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Saturday, June 6, 2015

State operates under a veil of secrecy

I GOT a pleasant jolt the first time I rang up the RUC. The man at the end of the line provided me with copious information about the incident I was inquiring about. He helpfully pointed me in the direction where peripheral inquiries could be pursued. And then he wished me luck with the assignment.

That was more than two decades ago. Up until that point, my only experience as a reporter in dealing with a police force was An Garda Síochána. A call to the garda press office was usually met with courteous responses from officers who would have excelled at politics, such was their skill in conveying as little detail as possible, while giving the impression of being positively verbose.

The juicy details usually ended up with a few chosen reporters through various sources in the force. These reporters were “trusted”. In such an arrangement, the balance of power necessary between a reporter and source was tilted heavily towards the source. If a reporter stepped out of line, his or her access would dry up. Real information was provided not as a right, but as a favour.

Little has changed since those days. And it’s not just a problem in the gardaí. Right across the organs of State, with a few exceptions, there persists a culture of secrecy, in which citizens are subjected to the mushroom treatment of being kept in the dark and fed manure.

That’s what has happened in relation to the IBRC/Siteserv/Denis O’Brien controversy that has blown into a full commission of investigation. For more than six months through the course of 19 parliamentary questions, Michael Noonan kept batting away requests for the truth. Later, he claimed he answered every question, but did not provide background information, as if the obligation of the executive to be accountable to parliament is little more than a game.

Noonan’s Jesuitical interpretation of what he was obliged to reveal in parliament tells much about the culture of secrecy that prevails in the state’s power centres. Information is closely guarded like an asset, or a liability. It is rarely disseminated in a straightforward or prompt manner. When dissemination is reluctantly deemed necessary, the information is often carefully edited.

That’s how governments and many other organs of state habitually deal with any inquiry in which controversy might lurk. The provision of information which should be readily made available in a democracy is disregarded. Getting straight answers is an exhaustive exercise. So Catherine Murphy found out, and only her dogged pursuit dragged it out of Noonan, through questions and Freedom of Information requests.
The culture reaches right down to frontline services. One feature of the recent report into the deaths of babies in Portlaoise Hospital was the manner in which bereaved parents were dealt with. Some of the parents were told that their baby’s death was the only one which had occurred. This was entirely false. (There were eight deaths in total). Even those who weren’t lied to were not informed that their tragedy was shared by others whom, for example, they may have wished to contact.

Somebody, somewhere in the system obviously saw the prospect of parents being comforted in sharing their grief as a threat. While the reasons for lying have not been explicitly laid out, it would not surprise if it was just an instinctive reaction from some functionary trained in the ways of the state. Tell them nothing. Consider them possible adversaries. Protect the institution at all costs.

It’s not just the organs of state. Secrecy was a mainstay of the Catholic Church when it ruled society. One of the main findings of the commission of investigation into clerical abuse in the Dublin Diocese was the obsession with secrecy over any consideration for victims or action against perpetrators.
Some might ascribe the culture to a post-Colonial mentality, passed on from the administration which feared that the natives could transmogrify into barbarians at the gate at the drop of a hat. That is something of a cop-out. The Colonials left more than 90 years ago.

The culture of secrecy was a handy tool in power centres when this was a poor, underdeveloped state. Hoarding power can only be truly effective if information is also hoarded and citizens in a society grappling with the basics had more pressing issues to deal with. Then, as the country emerging blinking into the frontline of developed nations in the early ’90s, priorities were re-evaluated.

In his first day as Taoiseach in 1994, John Bruton said he intended to govern “behind a pane of glass”, in a spirit of “openness, transparency and accountability”. Great soundbite, shame about the outcome. That government did introduce the Freedom Of Information Act, belatedly letting in a little light.

Too much light for some. In 2003, Charlie McCreevy rolled back many of the act’s provisions when he introduced punitive fees and new blocks on access. He had been particularly put out the previous year when the Sunday Tribune had been mistakenly furnished with an envelope of documents from his department on foot of a request under the act. The documents showed that contrary to pre-election pledges of no pending cuts in spending, plans had at the time been set in motion for swinging changes. That was obviously a secret that was supposed to remain so.

The current government has widened the scope of the act, but in some ways it is a mere fig leaf. What the Siteserv controversy has highlighted once more is that the first instinct in the power centres is to bring down the shutters.

The fall-out from the culture is obvious. Once more the government has managed to heighten suspicion that something is awry on a matter of public interest. Apart from anything else, that drains further confidence from the practice of politics.

