| 18°C Dublin

Ben Dunne talks of the road to recovery and how corruption is alive in politics


Ben Dunne

Ben Dunne

Ben Dunne

Ben Dunne is a changed man. Even if the world hasn't changed with him. The maverick -- who made headlines worldwide when a cocaine-fuelled binge with two hookers in his hotel suite ended in a stand-off with US police on a hotel balcony -- pushes his full Irish breakfast to one side.

"Do you mind if I don't eat this?" he asks politely of the breakfast I'd taken the liberty of pre-ordering him.

"I've cut out all the bad stuff," he explains. "Pasta, white bread. I haven't eaten a potato since January 5."

Following a recent health scare, the big man has lost two stone on a clean-living, healthy lifestyle. He walks to work and toes the line of a strict low-carb diet.

A world away from the notorious figure whose antics in sex, drugs and politics provided the nation with some of the greatest so-called 'marmalade-dropper' front pages of our time, he says he changed his ways as he has some unfinished business. "I enjoy life too much. I want to stick around for a while."

Some will shudder when they hear Ben Dunne has unfinished business. And rightly so. There's nothing more fearful than a man with nothing to lose.

Indeed, after being one of the key players that set in motion the Irish tribunals that cost taxpayers millions of euro and brought down some of the most powerful men in Irish business and politics, he has decided to bring out a 'tell-all' book.

"I'm writing my life story at the moment," he says almost as soon as we sit down. "My son is my ghost writer. He is an attorney in America. We will have on record my side of the story. Which I think will be . . ." he smiles, "the only way it will get out is if it's commercially advantageous.

"I'm not going to let my story go out and not make money out of it. So we'll put the book together first and then we'll see what the publishers think of it. The proof of the pudding will be when it's written."

Sometimes the father and son will sit for hours at a time, documenting the past. His son steering the way through years of a life spent mingling in the corridors of power with the great, the good and the ugly side of ambition.

"My son said to me, 'Look, Dad, it would be terrible -- you've had an extraordinary life -- for no record of it to exist. Because there's an awful lot of things that people don't know how they came about..' And he said we should put it together. So we've been at it now for six months and we're getting there.

"I'm answering all the questions and if I'm in the right mood I could sit down and talk for three or four hours. The longer it takes the better it will be. I have a few ideas what I'll call it, it will come to us in time."

He has made sure his relationship with his children is closer and more personal than the one he had with his own father, Ben Dunne Snr.

"I had numerous great conversations with my dad about business -- but nothing too deep about father and son. I have a far deeper relationship with my son today."

His father taught him everything he knows. But a bitter and highly publicised feud over the late entrepreneur's empire left Ben out in the cold -- despite him reaching the elusive €1bn turnover mark whilst he was at the helm -- leaving the rest of his siblings to move the business forward.

"I would think my father would be very disappointed with Dunnes Stores today. He was an old-fashioned retailer who was all about detail and he spent an awful lot of time in the stores, but that's all changed.

"I still go in and have a look around the stores, but If I owned it I think I'd be committing hari-kari," he chuckles as he mimics sticking a knife into his large chest.

I ask him of his public fallout with his older sister Margaret. "It's all water under the bridge. I speak to my sister regularly now. We have a very normal brother/sister relationship, we talk like a brother and sister should talk.

"She enquires about my wife and children and we stay well away from talking about business. I'm sure when she reads this she is going to be surprised but I'm just being honest. If my sister asked me I would give her answers like this.

"I haven't spoken to or seen my brother Frank in many years. I can do nothing about it. If he wants to meet me he knows where I am. I would happily meet him. But I have no grievances."

The black sheep of the family, he always did things differently -- including speaking to the press. The famous 'Ben Dunne School of PR' reaction to the cocaine and hooker scandal saved him his reputation and endeared him to an otherwise horrified public.

"When I arrived home there were loads of reporters outside my house. And I remember a referee I knew, Peter Redding, telling me that one of the most important things about dealing with a crowd of people is you can't let them get behind you. If they get behind and in front of you then you lose control. The secret is you speak to one guy and give your instructions, so his words came to my mind and I saw the media one by one."

His wife took more than crafty pr skills: "You can imagine how my wife coped. She was the only one who actually told me exactly what she thought of me and that's what a good woman is for. She said get your life in order or else."

This year they are 39 years together.

"We made a commitment when we got married and we never expected the turbulences that we went through and the easy thing to do was to separate or to get divorced but we had four children and we just hung in there."

But trust is a fragile thing and was the hardest thing to win back.

