Wednesday 22 May 2019

'Yesterday's man' planning to battle on in centre stage for some time to come

Fined €25,000 and banned as a director, Michael Lowry remains angry at the Revenue's approach, writes Liam Collins

Independent Tipperary TD Michael Lowry speaks outside the Central Criminal Court after the case. Photo: Collins Courts
Independent Tipperary TD Michael Lowry speaks outside the Central Criminal Court after the case. Photo: Collins Courts
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Towards the end of his 1997 book Thanks a Million Big Fella, Sam Smyth concluded: "Then there's Michael Lowry, who after suffering personal and political disgrace faces financial ruin and possibly prison... Michael Lowry was yesterday's man before he was 44 years old."

On Tuesday last, 21 years after those words were published, the Independent TD for Tipperary walked out of the Central Criminal Court in Dublin a free man. A €25,000 fine and a three-year disqualification as a director trailed after him, but so did the words of Judge Martin Nolan, describing him as a "conscientious taxpayer".

He may not have scaled the greasy pole to the ultimate political office that seemed to beckon all those years ago, but silver-haired, tanned, still fit-looking in a well-tailored blue suit, Michael Lowry stood on the steps of the court with the judge's unusual endorsement still fresh in his ears: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating - he has been re-elected."

So he has, and at every election since the former Fine Gael TD was first elected to the Dail in 1987 he has invariably topped the poll. But he has also seen John Bruton and Enda Kenny come and go from the Taoiseach's office and must have sometimes wondered: 'what if?'

Had he not become embroiled in a series of unfortunate events beginning with the 'Tuffy letters' and businessman Ben Dunne doing up his Georgian mansion, would his name be there too in the pantheon of Fine Gael leaders?

Back in 1994, Michael Lowry was the chief negotiator in forming the Rainbow Coalition that installed John Bruton in the Taoiseach's office. Leo Varadkar played the same key role after the 2016 election, placing himself in the pivotal position to succeed the weakened Enda Kenny. But a lot of water has flowed under the bridge for Michael Lowry since those heady days of high office as Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications from 1994 to his late-night resignation on Saturday, November 30, 1996.

All such speculation of what might have been was far from Michael Lowry's mind as he sat alone as the defendant during a 12-day trial before a jury in the Central Criminal Court in Dublin, fighting not only for his political life but his personal freedom. It ended shortly before lunchtime on Tuesday last, when a jury found Mr Lowry guilty of two of the eight criminal charges of filing incorrect tax returns and failing to keep a proper set of accounts.

"This was the culmination of 22 years and the system hadn't caught me... they needed to do that to bring me down," a still-defiant Michael Lowry told me yesterday.

"It was the final throw of the dice and it failed spectacularly."

A line has finally been drawn in the sand, but it was over two decades coming.

After years as a central figure in the Moriarty Tribunal, which made adverse findings against him and businessman Denis O'Brien in relation to the awarding to Ireland's second mobile telephone licence, findings which both men strongly reject, Michael Lowry seemed to have shaken off the shackles of public notoriety and was resuming the life of a successful TD for Tipperary and a successful businessman through his profitable refrigeration company, Streamline Enterprises in Thurles, Co Tipperary.

Then, in 2013, tapes of a conversation between Mr Lowry and a Northern Ireland land agent, Kevin Phelan, were published in the Sunday Independent, relating to a payment of commission from Norpe OY, a refrigeration company based in Finland. Pandora's box was re-opened, at least in the eyes of the Revenue Commissioners, who launched a dramatic raid on Lowry's mansion, Glenreigh, near Holycross, Co Tipperary, one morning in July, 2013.

"They raided my house," he says now. "The only place I felt secure was my own home. I was stunned when I heard that morning that there were 12 Revenue officials accompanied by a garda rifling through my house. They went through my clothes, my underwear, the cutlery, everything. They turned over the beds and walked away without one sheet of paper.

"I seriously object to this huge abuse of power.

"I had these strangers crawling around my house, touching things that were personal to me. Everything was disturbed and turned over. I didn't go into the house for three days and had all the linen and personal things washed before I went back," said the Independent TD emotionally yesterday.

"It was the same as somebody's house being robbed. I had the same sinking feeling.

