Sunday 16 June 2019

Sam Smyth: The two-bit politician who committed daylight robbery

Michael Lowry outside his Tipperary home, on which Dunnes Stores lavished almost IR£500,000 for renovations
Michael Lowry outside his Tipperary home, on which Dunnes Stores lavished almost IR£500,000 for renovations

Sam Smyth

THERE is something of the night about Michael Lowry, a two-bit politician who committed daylight robbery with a quiet word and the stroke of a pen.

Yet he has achieved something way beyond his two years as a minister and 23 years as a TD -- a peerless reputation for reckless dishonesty.

In his report, Mr Justice Moriarty compared his level of dishonesty and corruption to the late Charles Haughey -- but as an elected politician, Lowry's disgrace is unique.

Our paths crossed dramatically 15 years ago when he had to step down as a minister after I reported that he was in the pocket of Ben Dunne, one of the country's wealthiest businessmen.

But his past dodgy dalliances with Dunnes Stores is paled almost to insignificance by the latest breathtaking revelations.

Mr Justice Moriarty has put him at the epicentre of a web of deceit that has effectively rubbished the reputation of the State itself.

In retrospect, putting Michael Lowry in charge of the biggest contract the State had ever awarded was always going to be a temptation too far for a man-on-the-make.

Every waking hour in his couple of years as a government minister was spent dreaming up schemes that enriched Michael Lowry and devalued public life.

As a journalist, I chronicled his life and times through those couple of helter-skelter years when he was a minister in the mid-1990s and he did his damnedest to shut me up.

He initiated a legal action against me personally "seeking exemplary damages for this most grievous and unwarranted libel" following an appearance on RTE's 'Prime Time'.

This had followed a series of reports I wrote in this newspaper after he was appointed Minister for Transport, Energy and Communication with a IR£2bn budget in December 1994.

He sued me again recently over his involvement in the second mobile-phone licence and lost his action in the Circuit Court in January. He has appealed the decision.

After he took up office, I wrote that he was a modern Irish take on the old US mud-cabin-to-the-White-House legend.

He set out from a small farm in north Tipperary, became a millionaire businessman, then a cabinet minister -- and he was the bookies' favourite to be the next leader of Fine Gael.

A key negotiator for his party in forming the Rainbow Coalition, he was also one of Taoiseach John Bruton's closest advisers. Envious friends called him "Lucky Lowry".

He came into town like an avenging angel, saying he would clean up the "cosy cartels" and wipe out corruption in the semi-state companies in his charge.

Lowry was portrayed as a cool, clean hero and inspired an 'Irish Times' editorial calling for new laws to root out "Sicilian levels of corruption in Irish public life".

In March 1995, he outlined the conditions for the granting of the second mobile-phone licence to compete with the state-owned service.

It would, said Minister Lowry, be the biggest contract ever awarded by a Government to a private company in the history of the State.

In August 1995, Lowry was asked if he had taken advantage of the 1993 tax amnesty. He replied: "All my tax affairs are in order."

But the tide was turning against him and he faced a motion of 'no confidence' in October 1995.

In his 22-page address to the Dail, Lowry said he had no offshore accounts. He was a liar. At the time, he had four offshore bank accounts.

BUT he recklessly hiked up his agenda and tried to destroy the chief executive of Bord na Mona, Eddie O'Connor.

Eventually Mr O'Connor was given compensation for the damage to his reputation, plus a generous settlement package, and he went on to found the successful company Airtricity.

I was convinced that Lowry was a spoofing crook and trawled the country for evidence of his wrongdoing in a bid to defend myself in the legal action that he had taken against me. I soon found it.

Dunnes Stores had secretly paid nearly IR£500,000 to refurbish his house in Tipperary. Lowry resigned from office in disgrace.

He also resigned from Fine Gael but was returned as an independent TD for Tipperary North the next year, in 1997, again in 2002, in 2007 and again last month.

Since then, he appears to have prospered. He still drives a top-of-the-range BMW but he is rather less flamboyant about his private life.

However, he still persists in playing the role of victim, protesting his virtue with an air of injured innocence and claims that he is being persecuted with the same brazen conviction that he used to leverage big bucks out of businessmen.

Mr Justice Moriarty has branded him a crook, but Michael Lowry is still confident that the people of Tipperary North will continue to return him to the Dail.

Irish Independent

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