Tom Gilmartin – the Man Who Brought Down Bertie Ahern

Tom Gilmartin’s story, told by Frank Connolly in his new book “Tom Gilmartin – the Man Who Brought Down a Taoiseach and Exposed the Greed and Corruption at the Heart of Irish Politics,” (Gill and MacMillan) is an Odyssean  journey through Irish business and political life of the second half of the 20th century.  Connolly goes through 5 decades of Gilmartin’s life – as a young emigrant going from Sligo to Luton in the 1950s, making a success in the U.K. in the 60s and 70s as an engineer and a developer, then, from the 1970s to the 1990s, going back to Dublin to invest millions,and running into a wall of corruption and insider dealing. This finally brought Gilmartin into the heart of the Irish political turmoil in the 2000s when he became one of the main evidence-givers to the Mahon (Flood) Tribunal into “Certain Planning Matters.”

GiImartin had come back to Ireland sensing a good business opportunity in the Dublin’s underdeveloped and outdated commercial infrastructure, but was also motivated by a wish to provide  jobs and go some way to help stem the bleed of emigration from Ireland’s stunted and moribund economy.   Gilmartin began to assemble lands for development, first on the North side of the city centre, then at Quarryvale, at the future Liffey Valley Shopping site, west of the city at the M50.  What he found was that “the place was totally corrupt.” As soon as he landed, vultures and jackals getting the scent of funds and potential profit descended on him, leeching off and incapacitating his plans.  It seems like the whole Golden Circle wanted a cut out of any development profit for doing nothing.  The next 20 years were years of effort, frustration and disillusion.

The book is a labyrinthine voyage  though a morass of self-seeking power holders, power brokers and bagmen.  Bankers and Gardai were there too, to fund and protect the connected. Gilmartin found that development planning and control powers were seen as assets by politicians and by some public servants, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder for personal gain.  “Party donations” from developers were quietly pocketed by politicians, with a blind eye turned by the party. Professional fixers and middlemen like Frank Dunlop expected a cut at every turn.

Ultimately, after resisting the pressures for years, Gilmartin’s Irish development company and the fruit of decades of his work was taken off him by the future beneficiaries of the west Dublin project: O’Callaghan, Cork Developer (and big donor to Fianna Fail), and the Allied Irish Bank, ably assisted by fulltime bagmen Liam Lawlor TD.and Frank Dunlop, who also got their cut.  A donation of £50,000, given to Fianna Fail, in the desperate hope that it would get the incessant demands off his back, he later found had been taken by Flynn and never reached the party.

Such was the greed of the political class for more enrichment from property transactions that the Irish Government skewed the entire economy to promote construction, until the resulting property bubble exploded and left us with an unrepayable debt that has ruined the country and the aftermath is continuing to ruin hundreds of thousands of lives. By the time Bertie Ahern called the 2007 General Election to ‘get in’ before the big damage of the Tribunal struck home, civil servants and bankers were already using desperation measures to keep the banks afloat.  By the time of Bertie Ahern’s resignation as Taoiseach in May 2008 all of the Irish banks were facing imminent bankruptcy. By the time he resigned from Fianna Fail in 2012 his own party and the country was pretty well wrecked.

The systemic corruption, with cheques and cash lures for politicians handed out in bulk, led to public outcry and to investigation, initially focused on rezoning.  The Tribunal Into Certain Planning Matters (the Flood, or Mahon Tribunal) was established in 1997 with broad terms of reference and finally reported just over a year ago.

The Tribunal process gave moments of drama that punctuate the book.  Most people first heard Tom Gilmartin’s name in the early days of the Tribunal in Pee Flynn’s nauseating display of gombeen arrogance and clownish pantomime on the Late Late Show, in which he attempted to sully the reputation of Gilmartin and his family while boasting of the high life style afforded him as an EU Commissioner.  It was that shocking performance from Flynn with the gratuitous insult to himself and his wife, that brought Gilmartin back from England to give evidence at the Tribunal.

P. Flynn on the Late Late Show,  RTE, 1999

“He’s not well, his wife is not well , and he’s out of sorts.”