The stream of scandals leaking from the HSE can, in part, be ascribed to a management culture in which a lack of transparency plays a major role. The Church’s obsession with secrecy contributed hugely to its devastating moral failings. And the recent upheavals in the gardaí were in many ways inevitable when a police force’s first instinct is to shut out even cursory media scrutiny.

A culture of secrecy inevitably leads to cover-up when things go wrong. Now and again, cover-ups are laid bare, controversy ensues, and the whole caravan moves onto some form of judicial inquiry. The only real difference over the years is that more cover-ups are being rooted out.
That’s how things are done in this country, and despite platitudes from the then opposition prior to the last general election, and the current opposition in the last few weeks, there is little sign of any real appetite for change.

Next up, expect Paddy Power to open a book any day now on when we’re going to have an inquiry into the workings of NAMA.

Michael Clifford

Friday, June 5, 2015

The bell tolls for democracy and solidarity in modern Greek tragedy

As the first of four scheduled repayments to the International Monetary Fund this month falls due, Economist Ray Kinsella suggests that Greece should leave the eurozone, as its punishing repayments and austerity programme demonstrate that democracy is long dead in Europe

THE first of four scheduled repayments for June by Greece to the IMF falls due today. Greece does not have the money to repay these loans. Importantly, repayments to the IMF are senior to all other international obligations, amounting to €330bn, or 180% of GDP, and rising. This means a failure by Greece to repay IMF loans would trigger a default in respect of this wider set of creditors. In the absence of some alchemy or yet another fudge, this means Grexit.

In Ireland, as in other eurozone countries, the reaction to what is happening varies from boredom to exasperation. There is precious little sympathy; much less support. This response is misconceived. It is the product of a revisionism that has more to do with the acceptance of German hegemony across the eurozone than with a balanced appreciation of the deeply flawed macroeconomic and political narrative that is unfolding for Greece and for Europe.

The only “get out” open to Greece (and, even then, a temporary one) short of default, is the release of some €7bn in funds from the current bailout programme. The troika — effectively Germany — insists on Greek capitulation: “This is what you must do first do for these funds to be released.” This means additional austerity, including some €3bn budgetary measures. Greece, driven by its political mandate and its view of what is feasible for a traumatised economy, says: “This is all we can do.” Greece has formulated an alternative programme which, prime minister Alexis Tsipras has said involved additional “painful measures”.

In the chancelleries and cafés of the eurozone, including Temple Bar, the consensus justifying what is unfolding is: They brought all this on themselves. Certainly, Greece made big mistakes — of which the dominant countries were well aware, and which were facilitated by western financial institutions. In any event, that was a different generation.

Another purported justification is: “Well, they have all this terrible public sector stuff, like jobs for life and pensions, — even plans to re-employing low-income cleaners — they can’t be allowed to get away with that.”
Can this be serious? Is France, for example, really in a position to start casting stones at any country, much less a country in the position in which Greece finds itself. Yet people actually buy into this hypocrisy. In Ireland, it is whispered that “Well, we did austerity; they will have to just get on with it.” It would take too long to refute such pernicious nonsense.

The early stages of negotiations were political theatre. The elections of the Tsipras coalition were the first time that deep-seated opposition across the eurozone was given political expression. Greece was the first member of the eurozone to reject austerity as a mode of economic adjustment. The central figures in the negotiations — and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis — were larger-than-life personalities as well as being intellectually able. They brought a colour and a competence that contrasted with the grey-suited technocrats, far removed from the reality of what austerity means: Emigration, repossessions of homes, escalating suicides, triggered by a malign model of shareholder value-driven banks that is still in place.
Then there was the high-profile and intensity of the “negotiations” — which pitted the EU Commission, IMF, and the ECB (supported by the US treasury) against an unstable left-wing coalition in the eurozone’s most debt-burdened country: David v Goliath indeed.

Greece is both illiquid and insolvent. It has a shedload of debt it can never repay. It has a broken-backed economy and a humanitarian crisis. “Reforms” are completely beside the point at this stage. Greece is drowning in the platitudes of its “friends” about remaining in the eurozone while simultaneously being emasculated by the insistence of these same friends that it continue with reforms.

The lengths to which Greece has gone to meet its obligations to date are exceptional. Indeed, they border on the irresponsible — they have, for example, impoverished the funding of all public institutions. Simultaneously, there has been a haemorrhage of private bank deposits — recently some €800m in just two days — the dependence of the banking system on emergency liquidity assistance from the ECB. It’s not the only haemorrhage — exacerbating tens of thousands of young people have left and the long-term unemployment rate is the highest in the eurozone. The syndrome is dependency — exacerbating and it applies to countries as well as individuals.

