independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Frank Dunlop `made our life hell ...'

Ten years ago, the faces of John and Selina Hanrahan were more widely known in Ireland than Frank Dunlop. They took on the world's biggest...

Ten years ago, the faces of John and Selina Hanrahan were more widely known in Ireland than Frank Dunlop. They took on the world's biggest pharmaceutical multinational in a classic David-and-Goliath contest that lasted 10 years and went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1985 Dunlop entered the saga, as a media consultant to Merck, Sharp & Dohme.

Though the Hanrahans do not remember ever meeting him, he left a lasting impression on their lives.

As Frank Dunlop was cataloguing his payments to politicians at the Flood Tribunal last week, a tall, reed-thin farmer dressed in a navy suit and his trademark flat cap listened attentively in the public gallery. Beside him sat his wife, petite and stylish, a look of disgust frozen on her face.

The couple had driven for nearly three hours from their home in the south-east to witness the new found acquiescence of a man they remembered as arrogant, ruthless and unscrupulous. When the stooped and diminished former government press secretary stepped down from the witness stand at the end of the day, the husband and wife remained behind in the room, watching. They followed him from a discreet distance as he slowly descended the steps of the building (their blurred outlines would be visible in the backgrounds of the next morning's newspaper pictures) and waited until he was driven away in a black Mercedes car.

``That man made our life hell,'' said the woman in a low voice as the car disappeared from view.

Ten years ago, the faces of John and Selina Hanrahan were more widely known in Ireland than the ginger features of Frank Dunlop. They were the tenacious farmers who took on the world's biggest pharmaceutical multinational in a classic David-and-Goliath contest that lasted 10 years and went all the way to the Supreme Court. It spawned numerous articles in learned law journals, a BBC documentary, a paperback book and much talk of a Silkwood-style Hollywood movie.

In what was then the longest civil case in Irish legal history, the couple, with John's septuagenarian mother, Mary, claimed that the Merck, Sharp & Dohme plant at Ballydine was polluting their farm, situated a mile down-wind of it in the serene pastoral Suir Valley, their animals and themselves.

The Hanrahans, who have farmed the 250 acres at Ballycurkeen for seven generations, had their case dismissed in the High Court in August 1985 by the present Chief Justice, Ronan Keane. They appealed it to the Supreme Court which held, in July 1988, that the family had in fact established Merck, Sharp & Dohme's liability to them for damages as a result of offensive smells emitted by the factory between 1978 and '83. The court also held that John Hanrahan was entitled to damages for his ill-health and the fatalities and deformities of cattle on the farm.

With an estimated £1 million in legal costs awarded to the Hanrahans, a date was fixed for the damages to be determined by the High Court but the amount was agreed in an undisclosed out-of-court settlement between the parties in November 1990. It was generally speculated at the time that the family had secured close to £2 million from the US-owned company but it has since emerged that it fell far short of the £1.8 million the plaintiffs had sought.

It was in 1985 that Frank Dunlop entered the saga, as a media consultant to Merck, Sharp & Dohme. Though John and Selina Hanrahan do not remember ever meeting him, he left a lasting impression on their lives.

``He spread such rumours about us,'' Selina recalls. ``He said we were killing the cattle ourselves; that it wasn't Merck poisoning them, we were doing it ourselves by giving them too much nitrogen. I remember being dreadfully upset about that. When he was giving his evidence at the Tribunal, he said somebody had been gossiping about him at a race meeting and it really upset him. Well, I remember what he said about us and how it upset us, the hurt he caused us.

``He looked a sad case in the witness box but I said to myself: `Don't feel sorry for him, Selina.' Words would not describe the hurt I felt. The whole family was hurt. Knowing you're right about something and having a clear conscience and to then have people maligning us... That is what he did. He maligned us.''

The hurt caused to the family remains a vivid memory. As well as being castigated for their farming skills, they were characterised as anti-patriotic for putting local jobs at risk for the sake of selfish interests. As recently as October 1998, John Hanrahan averted to the `character assassinations' in a letter to the Taoiseach's adviser, Gerry Hickey.

When asked to comment on the Hanrahans' allegations, Frank Dunlop replied: ``All these matters were dealt with at the highest level, in both the High Court and the Supreme Court, and decisions were made based on the evidence adduced.''

Part of Merck's defence strategy in the 1985 High Court hearing was to concentrate on what it depicted as John Hanrahan's shortcomings as a farmer, despite the fact that Ballycurkeen was used as a model `pilot farm' for agriculture students from abroad. In November 1984, however, the then Attorney General warned the Government against adopting a similar tactic. A record of this advice, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, states ``... allegations of poor or negligent husbandry could result in an action against the Minister or Ireland or both for defamation... For the moment, therefore, no statement whatever should be made, and a simple standing back from the litigation should be adopted.''

But nearly two decades after the case began and a decade after it sensationally ended, the Hanrahans claim they are still being subjected to emissions from the pharmaceutical plant in Ballydine which employs nearly 300 people on an annual payroll of £8 million. They calculate that their unquantified losses exceed the compensation received by more than £1 million. And they are calling for an independent inquiry to examine the part played in the affair by various State agencies. The Green Party TD John Gormley plans to formally propose such an inquiry within the next week. ``There are a lot of questions that need to be asked,'' he confirmed. ``From the Green point of view, this was probably one of the worst cases of environment and health damages in the State.''

