Sunday 25 February 2018

Top lawyer accuses Fine Gael of 'double standards'

JOHN DRENNAN

ONE of the country's most eminent lawyers left Fine Gael party chiefs red-faced and angry when he accused the party of double standards in relation to political funding, singling out "at least 15 recorded donations" to the party in just two years by the businessman Denis O'Brien.



The onslaught against alleged "double standards" in Fine Gael was made by senior counsel Michael O'Higgins, representing former senator Therese Ridge at a Fine Gael Disciplinary Committee hearing after which the party whip was removed from the Clondalkin, Dublin-based county councillor.

Cllr Ridge continues to strongly refute the claim that she is "an improper person'' as ruled by the hierarchy of her former party.

The internal Fine Gael report detailing the party's investigation into Ms Ridge shows a robust defence of her conduct made on her behalf by Mr O'Higgins.

She has confirmed that she has lodged an appeal against the removal of the party whip and potential expulsion from the party.

Ms Ridge was the subject of an adverse finding in the Mahon tribunal report last March, which found she had accepted £1,000 in election funding in 1992 from lobbyist Frank Dunlop.

That led to the Fine Gael disciplinary hearing which produced the report that found against her.

The Fine Gael report reveals that Mr O'Higgins said that any judgement by the internal party body on the former FG senator should take the approach of the party in the 1990s into account.

The FG report states: "Mr O'Higgins SC furthermore referred to the perilous state of the party during the 1990s (having debts in excess of £1.3m); that by the time the party had got back into government in the 1994-97 period that the financial difficulties had been largely abated; that the emergence of Denis O'Brien as a significant and frequent donor to the party (at least 15 donations between 1995 and 1996 while at the same time being an applicant for the hugely lucrative GSM Licence) as well as the Telenor donation of $50,000 -- all showed a different side to Fine Gael and an illustration of how things were done at the time."

It continues: "In essence Mr O'Higgins argument was that it would be an 'absurdity' and a matter of political hypocrisy for Fine Gael to be taking the high ground now with Cllr Ridge in respect of an event which occurred 20 years ago and when you take into account how things appear to have been done at the time."

The committee stated that it was conscious that ''adverse findings were made concerning Mr O'Brien'' at the Moriarty tribunal.

"The committee furthermore acknowledges tribunal findings that Mr O'Brien personally or through his business interests, made a series of donations to the party particularly by way of support for fundraising events organised at local constituency level or nationally."

However, it adds: "Fundamentally the report made absolutely no adverse findings against either Mr O'Brien or Fine Gael with regard to such donations."

It also noted that "the Telenor donation was referred to by Mr O'Higgins in derogatory terms with a view to embellishing the argument that the party somewhat had double standards".

In her response to the judgement, Ms Ridge noted that not only had Denis O'Brien "and his associated companies given donations directly or indirectly of 55K in the period 1995/1996'' but that the McCracken tribunal ''established that Ben Dunne paid 130,000 to Fine Gael".

Ms Ridge remains anxious to "not for a moment cast any aspersion on any person involved in any of the matters above".

But she did ask "how many of these payments would pass the test applied to me? Namely that taking any payment which even created a perception that it was anything other than wholesome or legitimate was wrong."

In her response to the inquiry's findings, Ms Ridge also noted that, "when the history of Fine Gael comes to be written it shall record that the only person within the party to be disciplined . . . was Therese Ridge, a humble county councillor elected in the ward of Clondalkin, a place where the party never had any electoral ambitions. Every other echelon of the party remains untouched."

Sunday Independent

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