Colm Keena: Refusal to rule out Lowry sends wrong message

Independent has long history of questionable behaviour yet is viable option for voters – and Taoiseach

Michael Lowry: The Moriarty tribunal found that Lowry, as minister for communications, took money from businessman Denis O’Brien. Photograph: Courts Collins

Michael Lowry: The Moriarty tribunal found that Lowry, as minister for communications, took money from businessman Denis O’Brien. Photograph: Courts Collins

 

The argument that Ireland would be a better place if Michael Lowry was not in our national parliament is a strong one.

It is not just that he has shown himself over a long period of time to have a blind spot when it comes to ethical standards, including when he was a cabinet minister and a trustee of Fine Gael.

It is also that his continuing role in national politics is demoralising. It is a clear indication that there is a large proportion of the Irish electorate that is willing to tolerate low standards in public life if it believes there is something to be gained in return.

That neither Fine Gael nor Labour, nor any other party in the Dáil , would have the slightest difficulty doing a deal with Lowry in order to get into government sends a powerful message to the public. It says the political establishment, at its highest levels, shares the public’s ambiguous attitude towards probity. It is a circular scheme of things, and the exact opposite of ethical leadership.

Lowry’s involvement in dodgy dealings is as long as his political career, which has to be one of, if not the most draining on the public purse in the history of the State.

Two tribunals of inquiry, an authorised officer’s inquiry into Lowry’s refrigeration company, Garuda, a substantial Revenue inquiry that ended in 2007 only to be reprised two years ago, an ongoing inquiry by the Criminal Assets Bureau and numerous court hearings have all involved public funds being spent on trying to find out what Lowry has been up to while holding public office. Yet he continues to receive substantial electoral support.

Garuda entered into inappropriate arrangements with Ben Dunne and Dunnes Stores from the early 1990s, with Lowry having money paid into offshore accounts and getting substantial amounts of work done on his Holycross home that was treated in the retailer’s books as work done on its Ilac Centre store in Dublin.

Offshore accounts

The findings of the Moriarty tribunal – that Lowry, as minister for communications, took money from businessman Denis O’Brien, and interfered with the 1995-1996 awarding of the State’s second mobile phone licence to the benefit of O’Brien’s Esat Digifone – were considered so astonishing by the Supreme Court that in 2012 it allowed two of the failed bidders to take proceedings aimed at proving the findings in the High Court despite the passage of years.

O’Brien and Lowry have said the tribunal findings were wrong. The Supreme Court ruled that it was in the public interest that the courts get an opportunity to decide on whether corruption had occurred. Hence its decision to allow the failed bidders proceed with their case. If the courts decide that Mr Justice Michael Moriarty got it right, then the damages that will come into play will most likely dwarf anything that has gone before in this jurisdiction.

One of the deeply troubling aspects of the Lowry saga is the way it is ongoing. It was only in 2013 that we learned, via the publication of the Lowry tapes, about a 2004 transaction involving Garuda and an account in the Isle of Man that was relevant to the Moriarty tribunal’s then (2004) investigations but was never revealed to it. It would appear the transaction was also not revealed to the Revenue Commissioners, even though it was at the time involved in an inquiry into Lowry and Garuda’s affairs that in time led to a €1.4 million settlement.

The High Court heard earlier this month that corporation tax linked to the 2004 transaction was paid in 2007, and that an associated income tax assessment against Lowry may yet be raised.

Although he has brought judicial review proceedings to try to stop criminal charges arising from tax issues associated with the 2004 transaction, Lowry has not explained why the money – about IR£250,000 – was diverted to an Isle of Man account linked to Northern Ireland businessman Kevin Phelan.

Ahern deal

When considering the fact the Government appears willing to do a political deal with Lowry, if the numbers fall that way, it is worth remembering that it was the Oireachtas that asked the Moriarty tribunal (at enormous public expense) to report back to it about Lowry and his worrying propensity to get involved in shady dealings. Fianna Fáil, of course, can’t complain, as it, under Bertie Ahern, did a deal with Lowry after the 2007 election, despite all that was known about Lowry’s affairs at that time.

Lowry is seen by many in his constituency as an able politician who has looked after what he sometimes refers to as “my people”. The repeated decision of a large number of voters to return him to public office can be taken as a valid poll of Irish society’s general willingness to tolerate questionable ethical standards, or at least put them into a type of ethical/pragmatic weighing scales.

During the 2007 campaign the Labour Party, under Pat Rabbitte, tried to make use of Ahern’s inability to explain his personal finances, and got punished for its trouble. As Rabbitte said ruefully afterwards, the Irish electorate doesn’t have a Calvinist bone in its body. It would seem the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, shares that assessment.

Colm Keena is Legal Affairs Correspondent and covered the proceedings of the Moriarty tribunal

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