version of what he said to a person he referred to as “Denis O’Brien’s representative” was: “Just tell me what he [O’Brien] wants said and I’ll say it.”
The episode played on Hynes’s mind. He told several people about it almost immediately afterwards, and also sat down with lawyers, giving them a long and detailed recounting of what he says took place, and which they noted in detail.
O’Brien settled his legal action against Keaveney, dropping his assertion of defamation by the former TD and his demand for aggravated and exemplary damages.
That move on O’Brien’s part, and the former TD’s swearing of an affidavit helpful to the businessman, is addressed in O’Brien’s current legal efforts to have Ganley joined as a co-defendant in the Red Flag case.
It is in an affidavit sworn by O’Brien’s solicitor with Eames, Diarmuid O’Comhain.
According to O’Comhain’s affidavit, which he swore on December 8th, 2017: “The plaintiff [Denis O’Brien] elected to compromise those proceedings [that is, discontinue his action against Keaveney] on terms on 13 October 2017. Mr Keaveney disclosed information to the plaintiff . . .”
October 13th, 2017, was the date on which, according to O’Comhain, Keaveney disclosed information to O’Brien. That information became an affidavit which Keaveney swore for Eames Solicitors on December 4th, alleging Ganley to be the man behind what O’Brien says is a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.
Keaveney’s defamation case against INM remains before the courts. The former TD will be a fully discharged bankrupt in under two years.
The Irish Times sent several questions to James Morrisey, Mr O’Brien’s spokesman, based on the contents of this report. He replied: “This matter is sub judice and on that basis we cannot, and will not, comment.”
Similar questions were sent also to Keaveney. A response had not been received by time of publication.