Tuesday 21 January 2020

'The delay in holding corrupt people to account is unconscionable'

Pat Rabbitte is in a unique position. As a senior minister and former Labour Party leader, he has largely held his peace while tensions erupt in the coalition Government over the household charge, Phil Hogan's litany of mishaps, and the problems presented by Denis O'Brien and Michael Lowry. Here he speaks at length to Associate Editor Willie Kealy

Willie Kealy

On Fine Gael, Denis O'Brien and Michael Lowry: On the question of the Taoiseach and his appearance with Denis O'Brien in New York and on two previous occasions, one of which was the result of an invitation from the Government, various ministers have expressed opinions.

Joan Burton suggested the Government should reflect on how to interact in the future, Brendan Howlin said there should be a consequence for people in that situation, not just Denis O'Brien but also Michael Lowry, who was found to be corrupt by the tribunal. Jimmy Deenihan said it would have been better if Phil Hogan had not met Michael Lowry within days of the Moriarty tribunal finding being published. What are your own feelings?

"I am photographed every day. I don't know what in the name of Jaysus they do with the photographs and I don't really have any say on who I get photographed with. My understanding is the Taoiseach had no say about who was on the famous platform when he was ringing the bell in the stock exchange and I can't see it working in the future. You know, if you were to decide by referendum, or the Dail was to decide that I'm to determine who I be photographed with, I don't think my job would be do-able."

But the Department of the Taoiseach would be aware of what kind of people would be invited to the Economic Forum, for example.

"Yes that's true. My understanding there is that the decision was made to invite the people who were at the first Economic Forum. I greatly doubt if the matter (of who to include or exclude) was even considered, but I don't know. I wasn't involved. In any event, I would imagine if there was a third Economic Forum you know the controversy that has happened has meant that the guest list would be very carefully looked at next time".

Lucinda Creighton -- and later on the same day Paschal Donohue -- said effectively that associating with Denis O'Brien is the price you have to pay for jobs, because he has a lot of good contacts in the business world, in the diaspora, and he gets on pretty well with Bill Clinton. Is that position acceptable?

"Well you know Government does business every day with businessmen, Irish and international, and I really don't know about any probity tests being run on them. The IDA comes in with a new project for jobs in Galway or Waterford or whatever. The IDA does whatever tests are done in terms of the soundness of the business and all the rest, but I mean the notion that you're saying 'I won't meet him because I don't like the human rights record in China' or whatever."

But in the case of Denis O'Brien you're talking about somebody who was found by the Moriarty tribunal to have given money to a minister who then corruptly influenced the outcome of a licensing process in favour of the man who gave him the money.

"All I can say to you is that despite the sectors for which I've responsibility, I haven't met Denis O'Brien. Denis O'Brien hasn't been in with me, I haven't had any interaction with Denis O'Brien nor has he hoved large on my radar until this hoo-ha recently. I try and get on with my job."

What is happening with the Consumer and Competition Bill which has been with Richard Bruton's department for almost a year and is designed to give the Minister for Communications a say in media ownership?

"The Bill came to Government I'd say last July, and we approved the heads of it and part of that Bill will repose the rest of media responsibility in this department. I already have responsibility for broadcasting but the Bill would re-locate the functions presently in Richard Bruton's department here in Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

"The Bill was approved to go to the parliamentary draughtsman's office for drafting and that's where it is, and unfortunately the entire legislative schedule has been derailed to some extent by the requirements of complying with injunctions from the troika. Competition law is fairly complex in any event. But once completed, the idea is that a single minister in this Government -- myself -- will have responsibility for the media."

If this is a long-term thing it will probably be irrelevant to current developments, such as the much--reported desire of Denis O'Brien to gain control of INM in addition to his other media interests.

"Well I don't think so. Firstly I don't see the legislation in terms of Denis O'Brien, no more than I saw the old legislation in terms of Tony O'Reilly. It's not a personality thing, and I don't want to get into that, and as the man to whom decisions in the future might fall it would be entirely wrong for me to express a view in advance. I just want to make that clear because I don't want somebody quoting back to me from the Sunday Independent in nine months' time that shows I'm prejudiced in my approach.