The whole process of negotiations means little. The outcome is already written into the final ultimatum in the briefing documents of German chancellor Angela Merkel, prepared by finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

A recent Bloomberg report points out that, over recent months, Merkel had said little, other than offering platitudes to calm markets, leaving it to Schäuble to insist, with icy clarity, on Germany’s outcome. It hasn’t moved an inch since February’s crisis meetings. His view mirrors hers. And for all her reasoned calmness at press conferences — so different to those of the Greek government — it is well to reflect that, as Bloomberg says, “…in the past she has spooked bond markets and shoved aside prime ministers in her crusade to make the currency union durable”.

Her 2010 decision in Deauville, France, that private creditors would suffer losses in future sovereign bailouts, triggered a two-year selloff that toppled governments and banks across southern Europe. Within weeks of her decision, Ireland had asked the eurozone for a rescue and Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus followed. What is at issue is what possible sense can there be in providing Greece with the remaining funds from the current bailout precisely in order to recycle these funds back to its international creditors. Previously, more than 90% of bailout funds were recycled back to banks.

There is nothing whatever in this whole process for the people of Greece and their economy.
Additional austerity would merely reinforce the recessionary pressures that have impelled Greece into an existential crisis.

The issue is not whether the Greek government are a bunch of political amateurs getting their comeuppance from hardened professionals, living in the real world. That is the mythology.

When your economy has shrunk by a quarter and your unemployment rate is 25% and you have the largest debt burden in the west or when your hospitals have no heating oil and schools have been closed, you might be forgiven for being a trifle upset when the dominant country and economy whose banks lent you money tells you to “tighten your belt” — just a little more, and tell the next generation to shape up.

This stand-off is not about economics. It’s not even about moral hazard — the “if you let Greece away with it, sure they’ll all be at it” argument. It goes deeper. The only gain in imposing more austerity on Greece in the teeth of all that economics has to teach us is to reassert the political hegemony of Germany, at the heart of which is the deeply conflicted doctrine of austerity
That is what Tsipras said last weekend in the French newspaper Le Monde, when he argued that the eurozone’s dominant players were by degrees bringing about the “complete abolition of democracy in Europe” and were ushering in a technocratic monstrosity with powers to subjugate states that refuse to accept the “doctrines of extreme neoliberalism”.

“For those countries that refuse to bow to the new authority, the solution will be simple: Harsh punishment,” he wrote. “Judging from the present circumstances, it appears that this new European power is being constructed, with Greece being the first victim.

“If some, however, think or want to believe that this decision concerns only Greece, they are making a grave mistake. I would suggest that they reread Hemingway’s masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The title resonates what the English poet John Donne said: ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’.”
We should ask what kind of economics is it that insists that an economy with a debt burden of €330bn and mauled by successive programmes of austerity, is in any shape to absorb further measures. We should ask whether this is really about economics, or a nihilistic insistence that Greece should be made an example of when those responsible for the bad decisions have already slipped anonymously into the past.

We should ask whether we want the type of European community that would impose these measures on a fellow member. We should ask whether Tsipras is right that this signals the end of any lingering aspirations to democracy, even if they’re from an ideology that we do not fully agree.

So, whatever finally emerges this weekend, and however it’s dressed up, ask not for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for all of us who believe in democracy and solidarity and a different kind of economics.

With great respect — Greece should exit. It would do better outside of what the eurozone has become.

Ray Kinsella

Why the fourth estate in Ireland has been so afraid of one man

AS A political journalist, I talk to politicians, including senior ones. In recent years, I would often say how worrying it was that Denis O’Brien had such control over the Irish media, and the chilling, nay freezing, effect that had on reporting matters to do with him.

I would say to the politicians that I had never imagined, having worked in Irish media for so long, that we would have reached such a situation. I would speak of how remarkable it was that journalists were in such fear of one person. I would tell them of the experiences of colleagues who raised the issue of O’Brien’s concentration of media ownership, or otherwise scrutinised his business affairs, only to be put through so many hoops by their legal department that, by the end of it, they would hardly know their own name, let alone get the names “Denis” and “O’Brien” mentioned in the one report. This is not good for democracy, I would say, feeling this was a rather dramatic statement to be making over coffee, but a true one, nonetheless.
In response, I would get feigned interest and a sort of “gosh really, do you think so” sort of answer. Or else it was a “what can you do?” shrug of the shoulders. It was hard not to conclude that as well as not having a single intention of doing anything, or of being afraid to act, the politicians and their aides were not at all unhappy with journalists being made so uncomfortable, regardless of the subject matter. “At least someone is able to put manners on you crowd” appeared to be the subtext.
Then, of course, there was always a general election around the corner and the awful prospect for a politician that if they upset someone so influential in the print and broadcast media, they could be made to pay.

