Analysis

Thursday 31 July 2014

Stop giving out about Lowry and make an official complaint instead

Published 04/11/2012|05:00

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It's time for former minister to disclose all his interests or face the consequences, writes Elaine Byrne

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WHY is it, after all this time, that Michael Lowry's half-share in app-roximately 20 acres near Wigan was revealed not to have been disclosed on the Dail's register of interests? Why is it that a piece of English land not much bigger than Croke Park is of public interest?

Conor Ryan published documents in the Irish Examiner the other day that showed a UK property company called Vineacre and a Thurles developer, Liam Carroll, bought the green belt land in September 2001.

Mr Lowry and Mr Carroll owned Vineacre. In October 2003, Vineacre was dropped from the land title and replaced by Mr Lowry's name.

The land is significant because it exposes how utterly meaningless the register of members' interests is.

Under the Ethics Acts, TDs, senators and ministers are required to disclose their occupation, income, contracts, directorships, gifts over €650, shares over €13,000 and any travel facilities, living accommodation, meals or entertainment given for free but worth more than €650.

Any land or property worth more than €13,000 must also be disclosed.

Mr Lowry did not declare the Wigan property because the land was "absolutely valueless" and "worthless". In his interview with Tipp FM last Tuesday, he also said: "There's not a beast on it. It's reclaimed by nature. It's land that's totally overgrown, it's not useful for anything unless it's rezoned, it has no value as it stands."

The purpose of a register of interests is to prevent any potential conflict of interest. Politicians are not required to disclose any liabilities, such as outstanding loans, debts or mortgages.

As James Reilly well knows, a register of debt is just as important as a register of assets.

Politicians are not obliged to disclose the actual value of any of their assets. The register is not audited. This means that the public have to take politicians on their word when it comes to the value of their assets such as property.

The public, therefore, have no other option but to believe Mr Lowry is telling the truth.

Wigan Council published a development plan last January, similar to what is known as the Local Area Development Plan in Ireland. The development plan documents include a submission by a neighbouring farm, to the land owned by Mr Lowry and Mr Carrol, on its development potential.

"It is our belief that [our] site would represent a significant strategic employment site for the area," they write, which is "capable of delivering large-scale industrial development."

An inspector's report, to be published by Wigan Council early next year, will assess if land in that area, including the Lowry and Carroll holding, will be zoned for residential developments or an employment park.

Not exactly "absolutely valueless" then. But we have to take Mr Lowry's word on it, as there are no audits on the value of assets within the register of interests.

Have you met an Irish person who believed that land, even a scrap of it, was "worthless"?

The former Fine Gael minister has said that if the land was rezoned in the future "then it would have a value and it would be declared".

So what's stopping Lowry voluntarily declaring any lands he has that are under the €13,000 threshold to his register of interests? Instead of this constant drip feed of revelations, why not just bloody well disclose everything if there is nothing to hide?

That is what a public representative committed to upholding integrity in public life would probably do.

Mr Lowry has had a complex relationship with the register of interests. Earlier this year it was revealed that the Tipperary North TD did not declare ownership of 11 acres at Gortnahoo near Thurles, though he had declared an interest in Abbeygreen Consulting, the company which held the land.

That land, incidentally, was close to the Two Mile Borris site where businessman Richard Quirke had planned to build a casino with lobbying support from Lowry.

The Tonight With Vincent Browne Twitter stream and phone calls to Joe Duffy are Ireland's two national outlets of public outrage.

But there is another. Transparency International published an update to its National Integrity Study last week.

It exposes the underlying contradiction of the Irish public. We give out a lot, but never officially complain about anything.

In 2011, the Standards in Public Office Commission received only 22 valid complaints about alleged ethical breaches by politicians. In the 17 years since the Standards Commission was established, only 11 investigations have been conducted. Under the law, the commission cannot investigate unless someone complains!

I am asking you, dear reader, to do something about that. If you believe that Michael Lowry -- asserted to be "profoundly corrupt" by the Moriarty tribunal and a tax cheat by the Revenue Commissioners -- is telling the God honest truth, then ignore the following.

This is how you complain. It must be in writing.

"Subject to section five of the Ethics Act, I wish to make a complaint about Michael Lowry's registerable interests with respect to undisclosed lands near Wigan."

Sign it and post it to Mr Kieran Coughlan, Clerk of the Dail, Houses of the Oireachtas, Kildare Street, Dublin 2.

That's all you have to do. The clerk will then forward the complaint to the Committee of Members' Interests of the Dail who have the option to send it to the Standards Commission.

The commission can then initiate an investigation to find out if the 20 acres are worth more than €13,000 and should have been disclosed.

If Lowry is found to have contravened the Ethics Acts, the maximum penalty is 30 days suspension from the Dail without pay.

It's the principle of it. If thousands of people get into the habit of officially complaining about integrity in public life, we can do something useful instead of always just giving out.

I'll let you know how many people decided to do something and actually officially complained next Sunday.

Sunday Independent

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