"That part of it is what I seriously object to. I had 11 different court appearances over five years and this stuff ends up all to build a case of assumption and presumption. I never owed them any money."

The State's case was that Mr Lowry and his company, Garuda Ltd, trading as Streamline Enterprises, received €372,000 in commission from Norpe OY, a refrigeration company based in Finland, in August 2002. It was alleged that Mr Lowry arranged for this payment to be made to a third party, Kevin Phelan, through the Glebe Trust, based in the Isle of Man, and by doing so it did not appear in the accounts of his business for that year.

It was also alleged that the 2007 accounts for Garuda were falsified to indicate that the payment was received in 2006 and that Mr Lowry had a tax liability of €1.1m.

Mr Lowry (64) pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

"I never hid the fact that this problem arose over a missed invoice in 2002. It was self-corrected in 2006. I was adding €372,000 to turnover and paid an extra €45,000 in tax," says Mr Lowry.

"In technical terms that is wrong - because my tax return was incorrect in that I made an over-payment and not in the same year.

"It never happened in the history of the State where anyone was convicted of overpayment of tax."

Prosecutor Remy Farreell accused the politician and business man of trying "to push the 2002 toothpaste back into the tube".

After Revenue assessed €1.1m against him, including the original amount, penalties and tax, he took a case to the Appeals Commissioners.

It was held in front of the two of them, John O'Callaghan and Ronan Kelly, who reduced the assessment on Lowry and Garuda to nil. During his recent trial, the €1.1m figure was withdrawn after Mr Lowry's lawyers argued "there was no case to answer" and the State did not oppose the application.

"The really big charge was withdrawn after eight days because they didn't have sufficient evidence to sustain it," said Mr Lowry yesterday. "The jury had no option but to find me guilty on the 2006 charge... if I'd ignored it [the €372,000 invoice] I wouldn't have been in court at all."

(The jury was unable to reach a verdict on four other charges and the State is taking no further proceedings in relation to them.)

In fining Mr Lowry €15,000 (with an additional €10,000 fine on Garuda) and disqualifying him as a director, Judge Martin Nolan noted that Mr Lowry "seems to have rescued his company. If he had not put in a substantial cash infusion into the company it would not be operating at present".

"I saved the company from my own resources," Mr Lowry added. "The banks wouldn't give me money because of the negativity that surrounded me, so I had to re-mortgage my own house for €550,000 and I'm still paying that mortgage. I feel very strongly that Revenue was heavy-handed and selective with me. The incredible ferocity of the sustained attack on me is unprecedented. The best possibility of having me condemned was to bring me to court in Dublin... I was lumped in with murderers, rapists, bank robbers... it was absolutely crazy.

"It was an extraordinary decision to go the way they did with no money at stake. They spent five years at it, and we've been told it cost about €4m... and they ended up getting €25,000."

Reflecting on the five years it took, Lowry describes the process as "aggressive and unnecessary", and says that since the case ended he has been contacted by others who believe that Revenue has also used excessive powers against them.

"From my perspective I had the strength of character, mentally and physically, to take them on - but if I hadn't...

"You are talking about the most powerful institution in the state and they attacked me with incredible force and intensity. I know they have a job to do - but as Judge Nolan said, 'Lowry has proved that every year his taxes were in order'.

"It was an own-goal and you would have to ask questions about the time and resources that were allotted to this investigation and why didn't somebody in the chain of command shout 'stop'. Apart from a few phrases used to smear me, it wasn't a success."

As to his future, after polling more than 13,000 votes in Tipperary at the last election, he has no intention of going anywhere.

"My future was very uncertain; there was a huge amount at stake for me. My political career wouldn't have survived it. I have loyal support in Tipperary, people are very fair and the feedback has been overwhelming. I am likely to stand in the next election."

He also says that his son Micheal didn't consider standing for Fine Gael because he wasn't asked.

"Maybe he will go for election someday, but he has to shove the auld lad aside first," he says.

The "auld lad" has been through a 22-year war of attrition in politics, business, interminable tribunals and court cases, but there is no sign that he intends to be anything other than centre stage for some time to come.

Now, at the age of 64, "yesterday's man" may be regarded by some in his old party as a "lost leader" but, in the era of minority governments, he is still a political figure to be reckoned with in his own Tipperary heartland and in the corridors of power in Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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