Support for Michael Lowry remains steadfast in Tipperary heartland

Few dissenting voices in Independent TD’s stronghold following court conviction

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Michael Lowry’s political heartland of north Tipperary willing to condemn the TD in light of his conviction and sentencing at the Circuit Criminal Court this week.

But they exist and do express themselves – but generally quietly, and then in some instances only to beat a hasty retreat.

"You'd better talk to this woman," said a man in Thurles Shopping Centre when approached for comment, "she's a strong supporter".

But all his companion would say was “Super man, super man” as she hurried off back to work after lunch.

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However, the man lingered but was only willing to chat off the record.

“I wouldn’t have time for him,” said the man, leaning in close so as not to be overheard. “He’s a convicted criminal. Sure, look at Moriarty – I’d believe a judge before I’d believe [Lowry].”

‘Treated unfairly’

Sisters Teresa and Bridget Reilly sat chatting on a bench nearby.

“I think he was treated unfairly because he’s a politician,” said Bridget.

“Yeah,” said Teresa, “but if he did something wrong he has to pay the price as well as any other Joe Soap would.”

“Yeah, true,” said Bridget, on reflection.

Lowry and his company Garuda were fined a total of €25,000 on Tuesday for tax offences, a sentence hailed by the Independent TD as vindication by a court, which he likened to the non-jury Special Criminal Court used to try alleged subversives and gangland figures.

He said he should have been tried “locally” – meaning in Tipperary.

Had that happened, it is possible a jury would not have convicted him because, despite some people having reservations, his support base appears as strong as ever in the county.

Lowry has represented Tipperary in the Dáil since 1987, first for Fine Gael and then, since the 1997 general election in which he topped the poll, as an independent TD.

Tax evader

In 1997, the McCracken tribunal branded him a tax evader, arising from his relationship with Ben Dunne. In 2007, he and Garuda made a settlement with the Revenue totalling €1.4 million. Lowry also denied having an offshore bank account – only to be revealed as having one.

In 2011, the Moriarty tribunal found that as minister for communications, Lowry had given “substantive information to Denis O’Brien, of significant value and assistance” to him in securing the State’s second mobile phone licence. The TD and the businessman have always rejected the finding.

Tipperary people aren't blinded but he's not the criminal that he's made out to be

Lowry’s local roots run deep and his connections across the community, particularly through the GAA, are strong.

"He probably is seen by some people as a villain," says Jack Halley, owner of Hayes Hotel, where the GAA was founded in 1884, "but certainly, around here, he doesn't act like that, and isn't that".

The hotel is characterised by many people in Thurles as Lowry’s second home and he hosts events there for local causes. He is also behind the Holycross Music Festival in July, proceeds from which go to local GAA clubs.

Bedrock support

This engagement with the community and his efforts to assist individuals dealing with officialdom, over matters such as housing or medical cards, has created a bedrock support.

“You’ve got to be proven guilty,” said Halley. “People are all too quick to convict him for the kind of mistake any business owner could make. It’s relatively minor what he’s done. Tipperary people aren’t blinded but he’s not the criminal that he’s made out to be.”

Thurles’ Liberty Square looked well, if not exactly bursting with riches, in Wednesday’s searing heat. But the town has lost numerous big employers over the years such as the sugar beet processing factory and Erin Foods, as well as several other food firms, and haulage and distribution companies.

However, Lowry seems fireproof from any electoral backlash over any decline in the town’s fortunes.

‘Magic touch’

"People look at Semple Stadium and see Michael Lowry Stadium," offers Margaret Young, a Siptu official in nearby Nenagh. "When people can't get something done, he seems to have that magic touch that he can," she says adding that he is "a people's person [and] approachable".

"It's a sad reflection on this country," chips in John Kane, a retired union representative. "He's symptomatic of a malaise."

Following his conviction, a slew of supporters also took to the TD's Facebook page to congratulate him – a reaction critics maintain is an orchestrated response aimed at blurring the reality of the jury's decision and the sentence.

The man with no name in Thurles Shopping Centre, despite not liking Lowry, recognises his talents.

“He could have become taoiseach,” he says. “He could have been a great taoiseach but he just took the wrong road . . . Now, don’t print my name and here, you better not say ‘convicted criminal’ either.”