Billy Flynn and the Minister

A few days before a crucial Dáil debate last year, Michael McDowell went to the home of Billy Flynn. There are widely conflicting accounts of how the meeting came about and what was discussed. By Vincent Browne

Billy Flynn and the Minister

1. On 10 June, 2005 Michael McDowell visited the home of Billy Flynn, private detective, in a remote location near Enfield, Co Meath. He stayed with Billy Flynn for a period of around one hour. During that time Billy Flynn provided McDowell with a large volume of documents concerning representations which he (Flynn) had made to the former Minister for Justice, Nora Owen.

Two days later, on RTÉ's Questions and Answers, Michael McDowell produced one of the documents which he had received from Billy Flynn, a copy of a letter Billy Flynn had written to the then Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, on 11 March 1997. The claim was Nora Owen had ignored the representations and had done nothing.

Michael McDowell says the meeting with Billy Flynn arose from contact Billy Flynn had made with him, where he stated he had reason to believe opposition spokespersons in a forthcoming Dáil debate intended to make damaging allegations concerning him and that he (Billy Flynn) had further information that would be useful to him.

Billy Flynn says the meeting arose from contact made with him by a Fianna Fáil minister (whom he has refused to name), who asked him to meet with Michael McDowell before a Dáil debate on the Morris Tribunal reports scheduled for the following week. Billy Flynn categorically denies he contacted Michael McDowell offering information relevant to that Dáil debate.

Michael McDowell acknowledges he phoned Billy Flynn before going to his home and asked if it would be appropriate for him (McDowell) to call. He says he had no prior knowledge what information Billy Flynn might impart to him.

Michael McDowell was entertained in the large rectangular sitting room, large leather couches, fireplace, large plasma television in the corner.

Billy Flynn said: "After a while he relaxed but I was amazed at an attack on (a named official)". Michael McDowell has categorically denied he attacked this official. Billy Flynn claimed Michael McDowell attacked another named official and again Michael McDowell has categorically denied this.

Billy Flynn said he had sent Michael McDowell information while Michael McDowell was Attorney General, from 1999 to 2002. He said: "I had assumed he had not acted on the information I had been sending him but he said Liam O'Daly (who was a senior official in the Attorney General's office) would come in with my material and ask 'what are we doing to do with this?' And that worried me that he actually was aware (of what was being sent to him) and didn't do anything". Michael McDowell acknowledges he got this information and claims he "repeatedly sought full access to the relevant Garda investigation files in order to defend properly civil proceedings against the State".

However he has not dealt with the central point here: that although he was comprehensively briefed by Billy Flynn he did not take appropriate action on the information he received.

Billy Flynn said: "I had written to him (McDowell) at one stage and told of a threat to kill Maria McBrearty (daughter of Frank McBrearty snr). The threat was made by Paddy Doherty (a central character in the McBrearty affairs, who is now deceased) and I traced that (phone call) and I remember writing to Michael McDowell on the 7 July 2000 to do something about that because the guards were never going to prosecute Doherty because he was one of their informers, Doherty was making fools of them. But he did nothing abut that either.

"I wrote to McDowell because I was told by a barrister that a James Casey (professor of law in UCD and author of text books on the Constitution) had written a book about the role of the Attorney General and had stated in that book that where there are repeated and persistent criminal acts or breaches by officers of the State, ie, gardaí, it comes under the umbrella of the Attorney General.

"(At the meeting) we discussed what I had furnished the Rainbow (that is ministers of the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic left government in early 1997). I gave him the file of papers I had sent the Rainbow. I was surprised when McDowell read out the letter I had given him that I had sent to Nora Owen (Minister for Justice in early 1997, when the McBrearty case first broke) on Questions and Answers the following Monday (20 June).

"He read that Nora Owen letter out and read the second page out and basically immediately after that programme, the Donegal problem was Nora Owen's problem, not Michael McDowell's."

Billy Flynn and the Morris Tribunal

2. In 1997 a heavy-weight investigatory team from Garda headquarters, under the direction of Assistant Commissioner Kevin Carty, was in Donegal to investigate allegations of Garda corruption in connection with the alleged wrongful arrest of members of the McBrearty family in connection with the killing of local cattle-dealer, Richie Barron, on 13 October 1996; the abuse of these while in Garda custody; the fabrication of a false "confession"; and the harassment of the family subsequently. The inquiry was making little progress.