"What I learned is that you might find yourself improved and reformed but don't expect the people around you to recognise that. It takes a lot longer for them to recognise you've improved. When you decide to turn over a new chapter of your life, that's where I think it's at its rockiest.

"That is why I say you must do it for yourself because when you're doing it for anyone else it will fail.

"People who go on straight and narrow for the sake of their wife, the first row and the next thing the guy is gone off the rails again. So do it for yourself and trust will be built up over time."

He says he took the same approach to the tribunal. To be honest and everything else would fall into place. Or fall to pieces.

"I was a one-man show. I went to the tribunal and I wasn't trying to protect anyone, so I went in and answered the questions to the very best of my knowledge truthfully."

I ask if he was looking for something in Charlie Haughey that he was perhaps lacking growing up. His father was consistently working, away in hotels, his life was about the business. The details of their close friendship seemed to transcend financial gain.

"I wasn't looking for a father figure in Charlie Haughey. It just showed I was crazy -- which I had no doubt about at the time -- I was crazy. I was using cocaine, I was unbalanced, I was leading a hectic life. But I've no regrets."

He recalls his good humour: "I remember I was coming home on a flight from America to Ireland and I had arranged to see him on the Sunday morning but the flight had been delayed and we were on board at 2am and I realised I wouldn't make it.

"So I went to the pay phone on the plane but I had no change and it wouldn't take a credit card. I reverse-charged the call and asked for the Irish Taoiseach and Charlie chuckled when he picked up the phone, saying: 'When one of the richest men in Ireland is reversing charges to the Taoiseach, it shows you the state the country is in.'"

Would he still talk to Michael Lowry? "I would talk to Lowry, yes. We meet. Sometimes we bump into one another."

Do you talk to Noel Smyth? "I do, of course. He's never asked me for help. But absolutely we still talk, I was speaking to him only recently and asking him if everything was ok. I played golf with him less than six months ago. He appeared to be ok.

"You only give advice if you're asked and I was never asked by him. It's tough on most people right now. I would think that he is capable of coping with it.

"Lowry has been hammered for 15 years and he has gone through the whole lot and it has taken its toll. But taking everything into account, he has dealt with it very well. He's kept his seat in the Dail and that shows a bit of talent."

He brushes off the furore that the Tipperary politician caused over his continuous meetings with various ministers: "Ah for God's sake. Look they all know one another.

"Business is within business hours and outside of business hours, you know. I mean God forbid if something happened to Michael Lowry -- all of these politicians would stand up and say what a great man he is.

"Even when Haughey died everyone who disliked him intensely, they all had his few nice words to say about him. And there's Bertie Ahern who is being ostracised at the moment but, God forbid, his day will come as well and they'll all stand up and speak highly of him."

But do the findings of Moriarty send out the right message?

"We have to think about realism. This idea of giving the right message, the worst thing in the world to be is to be naive. And Lowry is elected to represent a constituency down in Tipperary and if his constituents want something he has the very same right to meet a minister as any other TD.

"And if the Government is looking for job creation and they decide to cut Denis O'Brien out and ostracise him, the only people they are fooling is themselves. Denis O'Brien is an entrepreneur. He is a job creator. Jimmy Deenihan (The Minister for Arts) has spoken to me on numerous occasions. And I was found corrupt. But Jimmy Deenihan is speaking to me as a friend."

So what does he think helped that corrupt environment to grow? "It is well known that that sort of stuff is going on all over Europe. Unfortunately democracy isn't a perfect way either. In democracy there is a weakness."

Is a little bit of corruption good? "Well my father used to say, 'People in the stores need to feel it, steal it, or buy it. You have to give them the three options and the secret lies in how to get most of them to buy it, not to steal it and not to feel it.'"

Does he think it's still going on today? Without a moment's hesitation he replies: "No doubt about it. No question."

Why did he give Charles J Haughey the IR£1m? "He asked me would I give him a helping hand."

I tell him I know the financial detail but still, why come to his rescue?

"If you only knew the amount of people who I have given money to," he replies.

"There is a situation where somebody walked into my office only last week and I can't talk about it, but I'm hoping I was expecting to get news, I thought I would have it today. But I gave someone €20,000 for a really, really sad case. I felt that this deserved it."

It had nothing to do with politics, he says. "The one thing that the tribunal has done is it has stopped politicians asking me for money, but not other people. I still believe it does go on."

He mindlessly reaches across the table and takes a slice of white bread and butters it before delving in for a bite. Let's hope he's not as weak with his other reformed ways.