Analysis

Thursday 31 July 2014

Gene Kerrigan: The salesman versus the idealist and the rest is history

Why has RTE not examined the new evidence of where Moriarty was misled, asks Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Published 07/04/2013|04:00

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It was January 1981, and 27-year old Michael Lowry was fighting for his political life. The Marian Hall in Borrisoleigh usually held 300, but that night there were 500 Fine Gaelers crammed inside. On the stage, the party leader, Garret FitzGerald, displayed no preference between the two contestants for the Fine Gael nomination for Tipperary North, but everyone knew Lowry wasn't his choice.

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Lowry was well regarded in the party, but his equally young opponent, David Molony, was part of the new, more liberal Fine Gael that FitzGerald had been shaping since 1977. Both Lowry and Molony were from the same part of Tipperary – and the first law of Irish politics says that two candidates from the same party cannot fish in the same vote pool. If there are two candidates, they must be from different parts of the constituency. Whoever lost that night was going out of national politics.

Molony summed it up: "The reality is that we are two ambitious men, both want to make it to Dail Eireann, and the pity is that we both can't make it."

In those days, getting a political education, I attended many such events. Never had I seen a hall so packed. Every seat taken, the aisles crammed, no room to swing a mouse. The radiators were blazing and though it was a winter's evening, even the walls were sweating. A drop of condensation fell from the ceiling and plinked off FitzGerald's left shoulder.

Lowry's abilities were touted by his proposers. "He's a man of the people ... he has demonstrated his vote-getting ability ... his skill as a salesman will not be a disadvantage."

Molony's record as a senator was lauded, and his role in helping to build the network of Free Legal Aid Centres – a crucial development in making the legal system more widely accessible.

It was Lowry the local vote-getter, a director of the Rent-An-Irish-Cottage Scheme, versus Molony the idealistic solicitor who sought a changed Ireland.

After three hours of heat and drama, the votes of the 290 delegates were counted, the result was announced to a hushed hall: 201 votes to 89, in favour of David Molony. Michael Lowry's national career was stillborn, he was cast back into the lower leagues of local politics.

Lowry went to the microphone. A rueful moment of self-pity: "To be honest I expected to do a bit better." Then, he gave a rousing, generous, ungrudging speech in support of Molony. "Use every drop of blood possible in your body to ensure that you get every vote possible for David Molony." The two shook hands, the crowd cheered and later that year Molony was elected to the Dail.

About 20 years later, waiting at Dublin Castle for a session of the Moriarty tribunal to begin, Lowry reminded me of that evening. A lot had happened since then, he said.

Indeed it had. David Molony served six years as a TD, then unexpectedly quit politics – leading to Lowry's political resurrection. Lowry took the seat in 1987, and when Fine Gael came to power in 1994 he was immediately appointed a minister. Two years later he resigned, revealed as a tax fraudster. His offshore activities remained secret.

In 1999, as the Moriarty tribunal began hearing witnesses, I believed and wrote that Lowry's secrets were all now known – that he'd been thrown into the Moriarty mix by Fianna Fail only to take some of the heat off Charlie Haughey. As Moriarty went about his work, that was proven wrong.

All the while, the self-pitying air of injured innocence. He'd been repeatedly exposed as a deceiver. To believe his protestations, you had to ignore a tangle of revelations, loose ends, coincidences and inconvenient facts.

Yet, he behaved as though it was astonishing that anyone should question his word.

Earlier this year, when Elaine Byrne unloaded a sheaf of Lowry material on to her desk, including the phone conversation with Kevin Phelan, I inwardly groaned. No matter how good this material was – and it was very good – we were in for more protestations of injured innocence, more accusations of conspiracy. And, almost certainly, the establishment would pretend this didn't matter.

In the weeks that followed, the standard guiding principle applied: we publish only what we know for sure. We don't know the full story. Where parts of the story almost but don't quite connect, leave them aside. We don't fill the gaps with what we suspect might have happened, we just say what we know – true and fair and crystal clear.

The new facts were simple: Lowry could be heard admitting he paid Kevin Phelan a quarter of a million sterling, off the books, for some reason – and this contradicted his evidence to Moriarty. His frantic efforts to ensure that none of this emerged in public emphasised that there are important parts of the story we still don't know.

Lowry clearly misled the tribunal. Enda Kenny has duties, as Taoiseach and as party leader, in these matters. The Moriarty tribunal was set up by the Oireachtas as a political response to suspicion of a scandal. Now, the revelation of how Moriarty was undermined by a serving member of the Oireachtas demands another political response.

Enda Kenny has failed to provide that political response. He presumably has his reasons.

David Nally, head of RTE Current Affairs, last week explained why the station has largely ignored the recent revelations. "The Moriarty report is far more dramatic and damning than anything contained in the Lowry tape."

This is puzzling. Nally is a serious journalist, in a station with a terrific current affairs record. Yet, he seems to think the Lowry tape story is competing with Moriarty, and loses. But it's not a race. No one has a silver bullet of a story. Other journalists, in the Examiner and Times and elsewhere, have explored the same territory. The evidence shows where Moriarty was misled, it reveals a new crack in Lowry's story. This is about serious media examination of a matter of real public concern.

For some of us, the only thing more puzzling than RTE's nonchalance about the matter is Dave Nally's explanation for that nonchalance.

Fine Gael TDs remain silent on the revelation that a serving TD misled a tribunal set up by the Oireachtas. They have no problem with Enda Kenny's decision that there should be no political response. If they don't care, who will? The Labour Party is dead and gone, it's with Frank Cluskey in the grave.

David Molony died in 2002, at 52 years of age – long out of politics, but still remembered as a man committed to the public good. Had Molony stayed on in politics, Councillor Michael Lowry's life would have been less colourful, but certainly less painful. And the rest of us wouldn't be condemned to continue pawing through the shoddy leftovers of those unfortunate two years he was a Fine Gael minister.

Irish Independent

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