Funerals are sacrosanct junctures for society when the usual human activities of badmouthing and gossiping are temporarily suspended. It’s a custom on which we pride ourselves in Ireland. Never speak ill of the dead between their final breath and the completion of their obsequies, because families should be let bury their kin with love. That’s the rule, and it’s a civilised one that ought not to be abused.
The great, the good, and others flocked to Ben Dunne’s funeral at St Mochta’s Catholic church in Porterstown on Tuesday. The supermarket heir and gym chain founder, who died at the age of 74, had lived an eventful life. Kidnapped by the IRA when he was 32, he was arrested in Florida 11 years later on suspicion of cocaine possession and soliciting a prostitute, having threatened to jump off a 17th floor balcony. Subsequently, he was dethroned from the board of the dynastic business.
The burly Corkonian was to be seen around Dublin accompanied by bodyguards after his kidnapping but fears for his safety did not deter him from the public arena. The radio advertisements for his fitness gyms exploited his fame. Dunne’s name recognition reached its apogee when the McCracken Tribunal discovered he had given former taoiseach Charles Haughey IRL£1.3 million. Lesser-known entrepreneurs did a roaring trade at their stalls on O’Connell Bridge hawking T-shirts emblazoned: “Ben there. Dunne that. Bought the Taoiseach.”
None of this was explicitly mentioned at the businessman’s funeral. Few would have expected it to be dragged out of the dirty linen basket for an airing by a family in mourning for a husband, father, grandfather and brother who appears to have been as privately generous as he was publicly greedy – and as complex as anybody. What was unexpected was that the Taoiseach was represented at Dunne’s funeral by his aide de camp.
In a week when the Government excoriated “thugs” and “scumbags” in the Dáil for the racist-stoked rioting in Dublin last Thursday night, Leo Varadkar’s decision to send his ADC to Dunne’s funeral is astonishingly correlation-blind. It is cause-and-effect in reverse.
You don’t have to like somebody’s bad behaviour to be their friend. If Leo Varadkar was fond of Ben Dunne or admired him for his good qualities, he could have attended the funeral in his private capacity
There is no justification for the assaults and wanton vandalism perpetrated in the capital city after a man stabbed three children aged five and six and their young care assistant, but there are explanations for the malleability of some of those who participated. One reason is that many people in less salubrious, less leafy and less privileged enclaves of Ireland feel alienated from society’s mainstream because the ruling class keeps reminding them that those deemed part of the upper echelon are treated with greater respect. Had somebody running a grocery business without Ben Dunne’s name over the door tried to fleece the citizens of this State, would the Taoiseach have sent his ADC to the funeral?
Lest we forget, that is exactly what Ben Dunne did.
He showered Haughey, a predecessor of Varadkar’s, with lucre while the then taoiseach arranged a meeting for him with the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners at a time when Dunnes Stores was facing a £39 million tax bill. The Moriarty tribunal did not accept Dunne’s evidence that he could not recollect a number of payments he gave Haughey and which he failed to disclose to the inquiry. The report states that Haughey, in return for Dunne’s payments, had “acted with a view to intervening improperly in a pending tax case of great magnitude”. It brings to mind the pronouncement of one of the world’s most notorious tax dodgers, Leona Helmsley, when she said that “only the little people pay taxes”.
Ben Dunne got Michael Lowry’s £390,000 (€495,000) extension to his house built free of charge for him and made the then Fine Gael TD various payments, some squirrelled to offshore bank accounts, amounting to more than £500,000. Later, when Lowry was the minister for communications, he made a foiled attempt to increase the rent paid by Telecom Éireann, a semi-State company within his department’s remit, for its occupancy of Marlborough House. Dunne owned the building.
The Moriarty tribunal concluded that, had Lowry been successful in his attempt to raise the rent to almost double the market rate, the building’s potential capital value would have risen by £7.35 million (€9.3 million). The measure would have cost the public an extra £2.38 million (€3.02 million) in rental payments over seven years. the tribunal said this was done “at the behest of Mr Ben Dunne, who had previously made substantial payments both to Mr Lowry personally, and to Fine Gael”.
You don’t have to like somebody’s bad behaviour to be their friend. If Leo Varadkar was fond of Ben Dunne or admired him for his good qualities, he could have attended the funeral in his private capacity. But it was wrong to send a servant of the State, an Army officer, to represent him as the head of the Government. What signal does that send to Judge Michael Moriarty, who was charged with chairing the inquiry as a method of ensuring public integrity?
More pertinently, what message does it send to disaffected citizens when a “corrupter of politicians”, as Sam Smyth, the journalist who broke the story about Lowry’s house extension, puts it in The Currency? The ADC’s presence in the church is the modern version of the sin-eater at a wake, devouring all the wrongs of a life to pave a smooth path to heaven.
Politicians wax about Ireland being an equal society perched on republican ideals and tax equity, but their actions keep contradicting their words. After Moriarty found that Denis O’Brien padded Lowry’s pockets with a series of payments that were “demonstrably referable” to his winning a State mobile phone licence, the billionaire pitched up beside then taoiseach Enda Kenny for Ireland’s ceremonial bell ringing on St Patrick’s Day at the New York Stock Exchange.
By sending his ADC, Varadkar gave his Government’s seal of approval in a constituency that houses many disaffected young people. Notably, another Dublin West resident who lives in a big house called Áras an Uachtaráin was wise enough to stay away.