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Greens make political hay while the sun shines hard on junior minister

LIKE many a robust politician, Frank Fahey is not short of enemies. He is a TD in a constituency famed for its rows, a junior minister, and independently wealthy thanks to a string of wise property investments. And as Fianna Fail politicians go, Fahey has attracted controversy like bees to honey but he has always weathered the storms.

But when the latest bout of anti-Fahey stories began to hit the newspapers in recent months, the junior justice minister decided he wasn't taking it lying down.

The current bout started with the publication of the Register of Interests in April, which lists the shareholdings and interests of every TD and Senator in the Oireachtas. The latest register showed that in 2005, he was a shareholder in 20 properties and developments, including apartments and houses in Galway, Clare, Kildare, Dublin, Athlone and Limerick; two lots of development land in Galway; a share in a residential property in Boston, USA; Brussels; a house and site in Villefranche, France; and a deposit paid on a string of properties in four resorts in Portugal. Not bad for a former secondary school teacher from Gort.

But the latest reports suggested that he had again overlooked a property, in Boston, which was owned by a firm in which he had a share. Frank Fahey batted off the accusation, saying he had no beneficial interest in the property.

Then came the grubby story of his involvement in a Moscow hairdressing salon in the Nineties, redolent with images of heavy-handed mafia and extortion rackets.

On the face of it, it was a grubby story of an Irish company's efforts to move in on Russia post-perestroika only to run out after the business collapsed. But Frank Fahey's wife Ethelle was an investor in the business and the "news angle" was that Fahey, then a senator, had failed to declare his spouse's interest as required under ethics legislation.

Frank Fahey initially told one newspaper he had "no involvement" in the venture. Nor had he broken ethics rules because, at that time, he pointed out, senators and TDs were not obliged to declare their spouse's business interests.

That would have been that but for moles who came out of the woodwork to allege that he was "involved". A businessman who had dealings with Frank Fahey came forward to the newspaper to disclose numerous contacts with Fahey in relation to the Moscow business. The newspaper also got a legal letter and company minutes, which named the minister in connection with the salon.

Mr Fahey issued a lengthy statement to the newspaper. He denied saying that he had "no involvement" in the hairdressing salon. Nor had never made a secret of being involved, he said, and had travelled to Moscow "as an ordinary citizen to support the investors including my wife who were attempting to set up a hair salon there".

He claimed that "the whole thing was part of a regional political campaign by a number of individuals to do damage to my integrity, character and good name".

But he didn't stop there. Mr Fahey, a survivor of numerous political controversies, thought this one had gone far enough.

He took the unusual step of calling in the Gardai to find out who was behind this supposedly orchestrated smear campaign.

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Presumably Mr Fahey did not take that step lightly. As Minister of State in Justice, he would be familiar with the hours of Garda time wasted on fruitless investigations. There was also a risk that a minister asking the Gardai to investigate tales of a political vendetta could impact in a constituency where detectives are up to their oxters in rural crime and attacks on the elderly.

By the time he rang the Gardai last month to complain of a political vendetta against him, he was, say political sources, at the end of his tether.

The story of Mr Fahey's involvement in the Moscow hairdressing salon appears to have perturbed the junior minister more than any other controversy. Apart from the protagonists in the sorry tale of the Moscow hairdressing salon, few would have known about it - Frank Fahey is notorious for playing his cards close to his chest, even within his own party.

He believed that he was the victim of a political campaign in Galway constituency, in which he was followed and inaccurate details of his business interests circulated to his political rivals and the media.

Mr Fahey apparently had his own suspicions as to who was behind it.

In a statement to Gardai, it was alleged that at least two local people had a hand in leaking information about him. The suspects were not politicians, nor had they any overt political affiliations. The purpose of the leaks was to undermine him in the run-up to the general election. The motive, he suspected, was personal. Sources said that in the past, Mr Fahey had crossed swords with one of the men. Now he was paying the price.

Investigative sources are not optimistic that Mr Fahey will be vindicated. The Garda inquiry has yielded nothing of substance so far. Claims that he was subjected to surveillance have come to nothing. It is believed unlikely that prosecutions will follow.

"Some people would say that he is devastated by the whole controversy. He has done nothing wrong but while this innuendo is going on people are going to continue asking questions," said one political colleague.

His detractors wonder whether Mr Fahey's complaint to Gardai was a smokescreen designed to deflect attention from the stories that have been doing the rounds about him.

Few are convinced that Mr Fahey's current travails are anything other than the result of a surfeit of grudges that have built up against him over the years.