The next game changer was Mary O’Rourke’s evidence in the Tribunal, where in bravura style she made liars of most of the Cabinet and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, by telling how she met Gilmartin in the Daíl at a meeting which they had all sworn never took place.  From that moment, Ahern’s days in political power were numbered and Gilmartin’s many days of evidence, which had been repeatedly labelled as ‘fantasy’ was accepted as fact.

The third and final ‘moment of truth’ was when Bertie Ahern’s former secretary Grainne Carruth broke down giving evidence about funds she had banked for Aherne,  The evidence contradicted evidence given by Ahern. The personal torment she went through from trying to remain loyal to Ahern whilst giving evidence on oath brought a new level of public contempt and disgust on Ahern, for putting her through this.  It led to his resignation as Taoiseach.

The final report of the Mahon Tribunal was published on 22 March 2012.  Gilmartin’s allegations about an Irish mafia in politics, and in construction, were thoroughly vindicated.  Bertie Ahern resigned from Fianna Fail two days later.

(The Tribunal)  found that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern failed to “truthfully” explain source of money and it rejected his evidence of “dig-outs”, and that former EU Commissioner Pádraig Flynn “wrongly and corruptly” sought donation from Tom Gilmartin.[6] 

On corruption in public life, Judge Mahon stated in the report that: “It continued because nobody was prepared to do enough to stop it. This is perhaps inevitable when corruption ceases to become an isolated event and becomes so entrenched that it is transformed into an acknowledged way of doing business. Specifically, because corruption affected every level of Irish political life, those with the power to stop it were frequently implicated in it.”[18]

There is an important sub-theme of the book which resonates as much as does the story of corruption.  The attitude in Ireland to returned emigrants can be hostile and suspicious.  Returned emigrants threaten the exclusive hold of the ‘stayers’ on their territory and resources.

Most people who came back to Ireland in the 1980s or early 90s would have experienced this in the context of business and work.  In the boom, with full employment and apparently limitless cash, the attitude softened.  A person respected and successful in much bigger circles abroad, can be treated dismissively ‘back home. ‘  The tight insider circles of power mistrust and are in fierce competition with returned migrants. The petty social snobbery thrown at Gilmartin by the noxious poltroon Flynn is like  a thread of dross running through this whole story. Gilmartin won respect from the wider public for his honest and fearless rebuttals.

Thomas Gilmartin jnr says about this

My take on the story is of a man let down throughout his life by the state for not being from the right family or having the right connections, a man able to flourish outside such a toxic environment, and a man brought down by that same culture because he refused to play their game.

The bigger picture is even more damning than the detail of what went on. The absence of consequences, the apparent contempt for the rule of law in Ireland if you’re on the inside, and the betrayal of the legacy of those, like Dad’s father, who fought for independence, are also an indictment of the state.

Following the report of the Mahon Tribunal, the Irish Government referred the 3,270-page report to the Garda Commissioner, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Revenue Commissioners and to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Discussion of the outcome of that recommendation is welcome on Politicalworld.org discussion forum.

Tom Gilmartin died towards the end of last year.  His robust honesty, determination,  firm personal morality and his humour will all be missed.

His son Thomas jnr., who had ridden shotgun with his father throughout the Tribunal, while fighting the good fight online as Toxic Avenger, took part in the launch of Connolly’s book.  Fittingly, he talked about his father, and the book – and the state of Ireland – on the Late Late Show recently:

Tom Gilmartin jnr:  the Late Late Show, RTE, 2014

This book is a gripping read (enough so to displace John Grisham for this year’s summer holiday), and an essential work for anyone seriously interested in Irish politics.  It was written by Connolly over a ten year period, which adds to the feeling of a journey travelled. For a second edition, it would be helpful to provide a skeleton time line of the Tribunal process for readers of the generation for whom it is modern history.

The book is very well illustrated by contemporary photographs of the main players and has an appendix detailing the Tribunal process and findings.  Read, weep, rage and enjoy.

Cass Flower 7 June 2014

 

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