In February 1997 Frank McBrearty snr engaged the services of Billy Flynn. Within a few months Billy Flynn had "cracked" open the case by discovering that extortionist phone calls to associates of the McBreartys were made from the home of a garda. It was that discovery which gave the first glimpse into the scale of Garda corruption in Donegal in the handling of the McBrearty case.

In the second report of the Morris Tribunal, the chairman states he had "no doubt" that there were communications between a senior garda and Garda John O'Dowd in relation to these extortionist phone calls and that the gardaí were attempting to hide these phone calls and "would have done so were it not for the efforts of a private detective, Mr Billy Flynn, who through his own efforts provided evidence to the Gardaí that the phone calls had their origin in Garda O'Dowd's house".

Billy Flynn also turned up with crucial evidence about the sequence of events on the night Richie Barron was killed and the movements of members of the McBrearty family (this evidence exposed the fabrications that had been concocted by other witnesses, with the help of gardaí). Mr Justice Morris acknowledges the crucial part played by Billy Flynn in relation to these matters.

The Tribunal report also acknowledges that Billy Flynn had established the identity of the person making the extortion telephone calls and that he was an acting member of An Garda Síochána, together with an accomplice. He requested that these people should be arrested and charged. In the event nothing was done.

Village and McDowell

3. On the afternoon of Tuesday, 2 May we emailed a series of questions to the press office of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, inviting Michael McDowell to respond.

We received the following response at 11.19 am on Wednesday, 3 May. (We have edited this letter where it makes reference to what Michael McDowell has claimed are defamatory allegations)

I am writing to you in connection with the email that you sent to the Press Office of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform yesterday afternoon with less than 24 hours to go before your claimed deadline of 10 am this morning.

I am requested by the Minister to point out to you that the import of the questions set out in your email is defamatory and is completely at variance with the facts.

In short, the facts are as follows:

a) In June 2005 William George Flynn who has a frequent habit of contacting the Minister personally at his home by telephone and in correspondence telephoned the Minister and told him that he, Mr Flynn, had reason to believe that opposition spokespersons in a forthcoming Dáil debate intended to make damaging allegations against the Minister, that it was important that the Minister be forewarned of this and that he, Mr Flynn, had important information regarding the McBrearty affair which he wanted to give personally to the Minister in relation to these matters. The Minister informed Mr Flynn that he was busy at the time but would of course be interested to know the information that Mr Flynn said he had for the Minister. Mr Flynn was very anxious to impart what he said was "vital information" for the Minister to know before it was used against him in the Dáil

b) Shortly after that, the Minister was travelling west and, as his route took him past Enfield, he telephoned Mr Flynn and enquired whether he was at home and whether he was in a position to speak to the Minister personally. At this point the Minister had no idea what Mr Flynn's information was. Mr Flynn gave the Minister directions to his home, which the Minister followed, and stood out on the roadway to flag him down.

c) Mr Flynn invited the Minister into his home and over the course of an hour to an hour and a half, in which he provided the Minister with tea or coffee, gave the Minister a very long account of his involvement in the McBrearty affair, including statements of grave unhappiness at the way in which had had been treated by them and by persons associated with them. He, Mr Flynn, was very anxious that the Minister should have correspondence between Mr Flynn and the former Fine Gael Minister for Justice. Mr Flynn provided the Minister with a very considerable amount of documents which he said the Minister should take away to read and also with videotape material which he said the Minister should view.

d) Mr Flynn discussed at length his beliefs as to why the McBrearty family were not co-operating with the Morris Tribunal and set out at length his beliefs as to the authorship of the communication received by Deputies Howlin and Higgins (this was a document which prompted Brendan Howlin of Labour and Jim Higgins of Fine Gael to highlight allegations of Garda impropriety in Donegal – however it has since emerged that some of the material in that document was false).

e) He specifically attributed authorship to two named individuals. The Minister inquired from him as to whether he had given this information to the Gardaí and to the Morris Tribunal and he was assured by Mr Flynn that he had done so.

f) At no time in the conversation did the Minister attack or criticise... (either of the officials named by Billy Flynn – the letter then goes on to give the context for some remarks he may have made concerning one of these officials, an explanation which, the letter claims, was previously disclosed to the Dáil).

g) He explained to Mr Flynn... (here the letter goes into further detail concerning these matters).

h) He explained to Mr Flynn that the very considerable volume of correspondence and documents which Mr Flynn had frequently faxed and delivered to the Attorney General's office over the years had been dealt with by a named official who had from time to time brought it to the attention of the Minister when he was Attorney General for his directions and information, and that the Attorney General's office had repeatedly sought full access to the relevant Garda investigation files in order to defend properly civil proceedings against the State and to understand the allegations that were being made concerning the Garda investigation of the death of Richie Barron.

i) The conversation was a long conversation in which Mr Flynn also spoke in confidence about his physical and mental health and about court proceedings which were then pending against him. He also spoke about his own political alignment and about previous defamation proceedings he had taken against the Minister and later discontinued arising out of his "Gibgate" investigation.