When journalists gets together socially, there is a hell of a lot of gossip bandied about. In my own social circle, this banter was often followed by a discussion on the latest development in the O’Brien situation.
There were the individual cases O’Brien took against journalists, which I wrote about here a few months ago. Prime Time reported, on Tuesday night, that from defamation to injunction proceedings, in the last 12 years Mr O’Brien has initiated 24 separate high court actions against media outlets and journalists, some of them repeatedly.

There were the absolute tangles that media managers would find themselves twisted into if one of their journalists was pursuing such a story.
I have a memory, from seven years ago or so, of suggesting to my then-editor, in a different newspaper, that Denis O’Brien was to be the subject of my column that week. I can’t remember the exact detail of what I wanted to write, but I do remember his reaction. It was: “Oh, no” and a groan. When I asked if he was telling me not to do it, he said not at all, but that in doing so I would cause him no end of trouble. Even back then, the combined war of fear and attrition was a success. The sheer pugnacity of O’Brien’s spokesman, James Morrissey, in his media performances, in recent days, gives a good indication of O’Brien’s approach.
My friends and I would chat about what was happening at Independent Newspapers, how, for instance, the once-traditional structure of an independent, stand-alone editor of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, and Evening Herald had been replaced by an overall editor-in-chief. Perhaps it was just our paranoia to think it was a further centralising of control.

There were tales of “editorial charters” being introduced that would require journalists to get permission from the managing editor before they could write any stories critical of public figures. That sort of thing would soften your impudent, journalistic cough for you, all right.

We saw the name of one of the best-known journalists in the country, Sam Smyth, disappear from the pages of the Irish Independent, where his byline often appeared over stories on the Moriarty Tribunal. He also lost his Sunday morning show on Today FM. The fearless Vincent Browne has also been put through the wringer and, in 2012, he received a letter from O’Brien, in which he was told: “I am putting you on notice that if you continue to libel me … that I will be left with no other avenue but to sue you personally”. Browne replied that the threat was an abuse of money and power.

Another high-profile name is that of academic Elaine Byrne, a long-time critic, who received a legal letter in 2011, after she wrote an article in the Sunday Independent. The letter accused her of an appalling lack of objectivity and said her article was a “truly objectionable piece of journalism, strewn with factual inaccuracies and devoid of any balance or objectivity”.

This is not to suggest that any individual, no matter how rich, should not be allowed to protect their own good name. We have heard the vehement assertions from Mr O’Brien, as well as Alan Dukes and former IBRC chief executive, Mike Aynsely, that his dealings with the bank were above board.
The problem is that having appeared to treat media queries and inquiries with aggression over the past decade, there is an element of the boy who cried wolf for O’Brien in getting short shrift in terms of credibility.

Three months ago, I wrote here of a speech that the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, had given on media bias in Ireland.
“Perhaps the single greatest protection against bias is to have a diverse media and there’s no way of escaping that our media landscape is becoming significantly less diverse,” he said.

“This matters a lot and it is not a comment directed at any particular entity. It doesn’t matter how open or self-critical a society you have, media diversity is essential to protecting it.”
He found it amazing that, after four years in office, the Government’s only policy on media diversity was to avoid having a policy.

The concentration of media power in relatively few hands, both in the public and private sectors, could have a potentially chilling effect, he stated. He outlined what journalists had been whispering to each other in recent years.

“Whether or not an owner or controller imposes their views directly, it is basic human nature that journalists will be influenced by how they perceive the interests of the people they work for, or feel they may one day need to work for. The only way of combating this bias is through media diversity.”
Reading that speech in February, it certainly did feel as if there was an elephant in the room that had not been named, and that was the increasingly powerful O’Brien media empire.

At the time, I inquired as to why the Fianna Fáil leader had kept it so general, and was told he simply wished to keep it that way. So, even the leader of the largest opposition party in the country, while willing to venture where other politicians dared not to, at that time, was fearful of naming names.

Well, Pandora’s box has well and truly been opened now, and Micheál Martin has been at his absolute political best in standing up for press freedom. We can just hope that it will remain open.

