Wednesday 17 July 2019

The mogul who gives TDs 'a pain in their face' on suicide

Noel Smyth on why suicide is a cause close to his heart and his role in Haughey's downfall, writes Maeve Sheehan

CAUSE: Suicide is preventable, says Noel Smyth. Photo: David Conachy
CAUSE: Suicide is preventable, says Noel Smyth. Photo: David Conachy
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

More than 40 years ago, property developer Noel Smyth met his wife Anne Marie, and her father, David Murphy, entered his life.

"David was a manic depressive and he became manic when he was 29," says Smyth. He had a good doctor, and received good care but "to a large extent, they didn't really know how to treat him". Over the course of his life he had 54 electric shock treatments, and was on lithium and Valium for most of it.

"He was an extraordinary man, gentle, and he basically never had a long period of time when it didn't affect him," he says. "So, after we got married, and had a few kids, there was a standard thing where David would be in St Pat's every couple of months - so much so that my two older children, Alannah and Gareth, can well remember being picked up from school by Anne Marie and doing their homework in St Pat's for a few hours every day for about six weeks. And then David would be out again."

His father-in-law eventually took an overdose and, although the pills didn't kill him, days later he suffered a massive stroke and died aged 66. "He had a lifetime of torture," says Smyth. "I find it hard even to talk about him now."

After David's death, Smyth and his wife started funding research into what was then a still taboo subject of suicide and mental illness. In 2003, they founded the 3Ts with Professor Kevin Malone, raising their own funds for research, lobbying and training.

His starting point is that suicide can be prevented. Smyth has been lobbying the Government for years to consider setting up a suicide prevention authority just as the Road Safety Authority operates to prevent road deaths. He proposes a state-funded independent agency that would unite the "patchwork" mental health services, raise awareness, train and regulate. Another goal is to establish a much-needed 24/7 mental health clinic.

CAUSE: Suicide is preventable, says Noel Smyth. Photo: David Conachy
CAUSE: Suicide is preventable, says Noel Smyth. Photo: David Conachy

"There is a view that if somebody is going to die by suicide, they're going to die and you can't stop it. We take the absolute opposite view of that. We say there are hundreds of suicides that can be prevented," he says.

Smyth is not your typical social advocate, as he strides into the Westin hotel. The lawyer and property developer was one of the country's richest developers during the boom. His practice, Noel Smyth and Partners, acted for some of the biggest corporate clients. He is known as the man who forced Charles Haughey to admit to receiving the €1.3m that brought him down. He has been involved "in all sorts of businesses, and court cases and with all sorts of people", he says. He is also a committed Catholic, who believes "you can be as tough as you like but fairness and equity must always prevail".

He has hounded politicians for years about suicide prevention. "I think they've got a pain in their face, my telling them that basically they don't care, and that they're saying 'oh yeah, we do'. And I'm saying 'well, do something about it'."

Recently, there has been a shift. The campaign for better services has gathered momentum. GPs talk about a mental health crisis. Suicide among children is increasing, yet services remain under-funded and under-staffed, with around 2,500 waiting for assessment. The Government has promised to start rolling out a 24-hour service "early in 2018".

But according to Smyth the problem remains that "at this juncture, there is no overall policy or plan. All the major parties talk about the fact that mental illness is going to be one of their main issues and they are going to bring forward new programmes and research and all the rest of it. They never do.

"You'll be told that the numbers of people dying by suicide has reduced and we're on top of it. Rubbish. I mean, the reality is we are still losing more young people from suicide than any of the developed countries around us. We don't seem to have the will to understand that it is preventable."

He reveals that five years ago, he went to the then Minister Kathleen Lynch with an offer of €300,000 towards the cost of a €600,000 independent audit of the mental health service to highlight the gaps in the system. They had the funds ready and the professional auditors lined up. He proposed a 50/50 project wih the Government, "to make sure that it didn't end up on someone's shelf," he says. The minister didn't bite. Smyth says his offer is still on the table. (Smyth also offered to donate the site for a national children's hospital - he sold the site last year at a loss.)

He thinks politicians are "scared out of their living daylights" of suicide. Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach, got into "huge trouble" during the crazy Celtic Tiger years when he wondered why people who moan about the economy didn't commit suicide.

Smyth says Bertie "sent" for him afterwards. "He made a gaffe. And he was now trying to repair it, on the basis of saying that he would support us in whatever we were trying to do. I said, 'I can't account for what you have said. All I can say is if you do help the 3Ts, I'll thank you and say you're a great guy. But that's all I can do'," he said.

One former Taoiseach who maybe should have listened more to Smyth was the late Charles Haughey. Smyth was Ben Dunne's lawyer, back in the day when the supermarket tycoon gave the former Taoiseach €1.3m to help with his "living expenses". Dunne's siblings found out about the money and used it to push Ben out of the family business. Smyth forewarned Haughey, who worried that his gift would become public, and eventually it did. The rest, as they say, is history,

Even after the McCracken Tribunal had started, Smyth continued to secretly meet Haughey, urging him to come clean about the money.

"The fear at that point in time was that I could have been asked, which I wasn't, was I off tipping Charlie off, which I was. I was trying to help him, and say for f**** sake, would you cop on, it's going to come out, understand what's there," said Smyth.

Haughey didn't take Smyth's advice. Smyth, under oath, disclosed what he knew, in a pivotal moment that ultimately forced the former Taoiseach to confess.

Smyth, who was subpoenaed by the McCracken Tribunal, says he "didn't have a choice". "I've always taken being a lawyer more seriously than anything else," he says. "There would be certain people that would basically feel that maybe I could have turned a blind eye and been less lawyerish than I was. I don't see it that way. I love the law. I believe in it and I make no apology for doing what I believed was right," he said.

He thinks Haughey created the circumstances of his own downfall, although he doesn't believe he was corrupt. "Not at all," he scoffs. "Haughey was a great character, great bonhomie, he felt that if somebody wanted to give him money, you know he had a lifestyle to lead, why not? He liked the Charvet shirts and he liked the nice wines and he was one of these characters," he says.

"To me, corrupt means that you give someone money to do something for you. He did nothing, as far as I'm aware, for Ben. It was Ben's decision to give him the money and Ben decided that he liked Charlie and he gave it to him."

Smyth says Haughey didn't hold it against him but adds: "While he wasn't out to tear out my guts, he wasn't inviting me out to lunch either."

With stories like these to tell, Smyth has no problem getting attention. When he talks to people about suicide prevention, he say eyes usually glaze over. Not because they are bored but because they are "not comfortable".

"I'm on the golf course and someone says to me, you're involved in that three jobs, is it? I say 'yeah, it's the 3Ts'. That would be on the first hole. I guarantee you, when they get to the bar, they say 'I must tell you something, my daughter, or my son, or my nephew or somebody, died by suicide'."

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