I understand that Ireland on Sunday published a story some time ago under the by-line of John Lee dealing with Mr Flynn's recollection of his meeting with the Minister and that no allegations in relation to attacks on any named person were made by him in the context of that story being published.

Since you have left it until the eleventh hour in respect of your own deadline to make any enquiries of the Minister in respect of these grave allegations which are untrue, the Minister has asked me to communicate to you that he will commence defamation proceedings against you, the magazine, its printer and distributors if you choose to publish these defamatory allegations in the face of a complete and categorical denial. He has asked me to communicate this intention to the printers and distributors also.

The Minister has also requested me to tell you that he will take the same course in respect of any attempt to use those defamatory allegations in an allegation and denial story by your magazine.

He has also asked me to point out to you that at all times he has acted properly and in the interests of ascertaining the true facts surrounding the McBrearty affair and that at no time did he approach Mr Flynn or anyone else with a view to obtaining "dirt" on his political opponents or anyone else.

4. Billy Flynn: cranky, awkward, difficult but not mad

In a book he wrote about the Cork conman, Finbar Ross, Gibgate, Billy Flynn says of himself: "I confess to being stubborn. I may even be obstinate. From time to time I am accused of being cranky, awkward, willful, a little obsessive, unmanageable. I'm unorthodox, sometimes undiplomatic and often uncooperative. (There are several prominent Dubliners who would tell you I'm quite unspeakable.) But there is one thing I am not. I am not mad".

There was a copy of a letter on his snooker table from unionist MP, Roy Beggs to Bill Clinton referring to Gibgate. David Trimble had given a copy of the book to Clinton while Clinton was President and Roy Beggs was drawing attention to the book.

The book is as chaotic as Billy Flynn's streams of consciousness but trenchant and illuminating on how Finbar Ross defrauded investors of between £5 and £7 million and how a Dublin barrister and a Dublin chartered accountant allegedly cocked up proceedings against Ross, resulting in none of the monies being refunded.

The book was published in 1992 but was withdrawn from the bookshops once threatening noises were made by the Dublin barrister. Billy Flynn says 7,000 copies were printed, 4,000 have been sold and the remaining 3,000 copies are in bales under his snooker table at his home.

His conversation is a torrent of allegation, revelation, fact, comment, interspersed with "Right?", "Right?" He roams up and down two sides of the full size pool table in what he calls his "war office". Files spilling from desks, mounds on the floor, tops of rusting filing cabinets and the pool table itself. Photograph of Pope John Paul II on the wall. A tapestry depicting John K Kennedy, the 1916 Proclamation, paintings of sea views, a wooden anchor with "Costa del Sol" engraved in it.

But there is an underlying coherence to his narrative, in spite of the protracted diversions and diversions on diversions. Every now and again he breaks off and finds a relevant file either in the snooker room or somewhere outside.

After diversions about a 1973 murder case on which he has found new evidence and a case involving Albert Reynolds we eventually are propelled into the McBrearty case. The McBreartys (father and son) were suspected of involvement in the murder of a neighbour, Richie Barron, on 13 October 1996 in Raphoe, Co Donegal. Several members of their extended family were arrested and ill-treated while in Garda custody. A Garda inquiry into complaints concerning the treatment of the McBreartys got nowhere but then Billy Flynn, who was engaged by Frank McBrearty snr, discovered the phone record and this led to the establishment of the Morris Tribunal.

Billy Flynn was born in Kilcock 61 years ago. He worked in the motor business at first and then: "I put a lot of money into the central heating business and it was a con. I couldn't get anyone to do anything about it and I started looking. It lifted from there. I was telling a couple of other people (of what had happened and of the investigations) who had also suffered injustice. I sorted out their cases, although I couldn't sort out my own, and just went on from there".

In over 35 years as a private investigator he has been involved in countless cases, matrimonial, insolvency, debt collection, crime and now Garda scandal. He regularly employs retired gardaí to undertake investigations for him.

Amid the torrent of revelation and claim he says he is involved in a mega scandal in the Navan area, which will make the revelations of the Planning Tribunal seem small-time.