Alison O Connor

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Centre and laundry ‘one and the same’

Evidence that An Grianán training centre and High Park Magdalene Laundry were “one and the same thing” was uncovered by the HSE in 2012 — yet An Grianán was excluded from the Magdalene redress scheme.

The revelation is contained in a memo sent from the then assistant director of the Children and Family Services, Phil Garland, to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs representative on the McAleese committee, Denis O’Sullivan, and the national director of the Children and Family Services at the HSE, Gordon Jeyes, on June 26, 2012, while the HSE was examining the laundries issue as part of the McAleese inquiry.
Mr Garland points out that the HSE had uncovered evidence that showed “quite categorically” that An Grianán and High Park Magdalene Laundry, which were on the same site in Donnybrook in Dublin, were “one and the same thing”.
He said evidence “describes the functions of the laundry and the training centres and states quite categorically that all of the girls underwent some degree of training in the laundries, in addition to other tasks of ‘housewifery’, that is cookery classes and domestic science”.

However, former residents of An Grianán, which was excluded from the scope of the McAleese inquiry, were denied access to the redress scheme as it was not considered a Magdalene laundry. Residents of High Park Magdalene Laundry were included in the scheme.
Two other institutions not previously considered laundries — St Mary’s Training Centres in Stanhope St, Dublin; and Summerhill — were included in the Magdalene redress scheme.
Draft minutes of a meeting held by the McAleese committee on the same day the HSE evidence was uncovered indicate that, as An Grianán was previously included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme, it would not be examined.

“Mr O’Sullivan raised the question of An Ghrianán [sic]. A significant volume of records had been uncovered in respect of that institution. There was discussion of that, with [Mary] McGarry noting its inclusion in Redress,” the minutes state, referring to a committee member.
“It was agreed that [committee adviser Nuala] Ní Mhuircheartaigh would secure the date of separation of An Ghrianán from the High Park campus — the committee would not be examining the institution after that point.”

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil last June An Grianán “served a different purpose” to the High Park laundry and there were “a number of different institutions on that site”.
The Government has repeatedly defended the exclusion of An Grianán from the Magdalene redress scheme by stating it was included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme.
All women admitted to An Grianán were entitled to full compensation for the entire duration of their stay under the scheme. Those who did apply for redress under the Magdalene scheme were refused. It is understood a number of these women have appealed to the Office of the Ombudsman.
Claire McGettrick of Justice For Magdalenes Research said she was “shocked but not surprised” that the HSE revelations had been “completely ignored”.

“Given the fact that the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) on the Magdalene Laundries was made aware of this evidence, it is inexplicable that the Government included Stanhope St and Summerhill Training Centre in the redress scheme, but chose to exclude An Grianán,” she said.
Ms McGettrick called on the Government to “make immediate arrangements” for An Grianán’s inclusion in the Magdalene scheme.

“We have consistently pointed out that the IDC investigation was not the prompt, thorough independent inquiry called for by the United Nations Committee Against Torture. This evidence strongly reinforces our contention and we reiterate our call for the Magdalene laundries (and all related institutions) to be included in the mother and baby home inquiry.”

In a statement, the Department of Justice reiterated its view that An Grianán “served a different purpose” to the High Park laundry and that, as a result, it was included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme.

“We are aware that some of the girls may have done some hours in the laundry while resident in An Grianán, however, the different nature of An Grianán was recognised by its inclusion in the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme. Girls who were admitted to An Grianán were entitled to full compensation for the entire duration of their stay under the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme.”

It says including residents of An Grianán in the Magdalene scheme would mean “those who were present there and have received compensation would receive double compensation for the same institution”. 

Conall Ó Fátharta

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Fears over ‘trafficking’ of children to the US

Concerns that up to 1,000 children may have been “trafficked” to the US from the Tuam mother and baby home in “a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State” were raised by the HSE in 2012.

The warning is contained in an internal note of a teleconference in October 2012 with then assistant director of Children and Family Service Phil Garland and then head of the Medical Intelligence Unit Davida De La Harpe.
It ends with a recommendation that the then health minister be informed with a view to a state inquiry being launched. This was almost two years before revelations of a mass grave at the home forced the Government into launching a state inquiry into all mother and baby homes.

The note relays the concerns raised by the principal social worker for adoption in HSE West who had found “a large archive of photographs, documentation and correspondence relating to children sent for adoption to the USA” and “documentation in relation to discharges and admissions to psychiatric institutions in the Western area”.

It notes there were letters from the Tuam mother and baby home to parents asking for money for the upkeep of their children and notes that the duration of stay for children may have been prolonged by the order for financial reasons.

