Irish News

Friday 11 July 2014

Hundreds show they have write stuff

Published 11/11/2012|05:00

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Last week, Elaine Byrne wanted more of a fuss created over Michael Lowry's latest antics, and she wasn't let down

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THREE hundred Irish citizens decided to stop giving out about ethics in public life and instead did something about it and wrote to the Dail Clerk to make an official complaint.

In one week, the Dail Clerk received 13-times the number of complaints than all the valid complaints sent to the Standards in Public Office Commission for 2011.

That's something.

Members of the public can make complaints about TDs or senators to the Dail Clerk or Seanad Clerk.

The Standards Commission is the port of call for complaints about directors of public bodies, special advisers and office holders such as the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, ministers, ministers of state, and the Attorney General. The Dail Clerk did not have any figures to hand for complaints received last year. So, what happens now?

"Following further consideration" the Dail Clerk "is seeking legal advice" and is not in a position to make a decision "at this stage as to whether the complaints should be referred to the Committee on Members' Interests".

The ethics rules stipulate that any land or property worth more than €13,000 must be disclosed.

Michael Lowry said that his land did not have to be disclosed because it was below the threshold.

Lowry formally amended his register of interests last Wednesday. In his newly amended register, Lowry has described his 20 acres, near Wigan in north-west England Wigan which is held in joint partnership with Thurles developer Liam Carroll, as of "negligible value".

Negligible is defined as something "of small or unimportant or of so little consequence as to warrant little or no attention".

There are two issues for the Dail Clerk. First, is it good enough that an elected public representative didn't disclose all his interests for the nine years between 2003 and 2012?

Secondly, does the Dail Clerk believe that Lowry -- asserted to be "profoundly corrupt" by the Moriarty tribunal and a tax cheat by the Revenue Commissioners -- is telling the truth when it comes to his self assessment that the Wigan land is below the €13,000 threshold?

If the Dail Clerk refers it to the Committee on Members Interests, they will meet next week to decide if the evidence "meets the requirements to sustain a case" according to its chair Thomas Pringle.

Other members of the committee include John Browne ( Fianna Fail), Jack Wall (Labour), and Olivia Mitchell and Charlie Flanagan ( Fine Gael). The committee's powers are as meaningless as the unaudited, self-regulated and narrowly defined register of interests. They have no investigative officer at their disposal and the limited powers of discovery do not extend outside Ireland.

The practice has been that when politicians amend their register of interests the threat of investigation or censure is dropped. But amending after the fact cuts no ice with the Revenue Commissioners, for example, where interest and penalties apply when your tax is not paid on time.

Apart from a general reluctance to protest, Irish people simply do not know who to complain to when ethical controversies arise. The complaints procedure is convoluted between Dail and Seanad Clerks, Committees of Interests and the Standards Commission.

The process should be streamlined and simplified.

In the meantime, the 300 complainants have to await the outcome of the Clerk's legal advice.

This is not just about whether a half-share in 20 acres of greenbelt land in England is worth more or less than €13,000.

The companies register states that Lowry was a director of Vineacre, a UK development and real estate company since November 2000. Liam Carroll was the other director.

Vineacre bought 26 acres of freehold land located off junction 25 of the M6 motorway in Lancashire, England, and had options on another adjoining 221 acres.

"Land under options" is a common practice in the UK where landowners grant property developers an option for a fixed term to purchase their land.

Two-and-a-half acres of the freehold was zoned for residential development. In 2001, it was sold by Vineacre to Barratt Homes, one of the largest residential property development companies in the UK.

The Sunday Independent has seen copies of correspondence between the vendors and purchasers of the land.

Manchester-based solicitors Field Cunningham & Co, on behalf of Barratt, wrote to Bedfordshire-based solicitors Taylor Walton in August 2001 regarding land owned by Vineacre.

On September 17, 2001, Taylor Walton wrote to Liam Carroll and land agent Kevin Phelan -- the Barratt "transaction" would be "ready for signing" on Wednesday morning at the latest, it said. The letter also stated that "the documents will need to be executed by Vineacre Limited and by Liam in his personal capacity".

The site, owned by Lowry and Carroll, was sold for £750,000, which is £967,000 today according to MeasuringWorth.com website. When converted to euro, Lowry got a half share of €938,000 in 2001 (€1.2m today) for 2.5 acres of land. Therefore, Lowry got almost half a million.

In his newly amended register of interests, he stated that the rest of this freehold "is zoned greenbelt and is not included in the current Wigan Development revision".

The Irish Examiner, posing undercover as a potential buyer, contacted an agent handling the Wigan site.

The agent said that without planning permission the entire site would be worth in the region of €100,000.

Or £300,000-an-acre with planning permission. About €6m for the site. That's not negligible. The land is neither "absolutely valueless" nor "worthless" as Lowry has claimed in his Tipp FM interview.

In a separate interview with Tipp FM last week, Lowry said, "The bottom line is this field is landlocked, it has never given us any rental income."

Another document obtained by the Sunday Independent shows that the property received a half yearly rental income of £420 in early 2000, 10 months before Lowry became a director at Vineacre.

In April 2000, the Wigan-based agricultural valuers and land agents Winstanley and Dennis sent a letter to Christopher Vaughan, the solicitor who acted for Lowry in his UK property transactions

They wrote: "We understand that the above land is owned by your Clients Messrs Vineacre Ltd. As our clients are the agricultural tenants of the land we enclose our clients' cheque for half years' rent due on the 2nd February 2000."

Vaughan also acted for Denis O'Brien in relation to the purchase of Doncaster Rovers football ground in which Lowry denies any involvement.

O'Brien also denies Mr Lowry was involved in this transaction.

In the spirit of his voluntary disclosure this week, perhaps Lowry might possibly make four further voluntary admissions. How much did he pay for the Wigan land? Who owned this land before Vineacre? Has everything, above and below, the thresholds been disclosed? And when did the rental arrangement on the land end?

Sunday Independent

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