He says he has made a new enemy every day of his working life as a private detective and that he now intends to retire for some "quality time" with his wife, Eileen. They have eight children, now all grown up, some in the business with him.

5. Origins of the McBrearty story

"I'm sorry to say that hatred within a community and hatred from the Gardai play a huge role in this matter (the McBrearty affair). It started in 1973 in Glasgow and the poisonous cloud that assembled there poured over into Raphoe. Hatred festered among families and it was made all the worse by local rivalries and accusations that people were "informing" on others.

Frank McBrearty snr was in Glasgow in 1973. Also there were Richie Barron and Paddy Doherty, both also from Raphoe and Paddy Doherty is a lead player in all this story. There were lots others from Donegal in Scotland and Glasgow at that time.

Frank McBrearty was coming out of a pub in the Gorbles area of the city one night with some friends. One of his mates told him to look out, there was a man coming towards him from behind. Frankie turned around and thought the man had a knifed. Frankie hit him, the man fell on the footpath, hit his head and died. Frankie was charged with culpable homicide. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

But ill-will set in then. The were false rumours that Frankie had bought his way out of the prosecution. When Frank McBrearty returned to Raphoe the rumours returned with him. He was not popular through the community. We (he and the investigators he had working for him in the case) found he was hated by some sections and loved by another. One elderly woman we spoke to said Frankie had put in here central heating system for her as a favour. But others were very hostile. The gardaí imbibed this hatred. Some other business people in the town were also imbued with this hatred. There was a major row between Frank McBrearty snr and another businessman in the town and this too was a factor.

And then on the night Richie Barron was killed (13 October 1996), Willie Doherty, the son of Paddy Doherty, informed (Garda) John O Dowd that he knew Frank McBrearty jnr had killed Richie Barron.

"William Doherty misled the gardaí, treated them like fools with lies and they believed them but his father (Paddy Doherty) always did that to us (Billy Flynn and his investigators) when we started our investigation. Willie Doherty set up Robert Noel McBride to give false evidence against Frank McBrearty jnr and Mark McConnell (cousin of the McBreartys) implicating them in the killing of Richie Barron. Then there were what were called the vigilantes (Derek "Darcy" Connolly, Roderick Donnelly, Paul Roulston and others) who were in league with some of the Gardai and they were making statements saying they saw such and such (the statements of the "vigilantes" were found to have been entirely false). And then there were the "confessions", the alleged confessions made by Frank McBrearty jnr.

"I was engaged by Frank McBrearty snr on 5 February 1997. Over the following months I sent reports on what was going on in Donegal to Noel Conroy, then the deputy commissioner (now Garda Commissioner). I sent 117 reports during 1997 and some of these reports would have been extensive. I sent the material to Nora Owen (the Minister for Justice), to Dermot Gleeson (then Attorney General, now chairman of AIB) and to the DPP.

"I met officials of the Department of Justice but there was no evidence that Nora Owen ever saw the files I had sent.

"Chief Superintendent Noel O Sullivan was appointed by the Commissioner (then Pat Byrne) to deal with me. We became friends, we had a joint purpose. He was sincere and I was sincere trying to find out what had happened. unknown to me all my correspondence exposing corruption by certain gardaí in Donegal but being re-directed down to Letterkenny to the very people (who were engaged in the corruption).

6. Billy Flynn's response to McDowell

It is true that since Mr McDowell was appointed Attorney General that I have had regular contact with him in connection with different cases. I very much appreciate his assistance (in relation to a high profile case – he cites other cases, reference to which would be defamatory of a third party).

It is untrue I contacted Michael McDowell to give him information in connection with a forthcoming Dáil debate. I did not contact him, he contacted me.

(On Michael McDowell's claim that he did not castigate two named officials) the Minister's response is (not true). (Later on the afternoon of Wednesday 3 May, Billy Flynn phoned to say he had informed the current Attorney General, Rory Brady, about allegations made by Michael McDowell about named officials).

In conclusion, I would say that I am disappointed in the Minister's response as all our phone calls over the years have been most friendly and cordial as was the meeting and where I consider a central issue is that this meeting was arranged on Friday 10 June 2005 via a phone call from Mr McDowell to me and not a chance call on the Saturday morning en route to Carrigonshannon.

