Sunday 26 January 2020

Jody Corcoran: OK, Enda, this is why there's a fuss about Phil Hogan

The minister can't seem to stop bumping into the businessman criticised by the Moriarty tribunal, writes Jody Corcoran

IT'S a great little country. The disclosure that Michael Lowry had a meeting with Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, just days after publication of the Moriarty Report, while illuminating, is almost irrelevant at another level.



Yes, of course it is relevant that Hogan would deem it appropriate to honour a scheduled meeting with his friend Lowry six days after Lowry had been roundly condemned by Moriarty for having helped to deliver to Denis O'Brien the most lucrative licence ever awarded by the State.

And yes, it also speaks volumes as to the word of Hogan, who, just two days after that again, went into the Dail to boldly declare that he would have "no truck" with anybody so criticised in the report.

But at another level, a meeting between Hogan, Lowry and various vested interests, which was attended by department officials, is neither here nor there. It happens all the time, as the subsequent admissions of Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Health James Reilly confirm.

If you want to know how this great little country of ours really works, you need to look beyond the official schedules of busybody ministers such as Phil Hogan -- or Noonan and Reilly for that matter.

The real business is done in, say, Hartigan's pub, or Lloyd's Brasserie -- as we know from the Moriarty Report -- and also, no doubt, at other locations where such informal encounters occur.

The business done at Hartigan's on Leeson Street -- or "Harto's" as O'Brien referred to it in his diary -- was fascinating. The meeting took place on the day of the All-Ireland hurling final, on September 16, 1995.

When O'Brien turned up by arrangement, he found another pub, Houricans, to be "jammers", so he headed across the road to "Harto's", a pub described by Moriarty as "frequented by the rugby and college fraternity".

In evidence, both Lowry and O'Brien said they did not discuss the GSM licence at Hartigan's that day. But an executive of Telenor, the Norwegian state telephone company that had a 40 per cent stake in O'Brien's consortium, said O'Brien had told him that Lowry had suggested in the pub that Dermot Desmond get involved in the consortium.

Evidence to emerge subsequently showed that on the following day Desmond was, indeed, to get involved.

Now, let us remind you of what happened at Lloyd's Brasserie at Upper Merrion Street in Dublin, a stone's throw from Leinster House, just a month later, on a date in mid-October 1995.

Mark FitzGerald, the son of the former Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald, received a telephone call from O'Brien to arrange the meeting at Lloyd's, which itself is also just a stone's throw from Mark FitzGerald's then office, Sherry FitzGerald, on Merrion Row.

According to his evidence to Moriarty, upon arrival, Mark FitzGerald was "surprised" to find O'Brien sitting at the table with a couple of heavy hitters from Fine Gael.

The heavy hitters were the late Jim Mitchell, a former communications minister, who was by then also working as a consultant to O'Brien's company Esat; and none other than the, by then, former minister Phil Hogan, of all people.

The four men were said to have discussed the GSM competition and, specifically, Michael Lowry's knowledge of the evaluation process that was under way at that stage.

In his same speech, during which he said this time last year

that he would have "no truck" with those criticised by Moriarty, Hogan also sought to present himself as a mere backbench TD at the time -- which indeed he was.

He said it was "far-fetched" to claim that his alleged attendance in a coffee shop could have influenced the granting of the second mobile-phone licence.

But that is not the point. The point is that Hogan was at the time a former minister, a "big beast" on the backbenches, as the term goes. Not only that, he was heavily involved in fundraising for Fine Gael.

In fact, as I detailed last week, Hogan was personally engaged in the extraction of at least two significant sums of money from O'Brien, or his companies or associates, for Fine Gael at or around the time of the granting of the licence.

Now back to Lloyd's Brasserie in October 1995. Hogan's position at the tribunal was that he had no memory of any meeting with Mark FitzGerald, together with O'Brien and Mitchell.

The tribunal, however, found that the evidence of FitzGerald in relation to this and another meeting was "on general appraisal, composed, coherent, dispassionate and moderate".

Where, then, does that leave the now Minister for the Environment?

At a minimum, it places a doubt over his powers of recollection, which should be of concern when you consider that this man is in charge of one of the biggest portfolios in government.

Thankfully, the minister's memory seems to be much clearer in relation to his most recent encounter with Denis O'Brien, at Mount Juliet Golf and Country Club in Co Kilkenny just a fortnight ago, on Sunday, March 25.

Which means that both men met within days of O'Brien's appearance on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange alongside Taoiseach Enda Kenny, an occurrence that has kicked off a most serious bout of instability within the Government.

But they did not discuss this at Mount Juliet.

On Thursday, the Sunday Independent sent a series of questions in relation to the Mount Juliet meeting to the office of Phil Hogan, it being Easter week, to allow the minister ample opportunity to reply.

On Friday, details of the meeting between the two men turned up, coincidentally, in another newspaper. The Sunday Independent had been informed that the minister and O'Brien had a "long and intimate" discussion in the clubhouse at the venerable estate -- a meeting that was observed by several members who were, we were told, apparently "uncomfortable" about it.

But no, the minister, it was reported on Friday, was having breakfast at the hotel when O'Brien entered the room; that they "briefly bumped into" each other and "exchanged pleasantries" and that was that.

The minister's spokesman told us: "It is the case that Minister Hogan meets a wide range of people from community, environmental and business groups at political or social gatherings every week. On one such recent occasion he did briefly bump into Denis O'Brien in a social setting for a matter of moments where the two exchanged brief greetings."

Asked if there were any other such meetings, formal or informal, the minister's spokesman eventually added: "He has not had any meetings with Mr O'Brien, formally or informally."

Which is just as well, from the perspective of both men.

Today my colleague Tom Lyons presents a detailed account of another controversy which has erupted around the business affairs of Denis O'Brien, this time in relation to his acquisition of the company Siteserv.

In due course, Siteserv will, no doubt, tender for state contracts, such as, for example, the installation of water meters at households around the country -- a contract that will be granted by the Department of the Environment.

As both men are no doubt aware, it simply would not do for them to have either formal or informal meetings, nor, for that matter, for them to bump into each other over a burnt rasher, lest anybody get the wrong idea. You cannot be too careful these days.

Not with the Labour Party about. The Labour cabinet colleagues of Phil Hogan are also taking a significant interest in O'Brien's boardroom battle for control of Independent News & Media (INM).

Within Labour, the concern is that under O'Brien the publications of this company would effectively become in-house organs of Fine Gael -- to which, of course, Fine Gael would not object. What political party would?

In much the same way, within Fine Gael there is concern that RTE has already become no more than the mouthpiece of Labour and Sinn Fein; to wit, Leo Varadkar's recent jibe about leftie liberals in Montrose.

The battle lines are drawn, then.

What is at issue here goes to the heart of our democracy because, as Pat Rabbitte correctly points out today, the media has an impact "on our public life and on politics and on public affairs".

The fight for the heart and soul of two of the most influential media organisations in the country, INM and RTE, is, therefore, an issue, the outcome of which should be of concern to every citizen in the State.

Sunday Independent

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