| 16°C Dublin

Carol Hunt: Integrity a cornerstone of Colm Mac Eochaidh's colourful career

There has been quite a bit of judgemental (if you'll excuse the pun) sniffling in certain quarters over comments made by High Court Judge Colm Mac Eochaidh last week.

During a seven-hour emergency hearing at the High Court (at the end of which lawyers for Dennis O'Brien and Paddy McKillen won a temporary injunction against the Sunday Times publishing confidential information), Justice Mac Eochaidh noted that Mr O'Brien was in a "peculiar position" to now be seeking the protection of the courts when he had made such "contemptible" comments about Justice Moriarty following the tribunal report in 2011.

When Justice Mac Eochaidh asked O'Brien's barrister if he had consulted with his client on the ambivalence of his position, and when told the matter had not arisen in consultations, Mac Eochaidh is reported to have said, "it should have".

He did insist, however, that O'Brien would still have the "full and independent protection of his court".

In some quarters Justice Mac Eochaidh's comments have been described as an "outrageous abuse of position" and "petty point-scoring". Even his right to continue in office has been questioned.

So, why did a respected judge, straight talking, yet generally viewed as fair and honourable, make the comments that he did, during the case discussed above?

Last June, Mac Eochaidh, then a senior counsel, was appointed to the High Court by President Higgins. If his name rings a bell with you, you'd be spot on. In 1995, together with environmentalist Michael Smith, Mac Eochaidh placed a small ad at the back of the Irish Times offering a £10,000 reward for "information leading to the conviction or indictment of a person or persons for offences relating to land rezoning in the Republic of Ireland".

In an interview last year with TheJournal.ie, Mac Eochaidh explained that as he was extremely concerned about the environmental impact of the building boom (he was involved with An Taisce) and "believed that corruption was a problem in Irish political life and in particular in the planning process", he offered the reward in the hope that the media would "pay attention" and begin investigating.

"There had been a failure of the gardai and a failure of investigative journalism. That was a huge problem. When these two branches of society fail, what's left?" he said.

In 2002, Mac Eochaidh failed in his attempt to gain a seat as a Fine Gael candidate in Dublin South East, but his election posters made clear what his priorities were.

They read: 'Corruption. Sleaze. He did something about it.'

And he most certainly did. The ad that was placed in the Irish Times, and the investigations made by himself and Smith in its wake, led to the longest ever tribunal in the history of the State. Since then, they have lifted the lid on an insidious culture of corruption in Ireland, which had previously been studiously ignored by all.

Though there has been – justified – criticism of the cost of tribunals, they have washed their faces; as political scientist Elaine Byrne noted on Twitter: "McCracken, Moriarty & Mahon tribunals cost the State €500m. BUT they brought €1 BILLION into the exchequer through tax, interest & penalties." This as well as convincing many people (but not all) that tax evasion and corrupt acts are crimes that will no longer be tolerated.

Even though he is only 49 years of age, Mac Eochaidh has already done the State great service in his commitment to exposing endemic corruption, cronyism and the side of Irish political/business life that has us placed so high on the Global Corruption Index (25th out of 176).

Such dedication to say truth to power, no matter what the consequences, requires great courage and integrity; so we shouldn't be surprised when Mac Eochaidh is quick to defend the integrity of his colleagues engaged in unearthing possible corruption.

The Lowry tapes – published by the Sunday Independent and broadcast by TV3 – clearly reveal that Justice Moriarty was thwarted in his attempts to get at the truth during his investigations. (It is, frankly, quite astonishing that these tapes have been practically ignored by the national broadcaster, with RTE Current Affairs managing editor David Nally – following repeated appeals for RTE to cover this new information –tweeting that "criticism of rte [sic] is silly conspiracy theories. The tape is simply not an advance".)

Incidentally, Justice Mac Eochaidh was also in the news at the end of February, when he dismissed an appeal by Nama against a ruling by Emily O'Reilly that the agency is a public authority and therefore subject to freedom of environmental information requests.

He added that Nama's contention that it was not a public authority was "absurd" – no doubt a relief to those who still believe in the principles of transparency, openness and freedom of information.

And the £10,000 reward initially offered by Mac Eochaidh and Smith? It was never claimed! But Mac Eochaidh is confident that it achieved its purpose – "which was to ask questions about corruption in Irish political life". And who can argue with that?

Irish Independent