It also uncovered letters to parents asking for money for the upkeep of some children that had already been discharged or had died. The social worker, “working in her own time and on her own dollar”, had compiled a list of “up to 1,000 names”, but said it was “not clear yet whether all of these relate to the ongoing examination of the Magdalene system, or whether they relate to the adoption of children by parents, possibly in the USA”.

At that point, the social worker was assembling a filing system “to enable her to link names to letters and to payments”.
“This may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State, because of the very emotive sensitivities around adoption of babies, with or without the will of the mother.

“A concern is that, if there is evidence of trafficking babies, that it must have been facilitated by doctors, social workers etc, and a number of these health professionals may still be working in the system.”
The report ends with a recommendation that, due to the gravity of what was being found in relation to the Tuam home, an “early warning” letter be written for the attention of the national director of the HSE’s Quality and Patient Safety Division, Philip Crowley, suggesting “that this goes all the way up to the minister”.
“It is more important to send this up to the minister as soon as possible: with a view to an inter-departmental committee and a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry,” concludes the note.

The Sisters of Bon Secours said it ceased operating the Tuam mother and baby home in 1961 and, at the instructions of the local authority, handed the files on the running of the facility back to them.
“As the Commission of Investigation has now been established the Sisters of Bon Secours do not believe it would be appropriate to comment further except to say that they will co-operate fully with that commission,” said the order.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs said none of the concerns raised were brought to the attention of the minister at the time, but were discussed in the context of the McAleese inquiry under the auspices of the Department of Justice.
It stated that the minister became involved in the issue once material around infant deaths in Tuam became public in mid-2014.

“The minister was subsequently tasked by government with leading its response to these important matters and the Inter Departmental ReviewGroup was set up to assist deliberations on the terms of reference of a Commission of Investigation,” said the statement.

A request for comment from the Child and Family Agency Tusla was not responded to at the time of going to print. 

Conall O Fatharta

Don’t expect swift end to Denis O’Brien chain redactions

So what now for Denis O’Brien’s unmentionables? Despite the best efforts of his lawyers, they’ve been flapping in the wind since last Thursday night when Catherine Murphy pegged them out in Dáil Éireann.
There was a further attempt to ventilate them in the Four Courts yesterday. And they’re due to get a decent airing today (bar a few redactions).
But like any other ordinary Irishman and proud “republican with a small “r” who is resident outside the country for tax purposes, Denis feels strongly that his unmentionables are nobody’s business but his own.

Over the weekend in the teeth of a gale, the media mogul tried his best with the help of faithful retainer James Morrissey to take them in off the line and bung them back in the sock drawer. They weren’t entirely successful in this endeavour.
In fact, it only served to make people more interested in O’Brien’s unmentionables. But he is equally determined to keep them under wraps.
Their attempts to allegedly silence sections of the media from reporting what Murphy said in the national parliament set off a series of chain redactions that caused considerable angst and confusion in journalistic and political circles. It led to RTE and The Irish Times lining up against poor Denis in the Four Courts yesterday morning.

Thankfully, his senior counsel clarified matters for people who may have been under the impression that, by firing off solicitor’s letters to various organs warning them off reporting what had been said in the Dáil, Denis may have been trying to suppress the dissemination of information. Or stick his oar into the constitutionally protected conduct of Dáil Éireann.
Oh, DOB, no. Sorry, oh, God, no.

That hadn’t been intended at all, explained DOB’s lawyer, Michael Cush. It was never his client’s intention to seek to restrict what deputies can say in the Dáil, he stressed.
Indeed, he relayed the heartening news that Denis is of the view “it is only right” that newspapers and RTÉ should be able to report what is said in the national parliament.
Which, it must be said, was very big of the billionaire and he is to be commended.
“A spectacular climbdown,” harrumphed David Holland, representing RTÉ, while simultaneously not wishing to be “churlish”.

Denis, by the way, wasn’t present, although he was writ large all over page 5 of yesterday’s Irish Times. But his representative on earth, former journalist James Morrissey, sat in the public gallery.

Both still allege Deputy Murphy’s information is wrong, that she has “lied” to the Dáil and is relying upon stolen and altered documents in her dogged determination to get to the bottom of O’Brien’s unmentionables. Not that they are being churlish either.
But wait. Did this gracious concession in terms of reporting apply to future Dáil utterances concerning O’Brien, or just the ones currently at issue?
There is still the small matter of an injunction taken out against RTÉ in relation to an investigation by the broadcaster into certain aspects of O’Brien’s banking arrangements with IBRC.

