Monday 15 October 2018

Ahern's fears over Frank Connolly links

LIAM COLLINS, JIM CUSACK EXCLUSIVE THE Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has raised his concerns about the executive director of the Centre for Public Inquiry with its billionaire backer, Chuck Feeney, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The Centre's executive director, Frank Connolly, is a brother of the Colombia Three fugitive, Niall Connolly, Sinn Fein's former representative in Cuba.

Frank Connolly has also been questioned by gardai on the basis that he, too, had travelled on a false passport to Colombia in 2000.

Now senior Government sources have confirmed that Mr Ahern raised his concerns with Mr Feeney when the two men met at Government Buildings in August.

The Centre for Public Inquiry claims to "independently promote the highest standards of integrity, ethics and accountability across Irish public and business life" and to investigate and "publicise breaches of those standards where they arise".

However, its critics are deeply suspicious of Frank Connolly and are wary of his links to Sinn Fein.

Mr Connolly, when a journalist, wrote a damning article which claimed that the Taoiseach had taken a large cash bribe from a property developer. It transpired that the article was entirely fictional and was based upon the fantasies of Mr Connolly's close source, a Walter Mitty-type character called Denis 'Starry' O'Brien. Mr Ahern successfully sued Denis 'Starry' O'Brien for libel and proved the falsity of the article in open court.

In June this year, under privilege in the House of Lords, Unionist peer Lord Laird branded Mr Connolly's Centre "Sinn Fein's intelligence-gathering operation" in the Irish Republic.

In the past, Mr Connolly has dismissed Lord Laird's claims, which Sinn Fein has also described as "scurrilous and unfounded".

The Centre is funded by US-based Atlantic Philanthropies, which has provided funding of ?4m over five years. Atlantic Philanthropies is a charity funded by Irish-American billionaire, Chuck Feeney. Among its eminent directors is Thomas Mitchell, the distinguished former Provost of Trinity College Dublin.

The charity gave Frank Connolly ?4m to set up his Centre for Public Inquiry.

But the Sunday Independent can also reveal that the charitable foundation has initiated inquiries with Irish and Colombian authorities into Frank Connolly's visit to Colombia on a false passport in 2000.

Atlantic Philanthropies is understood to be now even more alarmed because of the Taoiseach's recently expressed concerns.

A senior Government source confirmed to the Sunday Independent last week that Mr Ahern had met with Mr Feeney, at Mr Feeney's request, in Government Buildings at the end of August to discuss a number of unrelated issues.

Mr Ahern pointed out to him that the Government had set up several tribunals of inquiry which were doing the work the Centre also claimed to be concentrating on.

The Centre has acquired an enhanced public profile because its chairman is Mr Justice Feargus Flood, the highly respected former chairman of the Flood tribunal.

Asked yesterday about the allegation in the House of Lords that the Centre for Public Inquiry was a front for Sinn Fein-IRA intelligence-gathering, Mr Justice Flood replied: "I would have nothing whatsoever to do with the IRA or Sinn Fein, although Sinn Fein is a political party. I would have nothing whatsoever."

In reply to a question as to whether or not he knew of Frank Connolly's visit to Colombia on a false passport, Judge Flood said: "You can ask Frank Connolly about that. It is his business. I know nothing about it, nothing whatsoever."

Asked if he had raised with Connolly the issue of the trip on a false passport, the 77-year-old judge replied: "No. It is not my affair." He was then asked if he did not think it might be appropriate to raise such an issue, he said: "No, I do not. Good night," and hung up the phone.

Almost 10 months after its establishment was first announced, the Centre for Public Inquiry last week published its first report - about an already well-publicised planning controversy surrounding Trim Castle in Co Meath.

Yesterday, in an exclusive statement to the Sunday Independent, the developers of a new hotel next to the castle took issue with the fairness and balance of the report.

Asked yesterday if he would care to comment on the statement by the developers, that the report was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced, Judge Flood replied: "No."

David and Lynda O'Brien, on behalf of D O'Brien Developments, stated: "While there is a great deal of public debate and commentary arising out of the location of our hotel adjacent to Trim Castle, the fact of the matter is that the project is as a consequence of a public tendering process initiated by Trim Town Council and Meath County Councilin 2001.

"We welcome that there is no suggestion that the company or its directors have at any time acted in a manner other than with absolute integrity. It is a fact that at all times we have acted within the law of the State and under local and national planning regulation.

"We refute the findings of the report of the self-appointed watchdog, the Centre for Public Inquiry. It is a misleading and flawed report.

"In its report, the Centre for Public Inquiry failed to represent our views, even though we provided a great deal of information to the inquiry . . . As a consequence, much of the coverage and commentary on the report is both inaccurate and unbalanced.

"The researcher who spoke to us in the course of the compilation of the report gave an undertaking that the report would be fair and balanced. We would ask if Justice Fergus Flood believes he has presided over a fair and balanced process. For example, in the reference to our renewed application for planning permission for a 68-bedroom hotel, the report failed in any guise to note that this had no bearing whatsoever on the facade or the floor-area footprint of the hotel.

"Photographs are used throughout the report in the most damaging and controversial manner possible, to paint the hotel in the worst possible light. Had other images been used they would provide a more positive perspective on the impact of the hotel on the castle.

"This report is not a statutory document. We would therefore be pleased to co-operate with a fair and balanced inquiry of the State or a properly elected body.

"Given the nature of the tendering process, initiated by Trim Town Council and Meath County Council, we have been enthusiastic both about winning the tender and developing our project to the highest standards.

"We wholly understand that people have misgivings in relation to the heritage value and preservation of Trim Castle. It is our every intention to fully respect the castle and its environs. Furthermore, our initiative means that people who might never enjoy or experience our heritage will now get an opportunity to do so.

"We will be pleased to work with the authorities and with balanced environmental and heritage groups in doing everything within our remit to preserve and promote Trim Castle. However, we make no apology for responding to a public tendering process, for our project, or for bringing employment and economic benefit to the area."

In the past, Frank Connolly has dismissed claims that he travelled to Colombia on a passport in the name of Frank Johnston.

The Sunday Independent, however, understands that the passport application forms were signed by the same person in Northern Ireland who signed the passport used by Niall Connolly.

According to reports from Colombia, Frank Connolly was accompanied on his trip by Padraig Wilson, a former leading IRA bomb-maker.

Wilson was the main point of contact between the IRA and General de Chastelain leading up to last week's act of IRA decommissioning. He is a member of the IRA's 'General Headquarters Staff' and was one of the leaders of the IRA's bombing campaign up to his arrest in the late 1980s.

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