John Downing: 'Twenty years after most ill-judged TV performance in Irish political history, the fallout continues today'
It all began on a dreary January evening precisely 20 years ago. The people of middle Ireland, many of them broke and bloated from seasonal excesses, sat before their television sets to see what diversion Gay Byrne might offer on RTÉ's 'Late Late Show'.
What followed, on January 15, 1999, changed things politically, and its implications continue to reverberate two decades later. It started a chain of events which dragged several senior politicians into the spotlight and culminated in the resignation of a Taoiseach nine years later.
Yet the iconic broadcaster's introduction for his first guest that evening - one Pádraig Francis Flynn - was innocuous, if not downright hagiographic. Gay Byrne was not on a knocking mission for Ireland's EU commissioner, known nationally as 'Pee', and caricatured as 'Pee Flynnstone' by the inimitable Dermot Morgan in radio satire 'Scrap Saturday'.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Gay Byrne's tee-up went as follows: "My first guest makes decisions that not only affect every man, woman and child in this country, but also 360 million citizens of the European community.
"He controls an annual budget of £9bn, [and] is one of the most influential politicians in Europe, which is not bad for a former teacher from Castlebar who started off in politics around 1960, giving the usual speeches on the back of a lorry outside church gates.
"And he carries, I think he carries his immense responsibilities with great dignity and great aplomb and, indeed, a great sense of humour, because he's always on for a laugh."
The audience warmly applauded and the imposing six-foot four-inch figure, impeccably suited and booted, walked on the set. What followed was "death by 'Late Late Show'" for Commissioner Flynn. The damage was entirely self-inflicted in the most ill-judged television performance ever by any Irish politician.
Máire Geoghegan Quinn, a long-time Fianna Fáil politician who had served with 'Pee' in several governments, and would later follow in his footsteps as EU Commissioner, offered the following considered assessment in a newspaper column all of a fortnight later: "Someone forgot to change the batteries in Pádraig Flynn's smoke alarm, and while sleepwalking through a performance on 'The Late Late Show' he managed to set fire to himself."
Ironically, despite his bluff figure-of-fun image, which left him occasionally accident prone, Pádraig Flynn was also a talented high-achiever. He did very well as Ireland's EU commissioner, advancing his social and labour affairs agenda. Some of his most trenchant critics had acknowledged that he also succeeded in lobbying for Irish interests on structural funds and farming issues.
But a big alarm bell rang that night when Mr Flynn agreed his EU salary was generous. He frankly owned up that when the preferential EU tax regime took its deductions, he had a take-home salary of IR£100,000 a year.
Still, he had to run three houses, in Brussels, Dublin and Castlebar, not to mention pay three housekeepers.
"Try it sometime," he offered rather ruefully, as blood pressure soared across middle Ireland.
Here it can be argued that, had it been around about 2004/2005, many viewers - with a holiday home in Ireland and a flat or two in Turkey or Bulgaria - might have been nodding in some agreement. However, given the time and place, this was lethal stuff politically.
But the real killer had come a little earlier when he was asked about Tom Gilmartin, an Irish businessman from Lislary, Co Sligo, who had been very successful in Britain, and lived in Luton for many years. Mr Gilmartin, who died in November 2013 in Co Cork, had made allegations four months earlier about political donations he had made years before, as he tried in vain to get businesses off the ground in Dublin.
By January 1999, these allegations were being examined by the planning tribunal at Dublin Castle. Mr Gilmartin had specifically said he had given £50,000 to Pádraig Flynn, which he understood was for Fianna Fáil, but it had allegedly never been passed on.
"What are you going to do about the Flood Tribunal and the £50,000 and Gilmartin?" Gay Byrne asked.
Pádraig Flynn was typically jocular and crushingly verbose. "Well, I want to tell you about that. I've said my piece about that. In fact, I've said too much, because you can get yourself into the High Court for undermining the tribunal. So, I ain't saying no more about this...except to say just one thing, and this is all I'll say: I never asked nor took money from anybody to do favours in my life."
Things took a worse turn when Gay Byrne asked if he knew Mr Gilmartin. "Oh, yeah, yeah. I haven't seen him now for some years. I met him. He's a Sligo man who went to England and made a lot of money. Came back. Wanted to do a lot of business in Ireland. Didn't work out for him. Didn't work out for him. He's not well. His wife isn't well. And he's...he's out of sorts," Flynn replied.
Across the Irish Sea in Luton, Tom Gilmartin and his wife, Vera, were also watching the 'Late Late Show'. It was relayed to a large British audience by Tara Television in London.
The Gilmartins were vastly more enraged than anyone in middle Ireland. Two days later, the 'Sunday Independent' reported that Mr Gilmartin, then aged 63, had abandoned his reluctance to attend the Flood Tribunal and was now definitely coming to tell the authorities what he knew. Clearly, the term "not well" had a certain west of Ireland resonance which particularly rankled.
Tom Gilmartin gave colourful testimony to the planning tribunal in 2004. Having met with senior Fianna Fáil politicians about his planning application, he was approached by an unknown man who demanded £5m for redevelopment purposes. Mr Gilmartin told him "you make the Mafia look like monks".
The tribunal eventually found Mr Flynn had "wrongly and corruptly" sought a £50,000 payment from Mr Gilmartin in 1989 - which he used to buy a farm in Co Mayo in his wife Dorothy's name.
At the planning tribunal in April 2008, Mr Flynn denied that he personally benefited from Mr Gilmartin's donation, insisting it was a "personal political donation". Describing himself as an honest and honourable man, he has always rejected the tribunal findings.
The entire process was an expensive slow-burner which took 900 days of tribunal hearings and the evidence of some 400 witnesses.
But ultimately, Mr Gilmartin's evidence was upheld and the testimony had also led on to a detailed examination of the finances of Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a process which forced his resignation in 2008.
To paraphrase the jingle which went with Gay Byrne's programme: It all started on the 'Late Late Show' - all of 20 years ago this week.