Wednesday 17 July 2019

Eoghan Harris: What Micheal Martin might have said to Bryan Dobson

Bertie Ahern doesn't make it easy for his defenders. Right now I am probably the only person in public life willing to say a good word about him. But I have always hated mobs, especially media mobs. And there are always two sides to a story. So, using the actual words of Bryan Dobson, here's what Micheal Martin might have said in his RTE interview last Thursday.

Bryan Dobson: We're joined here in the studio now by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Do you accept the findings of the tribunal as published today?

Micheal Martin: I completely accept its conclusions about endemic corruption in planning, and in relation to Fianna Fail. I accept what it says about Liam Lawlor, Ray Burke and Padraig Flynn. I am determined to end that era.

But I reject the conclusions of the tribunal, and the rush to judgment by what I call the Mahon Media, in relation to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. I am asking journalists to show some scepticism about the tribunal, some sense of proportion about Ahern and some equivalent interest in the far more important implications of the Moriarty tribunal.

First, the Mahon Media have adopted a fake reverential tone in relation to the tribunal. Supreme Court Justice Hardiman was not so reverential. He criticised the Mahon tribunal on three occasions: in 2007, 2010, and 2011. In the Bovale case, 2011, he described the tribunal's powers as "truly awesome" their expense "enormous", the cost of participating in them "grotesque" and the duration as "nothing less than appalling".

Second, the Mahon Media should have been more sceptical about the decision to withhold from the public, some of the tapes of republican-socialist activist Frank 'Colombia' Connolly. Again Justice Hardiman showed more steel. In the 2010 JMSE case he criticised the Mahon tribunal for withholding these tapes.

Third, the Mahon Media shows no scepticism about the fact that the tribunal cost €300,000, made millionaires of 17 lawyers and lasted 15 years. Was telling us that Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke were corrupt -- we all knew that -- sufficient to justify that enormous expense.

Some of the journalists hyperventilating about Ahern have invested 15 years of their lives down at the tribunal.

Psychologically, they needed Bertie Ahern's big head on the wall to justify all those lost years in the Mahon jungle.

Finally Bryan, I have to ask why the Mahon Media made so much of the Mahon report and made so little of the Moriarty report? I'm told tomorrow's Daily Mail has a headline saying, "The most explosive report in Irish political history." That's not true of the Mahon report -- but it does apply to the Moriarty report.

The Mahon report wanted Ahern to account for €215,000. By contrast the Moriarty report deals with €317m, this being the sum made by Denis O'Brien when he got the Esat licence with the help of the corrupt Michael Lowry. Does the Mahon Media notice the difference between Ahern's €215,000 and Denis O'Brien's €317m?

So why don't the Mahon Media stop beating up on soft targets like Bertie Ahern and start doing some serious digging? It's legitimate to ask Pat Rabbitte and the Labour Party about the pictures from New York we saw on this RTE News last week? We saw Denis O'Brien -- who got a €317m licence in circumstances criticised by the Moriarity Tribunal, who does not pay taxes in Ireland, who owns a huge section of the media, and has ambitions to own more -- sharing a balcony with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

Admittedly Mr O'Brien does not confine himself to the company of Fine Gael supporters. The pictures showed PJ Mara sitting opposite him at a gala dinner. It was claimed last week in the Financial Times that Denis O'Brien now wants to take the reins at Independent News and Media. If he succeeds in taking over the Independent group is it likely we will hear any more criticism of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene between Denis O'Brien and Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week?

Bryan Dobson: Do you accept the findings in relation to Bertie Ahern who was repeatedly found not to have told the truth?

Micheal Martin: The tribunal has no special truth detector. They say they do not accept the testimony of 10 witnesses who say they gave digouts to Ahern. How do they know they are not telling the truth? Take Charlie Chawke, a decent publican, who says he gave Bertie Ahern a donation. The tribunal simply says it doesn't believe him. Is he not at least as entitled to be believed as Eamon Dunphy when he was relaying details of a conversation from a nightclub? Bryan Dobson: What then is the position, in relation to somebody, in this case Bertie Ahern, who has a finding against him by a tribunal of inquiry, established by the Dail, in terms of remaining a member of the Fianna Fail party?

Micheal Martin: Any man deserves to be judged in the round. Bertie Ahern won three general elections, created 500,000 jobs we still have, and helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. As long as I am leader of Fianna Fail there will be no witch-hunt against him to please the Mahon Media.

Naturally you will ask me about Ahern's accounts? Do I believe they imply corruption in the classic sense of a politician abusing high office to make money? No, I do not, and for three reasons.

If he is corrupt, where are the country houses, the stud farms and the collections of fine paintings? If he is corrupt, why does the Dail Register of Members' Interests of March 14 show that he owns less property than almost any other politician on the list? If he is corrupt, why was there no aura of corruption around him as there was around Liam Lawlor, Ray Burke and Charles Haughey?

Bryan Dobson: But on almost every ground, bar one I think, the tribunal rejected Mr Ahern's account of these matters.

Micheal Martin: Well I don't agree with the tribunal when it rejects the testimony of 10 people who say they gave Ahern money. At the same time I don't find some of Ahern's statements credible. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt. I believe most of the mysterious money is made up of donations, personal and political, which he spent on his Drumcondra machine. And I assume he is protecting the identities of donors to whom he promised privacy.

Alternatively he may have a tax problem. If it's tax it's deplorable, but he has lots of company. Actually he has the company of Judge Alan Mahon. Back in 1992, Judge Mahon made a settlement with the Revenue Commissioners for IR£20,000 -- something that only surfaced when he took over the Flood tribunal in 2003. Justice Mahon said his underpayment of tax was a "miscalculation".

Now, Bryan, I accept Judge Alan Mahon's explanation of a "miscalculation". But imagine the howls from the Mahon media if Ahern made that kind of miscalculation!

Bryan Dobson: It's not just of course Bertie Ahern. The report and indeed previous reports identify in effect a culture of corruption at the very highest levels in Fianna Fail for perhaps a period of 30 years, from the late 1970s up to a few years ago.

Micheal Martin: Actually it goes back further. All the way back to before the Arms Trial when Charles Haughey was a rising star and the source of corruption. As far back as 1967 the Seven Days team of Eoghan Harris, Dick Hill and Lelia Doolan were doing almost weekly exposes of planning abuses by the Fianna Fail fundraising group called TACA. All the abusers of planning were great nationalists, if not patriots.

Bryan Dobson: There's some stiff criticism in the inquiry report in relation to ministers who spoke out against the tribunal when Mr Ahern was giving his evidence. Do you accept that finding?

Micheal Martin: Well let's take Dermot Ahern's. He was quoting Supreme Court Judge Susan Denham who complained the Oireachtas had asked the tribunal to investigate urgent planning matters but that the inquiry "was the antithesis of an investigation into urgent planning matters".

So Bryan, by extension the tribunal is accusing Justice Denham of wanting to collapse the tribunal too. And that is nonsense. Mind you, neither Justice Denham nor her fellow Supreme Court colleague Adrian Hardiman seem to have a high opinion of these kind of tribunals. Pity they are not journalists. We could do with some sceptics. Because Irish democracy demands we chew Moriarty to the bone.

Bryan Dobson: Thank you Mr Martin.

Sunday Independent

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