Overview: What is the Mahon tribunal?

 

Publication of the long-awaited final report of the Mahon tribunal brings to an end the longest running and most expensive public inquiry in Irish history.

The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, to give it official title, was established by minister for the environment and local government, Noel Dempsey in November 1997, and has held 917 days of public hearings with 400 witnesses. 

Its initial remit was to inquire into the planning history and ownership of 726 acres of land in north Dublin and to investigate any payments to politicians or officials in connection with its rezoning.

Its terms of reference were soon expanded to allow for the investigation of all suspect payments to politicians and local authority officials in connection with a spate of re-zonings in Dublin.

To date, the tribunal has cost taxpayers more than €97 million, including over €5 million paid to its legal team since it ceased public hearings at the end of 2008.

However, the total cost of the inquiry, when all third-party costs are paid, is forecast to reach between €250 million and €300 million.

Following allegations that he had received payments from developer Owen O'Callaghan, the tribunal investigated the finances of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

An Irish Times article, published in September 2006, revealing that the tribunal was investigating specific payments to Mr Ahern in 1993 when he was finance minister sparked a storm of controversy, and a long legal battle between this paper and the tribunal. 

Mr Ahern subsequently denied that he had received any illegal payments during his tenure as finance minister, claiming instead the payments were connected to unsolicited “dig-outs” from friends to help him through his legal separation from his former wife in 1993 and 1994.

Mr Ahern gave evidence at the tribunal in September and December 2007 and again in February 2008.

The tribunal struggles with difficult witnesses and quarrelsome lawyers were the staple of late-night, radio re-enactments for several years.

Perhaps the most famous sequence involved the testimony of the late James Gogarty who blew the whistle on corrupt payments made by builders to former Fianna Fáil minister Ray Burke in connection with the rezoning of several sites in north Dublin.

Despite concerns about his advanced age, Gogarty, a former garda and construction firm executive, proved more than a match for several high-powered lawyers, and was outspoken in his criticism of several senior politicians and others involved in the planning process.

The tribunal’s first chairman, Mr Justice Feargus Flood, retired in June 2003 after issuing three interim reports. He was replaced by chairman Judge Alan Mahon with Judge Mary Faherty and Judge Gerald Keys.

The tribunal also investigated the financial dealings of former Fianna Fáil government press secretary Frank Dunlop, former EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn, and the controversial Fianna Fáil TD Liam Lawlor, who was killed in a car crash in Russia in 2005.

Lawlor spent several terms in prison for failing to comply with the orders of the tribunal.

Despite its steep costs, the tribunal has also yielded some benefits, with just over €50 million collected by the Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau on foot of information it has garnered.