Flood/Mahon, McCracken, Morris and Moriarty. The litany of judges’names associated with, shall we say, doubtful practices starkly exposes the desperate need for reform in the Republic’s body politic, even if the property bubble had never burst. Dubious practices were not the sole prerogative of Fianna Fail. Moriarty’s long list of conclusions, produced at a cost rivalling the Saville Inquiry’s, was as shocking as it was expected. While civil servants insisted their advice was not compromised, Moriarity finds that minister Lowry “secured the winning” of the national telecomms licence for Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone. A personal payment of £147,000 was made to the minister in office (though handed back the next year). Fine Gael, then as now the lead party in coalition, is found guilty of “ gross impropriety” for accepting a $50,000 donation from Mr O’Brien. O’Brien denies wrongdoing. Predictably Vincent Browne is unsparing in the Irish Times.
THE MORIARTY tribunal report seriously compromises this Fine Gael-Labour government. Nine of its cabinet ministers were part of the government that was in situ in 1996 when it (the then government) approved the awarding of the second mobile phone licence to Esat Digifone, the company then led by Denis O’Brien…
And to underline this further humiliation for the nation, the person who is identified as the instigator of these malpractices, Denis O’Brien, happens to be the dominant figure in the Irish media industry (aside from RTÉ), with effective or incipient control of Independent News and Media (INM), the largest newspaper corporation by far on the island, and of a plethora of radio stations.
What prospect is there that the media under his control will hold him properly to account for what has been revealed?
Well, at least that charge may not stick. Browne acknowledges that the Indo’s Sam Smyth was one of the trailblazers on the story. And turning to the Indo today, the paper is pretty clear.
Both Mr Lowry and Mr O’Brien have rejected the findings. Mr O’Brien last night denied making any payments to the former minister.
Mr Justice Moriarty concluded that a series of payments for the benefit of Mr Lowry were made by Mr O’Brien, who had a 40pc stake in Esat, after the licence was awarded. All of the payments were routed through intermediaries, according to the tribunal findings.
How seriously is the new coalition compromised? It cannot be allowed to fail, to borrow a phrase from the international banking crisis. There must be no wriggling, no delay, no ducking. It seems too early to talk about prosecutions but these should surely be considered. A carefully drawn butunimpeded Dail inquiry must surely follow any decision either way on prosecutions. The State cannot afford to wait years while any legal action grinds its way through the courts. Among the basic outcomes must be that the ministers involved make full disclosures about their role, unless this would incriminate them; that wholesale reform is needed to disclose and limit party donations; and that new transparent rules should be put in place for the conduct for ministerial decision taking – beginning now.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London