Tuesday 18 June 2019

Michael McDowell: Culture of impunity is tightening its grip on the throat of Irish public life

Blatant attempts to muzzle the press highlight the need for media ownership legislation, says Michael McDowell

CLEAR SIGNAL: Michael Lowry, then the minister in charge of the
licensing process, and Esat Digifone chairman Denis O'Brien pictured in
1995 at a conference for the new mobile phone contract
CLEAR SIGNAL: Michael Lowry, then the minister in charge of the licensing process, and Esat Digifone chairman Denis O'Brien pictured in 1995 at a conference for the new mobile phone contract

When I was asked to launch Elaine Byrne's book, Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, I took the opportunity to warn of a culture of impunity that is gripping the throat of Irish public life.

It is all around us. Peter D Quinn languishing in Fermanagh and his cousin now languishing in Mountjoy, while Sean Quinn plays the victim in public and a large coalition of the gullible parade in support of them, are but a blatant example of brazen impunity and disloyalty to our State being rewarded by deep-seated moral ambivalence.

The emerging hole in Quinn Insurance's solvency, the consequential insurance levy ad infinitum on us all, and the totally unexplained attempt by Sean Quinn to build up a major stake in Anglo Irish Bank by using highly risky "contracts for difference" to come in under the radar, do not excite any sympathy from rational people. Those who feel sympathy should be asking: "Why?" If Anglo Irish Bank ill-served Sean Quinn, he was trying at the time to acquire a huge interest in it by stealth. And those people marching in sympathy might also ask why members of his family were being paid salaries of €300,000 by East European property companies. And to the argument, "He's the only man to bring jobs to the border counties", we should respond: "Just why did he throw all those jobs out on to the roulette table by his reckless acquisition by stealth of a large interest in Anglo Irish Bank?"

The Taoiseach was recently quoted as saying that he now accepts the findings of the Moriarty tribunal. That's real progress. Next step, Taoiseach, is to actually read them. Believe it or not they will make good holiday reading -- better than 50 Shades of Grey. It's all there in black and white.

The Moriarty tribunal report concludes that following the granting of a massively valuable licence to Denis O'Brien's Esat Digifone consortium, that Denis O'Brien spent the following years trying to secretly funnel the guts of €1,000,000 to Michael Lowry, the man who as minister was in charge of the licensing process. It also reveals a massive attempt over many years to cover up the payment trail.

If the Taoiseach really does accept the findings of the tribunal in these respects, he must have a sense of shock and shame that this country was so badly let down and defiled by people with whom he was happy to share platforms and balconies. You can't both have that sense of shock and shame and at the same time glad-hand the perpetrators in public.

Another point that I made at the Elaine Byrne book launch was that our Republic's media were in danger of being dominated by our own versions of the oligarchs.

I referred to the danger of their influence over the media in which they invest. I referred in particular to the material which still appears on the Broadsheet.ie website under the heading, "A Smoking Gun, You Say?" I recommended the audience to google it. Many did so and saw what I was driving at -- including Vincent Browne.

Before you knock over your cornflakes rushing to the laptop, the website details sustained attempts by Leslie Buckley, a Denis O'Brien nominee on the board of Independent News & Media (INM), to get the then INM chief executive, Gavin O'Reilly, to nobble Sam Smyth's coverage of the Moriarty tribunal in the Irish Independent because it was upsetting Denis O'Brien, a shareholder in INM.

Sam Smyth, a good friend of mine, was bang on the money in his analysis of the proceedings at the tribunal. If anything, his coverage seems pale in retrospect when you read the findings of the tribunal based on those proceedings.

Here was a gross, blatant and inexcusable attempt to subvert the Irish Independent's editorial independence by a director in the interests of a powerful person who resented that the newspaper's coverage approximated in some way to what would turn out to be the truth as found by the tribunal.

And now we find that the self-same Leslie Buckley is to be nominated by Denis O'Brien's allies to be reinstated as a director of INM.

Last week, too, I learned that a very prominent commentator on public affairs -- not Sam Smyth -- has been threatened in a letter that he personally, and not the media, will be sued in the courts if he doesn't mend his way in his commentary on O'Brien and Moriarty. He hasn't published the letter yet. But he should . Daylight is the best disinfectant, you know.

And Senator Dermot Wilson bravely spoke in the Seanad about material supplied to him which suggests that Mr Justice Moriarty did not hear even the half of the truth concerning Lowry's Doncaster Rovers dealings in the evidence he heard. That material should also come out. Micheal Martin should back Senator Wilson on this point.

All of this brings into sharp focus, the culture of impunity which threatens us.

Sean Quinn might have been annoyed when he learned of Seanie Fitzpatrick, his erstwhile nemesis in Anglo, enjoying the highlife in Poznan during Euro 2012. It was front-page news in the outraged Irish Independent the next day. Funny that in their outrage the same newspaper missed the fact that Denis O'Brien was Seanie Fitzpatrick's host on the occasion.

Leo Varadkar now says we need a media ownership law. By God, we do.

Sunday Independent

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