Not good enough
Michael Cush said he hadn’t taken instructions in this regard. Not good enough, protested Holland, who didn’t want to be up and down to the courts every time somebody opened their mouth in Leinster House and upset Denis.

Judge Donal Binchy decided to step in and clarify the issue of his injunction. It was never his intention that the order should be construed as restricting the fair reporting of Dáil business at any time.

This came as a tragic bombshell to some of the journalists present who had been hoping his Lordship might also see his way to granting a permanent order prohibiting the dissemination of waffle, baloney, obfuscation and general grandstanding from the chamber.
But you can’t have everything.
As O’Brien, an ordinary media mogul just trying to preserve his financial modesty in the face of outrageous prying by certain journalists and Catherine Murphy, found out over the weekend.

Sometimes it’s impossible for a guy to get a break in this town.
His unmentionables are all over the media now.
Today, the judge will release his judgment outlining the reasons behind his decision to grant O’Brien a temporary injunction against RTÉ, preventing the broadcaster from putting details of his dealings with the IBRC into the public domain.

Some of it may be redacted. That’s what lawyers for the businessman wanted yesterday. David Holland, for RTÉ, said you’d need to have been “in a hermetically sealed ivory tower” over the last few days not to be aware of the “avalanche” of information now out there.

It’s a very curious state of affairs.
“Alice in Wonderland would find it difficult to adequately represent this situation.”

Free press
Meanwhile, as had always been expected, a TD’s right to speak freely in the Dáil without worrying about threats of legal action remains undimmed. As too do the rights of a free press to report them.

If that means mentioning a powerful man’s dealings with a State-owned bank, so be it.
In the light of O’Brien’s “spectacular climbdown” and the prospect of his unmentionables now being put on display in the Dáil, he needed some sort of fig-leaf to spare his blushes yesterday.
So he is going to sue the State to test the tension between the judiciary and the Oireachtas and seek to establish the correct demarcation between the role of the courts and Leinster House.
“But that’s not for now, judge,” said Michael Cush.

We are most grateful.

Miriam Lord

Government should now reflect on an independent review of IBRC deals

CONSTITUTIONAL crisis, what constitutional crisis?
Yesterday’s High Court ruling on the right of the media to report utterances made under Dáil privilege brought the shutters down on five days of hyperbole. We had been repeatedly told a constitutional crisis was nigh because of the mainstream media’s failure to report Catherine Murphy’s Dáil speech concerning Denis O’Brien’s banking arrangements, on the basis the material may be covered by an injunction granted to Mr O’Brien 10 days ago.

The crisis talk was entirely wide of the mark. If Judge Donald Binchy had ruled yesterday that the media could not report Ms Murphy’s speech, a crisis may well have ensued. But nobody with even the most basic knowledge of the law was suggesting he might. In fact, a battery of lawyers had, across the media,uniformly predicted that it was highly unlikely that the judge would rule other than he did.

The result is that the mainstream media can now report and broadcast that which has been plastered across cyberspace since last Thursday. Had the media been overly cautious? Perhaps, but the accusation of cowardice spat through social media is unfair. Mainstream media today is a delicate place, under siege from a public that now largely believes news and investigation should be provided free gratis. It also operates in a jurisdiction of punitive libel laws where recent court awards resembled payments more fittingly made to somebody who had suffered severe brain damage. Notably, the only mainstream organ to publish the speech before yesterday’s ruling was The Sunday Times, which is owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch.
Successive governments have shown themselves indifferent, if not hostile, to the difficulties faced by the media in fulfilling its role as the fourth estate. So caution was understandable.

For Mr O’Brien’s part, he could be blamed for putting a foot wrong in one respect. Lawyers acting for him contacted the few media outlets that published Ms Murphy’s speech, warning that they may be breaching the injunction. The threatening correspondence fed the perception he was attempting to silence Ms Murphy’s privileged utterances. Irrespective of what principle he believed himself to be defending, that particular development ratcheted up the stakes. His stance for privacy is understandable, but surely he must accept that as a powerful media owner, with extensive business interests in the State, he is going to be the subject of intense scrutiny by media outside his control, particularly if public money is at issue.