John Hanrahan, an underweight 53-year-old who exhibits the textbook symptoms of multiple sclerosis though he does not have the condition, is indefatigable in fighting his case. He was incensed last year when the Taoiseach arrived in the Suir Valley to officially open a £130 million extension to the Merck, Sharp & Dohme plant which won an Eolas environment management award in 1992. As the company's PR consultant, Frank Dunlop played a highly visible role that day.

As early as November 1981, Mercks had admitted in writing to Tipperary South Riding County Council that emissions from its factory had exceeded their planning permission severalfold. The year it began operating in Ireland, employing 165 people, the Chief Fire Officer outlined his concerns about the factory to the County Engineer, in August 1976. ``In the case of Merck, Sharp & Dohme,'' he wrote, ``the factory complex does not meet with the standards you as County Engineer have given me, nor does it meet with the recommended standards of the Department of Local Government, Dublin Corporation Bye-Laws and the requirements of the Minister for Local Government.'' The Fire Chief's comments coincided with an explosion in an incinerator used for burning waste solvents at the plant.

When in July 1988, Magill magazine asked the public relations firm acting for the company why Mercks had not adhered to the original plans submitted to the county council in 1972, the reply was succinct. ``You shouldn't believe everything those dingbat environmentalists say.''

After the case ended The Irish Law Times concluded: ``The planning system failed to anticipate the problems and, far from resolving them, did not even spot them when they occurred.''

Now on September 9, 1999, Bertie Ahern was formally cutting the tape on an extension to which the Hanrahans had vigorously objected. Mercks had applied on September 3 1996 for permission to extend the existing facility with plans for an electrical sub-station, chiller building, cooling tower, waste storage, fume incinerator, solvent recovery column and other extensions.

The Hanrahans objected to the proposals within three weeks, on September 23. An independent report commissioned by the council and raising environmental concerns was received by the planning authority on October 25 but permission was granted five days later. John, Selina and Mary Hanrahan subsequently lodged a 900-page appeal submission. In the course of their objections the family stated: ``... we are prepared to make available to any competent agency commissioned by An Bord Pleanala concrete evidence that the existing facility is creating serious disruption to the present day on our holding.''

Meanwhile, the County Solicitor had advised Tipperary County Council that it was prohibited from taking the environmental risk factor into account in dealing with the application and that there was no reason to refer to the case of Hanrahan v Merck, Sharp & Dohme. However, in the report commissioned by the County Council and prepared by CAAS Environmental Services Ltd in Dublin, diametrically opposing advice was given. Referring to the absence of any mention of the litigation in the environment impact study, CAAS warned: ``Given the history of litigation surrounding alleged impacts on farm livestock in the vicinity this is a surprising omission. Impact upon farm livestock should have been evaluated as a `likely significant' impact according to the EPA criteria for `significance' - Guidelines p.26 which states:

A topic can acquire significance where society as a whole,a community or a significant number of individuals are concerned that some aspect of a development may adversely affect them or something which they value.''

An Bord Pleanala upheld the decision on March 26.

A year later, Mary Hanrahan died at the age of 80.

``She died in bits about the whole thing,'' remembers her son, John. ``She spent all her time trying to find out where it had all gone wrong.''

John and Selina both suffered extensive ill health in the 1980s. John's continues to this day. In the period covered by the Supreme Court decision, they had to move out of the farmhouse to flee the emissions, more than 100 cattle died, an abnormally high number of twin and deformed calves was born on the farm, the children's pets - dogs, cats, rabbitts, a foal and a donkey - all died, and their grandmother was forced to abandon her beloved vegetable garden when the plants grew to grotesque triffid proportions. Even the ivy curled up and died on the trees. The acid mist that floated down from the factory burned human eyes and skin, leaving John Hanrahan's tongue blistered and his chest wheezing. Financially, they were on the brink of ruin at the time of the Supreme Court victory. Suppliers had refused to sell them feedstuff because of unpaid bills, the Co-op stopped taking their milk and the local council cut off their water for non-payment of rates.

Following a meeting with him in Government Buildings, the Taoiseach's programme manager and special adviser, Gerry Hickey, wrote a seven-page letter to John Hanrahan in May last year in which he deemed the State absolved of its obligations to him. ``In reviewing all the material available to me, I cannot find that the State or its agents, the Department of Agriculture and Food, have treated your (sic) badly or unfairly. The State has no function in relation to your Supreme Court Case which was settled.''

There is no suggestion whatsoever that Merck, Sharp & Dohme was involved in any attempt to bribe politicians but, because of the company's long association with Frank Dunlop, it is legitimate to ask if he ever disbursed monies on its behalf to individual politicians or their parties. Responding in writing to the question, Merck, Sharp & Dohme's Director of Human Resources & Public Affairs, John Condon, stated: ``In relation to political activities, good corporate citizenship requires that we do not unfairly or illegally influence the political process in the communities in which we operate. We always operate to the highest standards of business ethics and we expect our business consultants that act on our behalf to do likewise.''

In response to a further query as to whether Frank Dunlop was still contracted to represent the company, Merck, Sharp & Dohme said: ``We have no further comment to make on the issue at this moment.''

Last Christmas a calf was born in Ballycurkeen. It had no nostrils. Teeth protruded through the skin where its nose should have been. Such deformities occur under normal circumstances and there is no definitive evidence that this calf was anything other than the victim of happenstance. But it is hardly surprising that John Hanrahan would suspect a more sinister reason for his calf's birth defects. As far as he and Selina are concerned, the nightmare they have lived with for more than two decades goes on.

``We were self-sufficient. We were well off. We were in good health,'' John Hanrahan reminisces about the time before Merck, Sharp & Dohme came to his valley. ``All we ever wanted was fresh air.''

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