Frank Fahey has had a rocky ride in politics since he was first elected in 1982. He was Minister of Sport in 1987 but lost his seat four years later and was relegated to the Senate. He returned in 1997 and became Minister for the Marine in 2000. Always one to watch his constituency, soon afterwards he announced that the National Marine Research Laboratory was moving from Dublin to Galway.

He was demoted in 2002 to junior minister, in the more low profile post of Minister for Labour Affairs and then to his current post in Justice, where he has responsibility for equality issues.

As Minister for the Marine, he annoyed fishermen when he assisted Kevin McHugh, the super-rich fishing magnate, to launch the world's largest trawler, Atlantic Dawn. He drew the wrath of Mayo farmers when he granted Shell a foreshore licence that allowed it build the Corrib gas pipeline across land owned by local farmers.

In a Galway constituency consumed by rivalries, his property portfolio has long been the subject of comment. He started with rental properties in Galway and in the late Nineties started buying up condos in Florida, worth about $300,000, only to sell them all few years ago because they weren't making him any money.

He attracted more negative publicity when one of the condos wasn't declared to the Standards in Public Offices Commission. He said he didn't have a beneficial interest in it, but his name appeared in the records because he had gone guarantor on the property for a friend and driver, the late John Cahill. But he declared the property in his register of interests the following year, after which he sold the lot.

"They were rented very little, to be honest with you. That's why we got rid of them," he said at the time.

Mr Fahey's property portfolio is entirely legitimate and the result of canny business acumen. In the current climate, there are plenty willing to make political capital of it. To the fore is Trevor Sargent, the Green Party leader, who in a startling denunciation in the Dail three weeks ago accused the Mr Fahey of "tax avoidance" in building up his empire - no crime in itself - and more damningly, of being "a dodgy builder".

Mr Sargent set his sights on Mr Fahey long ago, over his ministerial involvement in the Corrib gas pipeline. Over the past few months, morsels of information about the minister have been dripping into the Greens' head office. The newspaper headlines of the past two months gave Mr Sargent the impetus to gather them all together and make political hay while the sun shone on Fahey.

ON June 28, he stood up in the Dail and flung a litany of allegations of tax avoidance and general dodginess at the Junior Justice Minister. "What message does it send when a Minister of State like Deputy Fahey is able to avoid tax in building up a multimillion euro property empire," asked Sargent.

"Mr Fahey," he continued, "has 20 properties in Ireland and seven abroad. He owns half a share in a property company and has stocks and work in progress worth ?1.4m. He has a hazy recollection of receiving donations from Monarch Properties. He failed to declare interests in a Moscow hairdressing business."

He is "under investigation by the Ombudsman for giving 75 per cent of total State compensation for fisheries vessels lost at sea to two constituents and giving half of Ireland's mackerel quota to just one boat, the Atlantic Dawn".

Would the Taoiseach, he asked, "stand idly by" while dodgy builders and dodgy members of the Government parties "set the real standards for government?"

In a final embarrassment for Mr Fahey, last Thursday the Dail Committee on Procedures and Privileges ruled against a complaint from the junior minister.

While his FF colleagues backed him, opposition party members of the committee banded together to declare Mr Sargent within his rights.

Mr Sargent has been amassing a file on Mr Fahey which he intends to submit to the Dail's Ethics Committee. Its contents remains to be seen but Green Party sources admit there is no deep throat or smoking gun but a cumulative drip feed of stories that probably would never get to see the light of day were it not for Mr Fahey being a bit of a lame duck at the moment.

Mr Fahey may have gone to the Gardai to put an end to

'Few are convinced that Mr Fahey's current travails are anything other than the result of a surfeit of grudges that have built up against him'

what he believes is a damaging mis-information campaign.

But there can be no conspiracy in the report of Emily O'Reilly, the Ombudsman, into a controversial fishing compensation scheme he introduced while Minister of the Marine.

Mr Fahey announced the scheme to restore fishing quotas to fishermen who had lost their vessels at sea. But of the 67 applicants, only six were compensated. Two were in Frank Fahey's constituency and received 75 per cent of the compensation on offer. Not only that, but the Minister had met the two fishermen before introducing the scheme and told them they had been approved before the closing date for the scheme had even elapsed. The unsuccessful applicants included a Donegal family who lost a father and son, along with three crewmen, at sea in 1981.

Jim Higgins, the Fine Gael MEP, was amongst those who started asking questions. He was told that the European Commission had not been informed about the scheme. If the Ombudsman's earlier description of the scheme as "seriously deficient and flawed" is anything to go by, her report is unlikely to be positive.

It is due to be published within a fortnight.

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