"Secondly if there was a merger or a takeover or transfer of undertakings that created a dominant position to the extent that that was unacceptable, as I understand the law at the moment that would fall to be considered by the Competition Authority and that would apply if such a change of ownership took place tomorrow morning or next week.

"In addition, there's a further nuance in the sense that there can sometimes be a difference between control and dominant ownership, and that would have to be looked at as well. But the Competition Authority has powers as it stands. The new Bill will considerably elaborate on that and will address important issues that distinguish the media from a cement factory.

You know if you've a dominant position in a cement factory that could be very bad for the consumers. But it's even more impor-

tant in the media because of the impact the media has on our public life, and on politics and public affairs, where diversity of ownership and content are so important. The new Bill will flesh that out and there will be public interest tests and that kind of thing."

Obviously the Competition Authority is not seen as sufficient because otherwise there wouldn't be the need for the new legislation.

"Well to some extent it is the way the media has moved on, we're in a different media environment now where there is this crossover, potential crossover, media ownership. There is the convergence of technology, there is the growing significance of social media, so it is a far more complex landscape now than when the Act establishing the Competition Authority was established."

On prosecuting the corrupt and those who wrecked the economy:

One tribunal has just finished, another issued its report a year ago. Nessa Childers was told by the EU Commission that Padraig Flynn's pension will not be affected unless he is convicted. In the case of the Moriarty tribunal, all the findings are still with the Garda Siochana or the DPP, with no sign of any progress. This must be very frustrating for the general public who hoped somebody would be held to account in the end.

"Well what was exposed in Mahon and Moriarty is completely unacceptable, and I agree with my colleague Brendan Howlin that there ought to be consequences. You could certainly start from the point of view that some of these matters be dealt with by the Garda in the first place. I mean, it is one of the appalling things to read in Mahon that the garda investigations were entirely ineffectual and that is a matter of concern no more than dealing with the causes of the banking collapse. I find it a bit difficult to understand why it takes so long to come to conclusions on these matters.

"I haven't any doubt at all that the item on top of the list (of what provokes public anger) is the fact that no banker has been made amenable for the destruction that they have caused. And I find it very difficult (to understand) why no file has yet been stamped for the prosecution authorities to do their business. I don't understand why the interminable delay. I don't want to make it sound like it's simple or straightforward, but it is unconscionable for the law-abiding citizen that so much time has elapsed, and similarly Mahon and Moriarty are with the authorities that deal with these matters.

"It would not be right and we don't want a situation where a minister can direct that you should be hauled up for questioning next week. The rule of law applies here. We have set up institutions and procedures to do this thing. Now you can respond by saying that they're not terribly effective and maybe there are things that need to be looked at -- but the interminable delay is unconscionable."

Does it make people angry that so many of those involved in the banking collapse in one way or another, seem to be the only ones still thriving?

"It does, and one wonders how we could have had this scale of fraudulent behaviour if accounts hadn't been signed off on by prestigious firms.

"The creation of Nama has certainly been a feeding trough for professionals on a scale we've never experienced before. The frenetic atmosphere in the House when that legislation was going through in the wake of the bank crash probably explains the extraordinary lengths that the late Minister Brian Lenihan went to in terms of setting up safeguards and ring-fencing Nama from political or other intervention. But in the process he set up €2.5bn for the reward of professionals who would work on the work-out of the banks' indebtedness. It certainly has been very hard to justify."

On the handling of the household charge and the consequences for the fiscal compact referendum:

"My own view is that no matter how it was handled I think a public that has been severely hurt over the last four years in terms of the economic collapse was going to look for an opportunity to give the Government a serious kick up the transom, and I think this was an ideal opportunity to do that and they did it."

If it was a protest vote, how does that bode for the fiscal compact referendum?

"The fiscal compact, or the Stability Treaty as I call it, is a separate issue of considerable moment for this country and I honestly do believe that the majority of people are sufficiently sensible to realise that we don't really have any alternative and the necessary, prudent thing to do is to support the referendum because we're on a life-support machine. There's no point in beating around the bush -- the country is in receivership.

"I think the people can distinguish between a minor and major issue. The Stability Treaty is a major issue. All of the indications including the exchequer returns for the last quarter show that we're on target, but who knows? Supposing we needed to resort to a second programme we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face, and I think, provided there's an adequate debate, most sensible people will recognise that."

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