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Truth comes at a high price for the taxpayers and politicians

THE Mahon tribunal finally closed its doors yesterday after nearly 1,000 public sittings, approximately 80 million spoken words, 400 witnesses and 130,000 pages of documents.

But the really important statistic has yet to arrive -- the final cost to the taxpayer.

The inquiry into "certain planning matters and payments" as it was delicately phrased, opened its hearings in November 1997 and was widely predicted to be done and dusted by that Christmas.

Instead it rumbled on for almost 11 gruelling years.

Like the biblical mills of God, it has been grinding away in the background extremely slowly. Often submerged in the most mundane minutiae -- to the near despair of its audience and those tasked with covering it -- the tribunal has, nonetheless, quarried out the ore that has reduced some important reputations to rubble.

And at the same time, it has made millionaires of many of those ministering to its needs, not least the barristers earning thousands of euro a day for their attention to detail, which itself has generated a suspicion as to the need for so much unending detail. Up to the end of last August, the direct cost of the tribunal had been put at €81m to taxpayers.

Against that must be set the large amount of money (at least €35m) generated by matters exposed to the Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau by its enquiries, plus the more nebulous benefits in terms of deterrent effect. People went to jail, after all.

The greater unknown, however, in terms of cost, depends on what are known as 'third party costs'.

These are the legal bills amassed in their own interest by those called as witnesses -- which would normally be fully allowable against the public purse if the witness was adjudged to have been of assistance to the effort to get at the truth about planning corruption in Dublin in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Third-party costs have been estimated at up to €300m, although chairman Judge Alan Mahon last year estimated that the entire tribunal would cost that much -- whereas former Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell warned at the same time that the final bill would come to €1bn.

Truth

What price the truth? The tribunal team, consisting of Judge Mahon and colleagues Gerald Keys and Mary Faherty, now goes away to compile its final report.

Besides making findings of fact, the judges can determine that individual witnesses have obstructed the tribunal -- and refuse them their costs.

This raises the prospect of prominent personages being potentially lumbered with legal bills running into millions of euro, while defraying the final cost to the taxpayer. But, of course, the tribunal also wields enormous power in the findings it will make -- and it can also refer matters to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

There has been a suspicion of perjury at the sworn inquiry, and the bench has had occasion to warn witnesses when it feels it has been trifled with.

Such a warning, many years ago, prompted the collapse in the front presented by Frank Dunlop who, as a result, admitted plying councillors with bribes and began naming names.

Perhaps the first witness to grab the public's attention, however, was James Gogarty, a disgruntled construction firm executive who blew the whistle on payments to former FF environment minister Ray Burke.

On the car journey to one meeting with Burke -- later jailed, and his career ruined -- Gogarty had asked if the donors would get a receipt for their money. The reply has entered the annals: "Will we ****."

Corrupt

Burke was found to have accepted corrupt payments. So too was George Redmond, the former assistant Dublin city and county manager. Both went to jail, as did the late Liam Lawlor, for non co-operation.

But the tribunal reached a climax over the last 18 months as it began to focus on the strange movements of large sums of money into accounts in the name of, or controlled on behalf of, Bertie Ahern.

The then-Taoiseach responded with a direct TV explanation to the people that focussed on a series of alleged "digout" loans and sought to link the payments to his marriage separation. It later transpired, in one case, that Fianna Fail money was paid out to Mr Ahern's former girlfriend, Celia Larkin, although Mr Ahern claimed not to be aware of it.

As the tribunal nexus tightened, Mr Ahern announced in April this year that it had become impossible for him to continue as Taoiseach.

The tribunal thus became Greek tragedy -- and the man who set it up originally to divert political pressure from his new Government finally found himself ensnared in its web.