Mr O’Brien has stated the documents on which Ms Murphy based her Dáil speech were “altered”, and contained “falsehoods”. Ms Murphy says she is confident of the veracity of her sources.
The part of her speech concerned with Mr O’Brien’s banking suggested that IBRC chief executive Mike Aynsley “made verbal agreements with Denis O’Brien to allow him extend the terms of his already expired loans. We also know the verbal agreement was never escalated to the credit committee for approval”, she said. Ms Murphy claimed Mr O’Brien enjoyed a rate of interest of 1.25% on his lands while “IBRC could, and arguably should, have been charging 7.5%”. It is unclear as to which parts of the speech Mr O’Brien took issue with in terms of veracity, but the conflict between the pair is extremely serious, and warrants investigation.

Then there is the substantive issue, which, to a large degree got lost in all the hoopla. Did IBRC, son of Anglo Irish Bank, maximise the return for the citizens who bailed out the institution?
When the State took control of Anglo, and set up Nama, one of the concerns expressed was the crisis would present opportunities for wealthy interests to make hay on the backs of the citizens.
A few years later, along came Siteserv. On the face of it, the Siteserv deal was unusual. It was sold to Mr O’Brien at a loss of €100m to IBRC — the people’s bank— in a deal that also included a €5m payout to existing shareholders.

Documents released under freedom of information have revealed that the Department of Finance expressed concerns about the deal. The former chairman of IBRC, Alan Dukes, is adamant that everything was done above board in this and every other deal. Former CEO Mike Aynsley has echoed this position, as has the corporate advisor appointed by IBRC to oversee the sale of Siteserv.

Yet, unease persisted, perhaps understandably among a public jaded by scandals involving well-heeled sections of society. That was the Government’s opportunity to act in a manner that was transparent and authoritative. It could have gone down the route that was used most recently in the Garda whistleblower controversies. On that occasion, senior counsel Seán Guerin was appointed to review all documentation and conduct limited interviews to determine whether a full commission of inquiry was merited. The process has been used a number of times in recent years. Any number of commercially literate barristers or retired judges could have conducted such a review.

Instead, the Government acted with both stupidity and disregard for the general public. Appointing executives from KPMG, the company overseeing the liquidation of IBRC, immediately gave rise to a perception of bias. It also illustrated a Government out of touch with a public mood that demands transparency now more than ever.

The perception that KPMG has skin in the game was heightened by the company joining Mr O’Brien and IBRC in the original injunction hearing.
The ultimate outcome of the Government’s failure to set up an entirely independent review was a private member’s bill from Ms Murphy calling for the Comptroller and Auditor General to have a role in the inquiry. It was during the introduction of that bill that Ms Murphy made her claims under privilege about Mr O’Brien’s banking arrangements.

Just as the Government failed to act decisively in setting up a review, so too has it refused to respond in a cohesive manner to the questions being raised about parliamentary privilege. The charge to defend has been led by leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin. Once more, it appears the executive regards parliament as little more than a talking shop to be endured while it governs.

It’s not too late to change horses. Next week, when the Dáil debates related matters, it will be open to the Government to do the right thing, and establish a thoroughly independent review of the major IBRC deals. Right now, that’s the only credible course of action.

Michael Clifford

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Photo Minute: Evelyn Hofer's Dublin in 1966 in colour

Remembering Cicero (107 BC- 44BC)

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

“Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.” 

“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.” 

“Nescire autem quid antequam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. (To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.)” 

“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief”

“The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

“What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.”

“We must not say every mistake is a foolish one.” 

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.” 

Cicero (107 BC- 44BC)

Out Of Order- €7m losses at ‘loo with a view’ developer’s company

Losses continued to mount last year at a construction firm that splurged €400,000 on a derelict “loo with a view” at the height of the building boom.

In 2008, owner of Galvin Construction Ltd, John Galvin bought the site containing the toilet block on the promenade in Lahinch, Co Clare, “with unrivalled and unparalleled sea views” after his nearest bidder declined to go beyond the €400,000.

Mr Galvin subsequently secured planning for two shops and three apartments on the site in 2011, but has not proceeded with the plan.
New accounts show the that Co Clare construction firm had accumulated losses of €7m at the end of June 30, 2014.

The firms owed €6.9m in bank loans and overdrafts at the end of June 2014 and the accounts just filed with the Companies Office show the firm recorded losses of €196,652 in 2014.
A note attached to the accounts states “the company has significant bank borrowings relating to its development sites as well as its construction division”.

Its development sites had a value of €4.3m in 2010 and at the end of June last, the value was €247,618 representing no change on the previous June.

The note states the directors have reviewed the recent sudden deterioration in the financial and economic environment which occurred and are aware of the market conditions in which the company now operates.

The accounts confirm that Ulster Bank holds security over several company assets.

Gordon Deegan