7. Flynn and the gardaí

In June 2003 the Government was about to appoint Noel Conroy as the new Garda Commissioner, in succession to Pat Byrne, who was then retiring. Billy Flynn wrote to Bertie Ahern at government buildings on 26 June 2003, saying: "I would vigorously recommend that the government reconsidered ratifying (the appointment of Noel Conroy)". He based his representation on the grounds that Noel Conroy had a direct involvement in what was happening in Donegal and bore some of the responsibility for what happened there. He made other claims concerning Noel Conroy.

His representations were based in part on a note Noel Conroy wrote to an Assistant Commissioner on 6 November 1997 concerning the Donegal affair. The note states: "The allegations made by William Flynn are disturbing, to say the least, and although they may in many cases be statutorily barred in so far as the Garda Síochána Complaints Act is concerned, nevertheless they should be investigated to establish the true position in all such complaints. Such investigation should be (a) a fact finding investigation or (b) criminal or disciplinary".

But then the note states reports made by a Superintendent Gallagher "indicate that Flynn had in his possession data in respect of private telephone subscribers and if this is the case, then all criminal action in relation to same should also be investigated. This is a very serious breach of trust and discloses offences under the Data Protection Act".

Billy Flynn interprets this as evidence of a "cover up". He claims this shows Noel Conroy was more interested in pursuing him because of his disclosures of Garda scandal in Donegal, rather than joining in the investigation of those scandals. This is even though the letter clearly states that the allegations of scandal should be investigated.

By the time that Noel Conroy wrote this note to an Assistant Commissioner, Billy Flynn had uncovered evidence of wide scale Garda collusion in an attempt to frame the McBrearty family for the murder of Richie Barron. He had bombarded the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and the Attorney General with letters and reports backing up his claims.

Four months previously, in July 1997 he had been calling for the establishment of a tribunal to enquire into what had gone on in Donegal.

He claims he was "targeted" by gardaí from an early stage in the investigation. On an afternoon in June 1997 he was standing outside the nightclub owned by Frank McBrearty in Raphoe, the Diamond. Seven detectives emerged from a café across the road. He sensed hostility coming from them. He collected his family and attempted to drive out of the Diamond in Raphoe. A car stopped in front of him, blocking his progress. Another car blocked him from behind. Both cars were being driven by the detectives he had seen earlier. Frank McBrearty arrived at the scene and the situation was defused.

Later he was prosecuted and convicted for making abusive phone calls to a woman garda in Donegal and to the wife of another garda.

"I did phone Garda Joan Gallagher (who featured recently at the Morris Tribunal where she was questioned about allegations she had assaulted a relative of the McBrearty family, Caitríona Brolly, while the later was in custody – while Joan Gallagher vigorously denied the allegation another Garda present said he saw her assault Caitríona Brolly). I simply asked her to ensure that if Caitríona Brolly was to be questioned again it could be done by another woman garda. I certainly was not abusive towards her.

"I did phone the home of Detective sergeant John White and spoke to his wife. The background was this.

"On the 10 May 1998, Frank senior rang me, he was in a terrible state, Frank had been down the town about half nine. They had stopped a car, little Maria was in the car with him and (Detective Sergeant John) White had said, 'why don't you bring up your murdering son to make a confession to the murder of Richie Barron'. I had been assured White would never have any more contact with the McBreartys.

"I had got a deal that if Frankie operated proper house (ie licensing hours), White would be removed.

"I rang Raphoe (garda station), wasn't there. I rang Letterkenny (garda station), he wasn't there. I rang White's house and he wasn't there. White's wife asked me what did I want him for and I said I felt White was going off the fucking rails. Right. I rang Frank back and said, 'look, I cannot contact him', and then I looked at the time. I think it must have been ten to one. When I realised the time, I rang Mrs White back and said 'look, I've just phoned you, I'm so sorry about the time'. I wasn't abusive, only thing I did, the time was certainly wrong. Right. Anyway, Joan Gallagher and Mrs White filed statements.

"As a result of the prosecution and the general harassment in March 1998 I had a breakdown and I attended a psychotherapist, not a psychiatrist, to try and take me out of this thing. Right."

The case was heard in June 1998. He did not turn up for the case because of his state of health, he says, and in his absence was fined £1,400 (later reduced to £600). He has refused to pay the fine and is liable to arrest and imprisonment for 90 days.

8. Getting the phone logs

Central to the success of Billy Flynn in the McBrearty affair was his acquisition of the phone logs of Garda John O'Dowd, from whose phone extortionist calls were made to associates of the McBreartys. In all, he obtained the phone logs of over 30 people, most of them related to Garda phones. In the course of the extended interview with Village he disclosed that another investigator, a retired garda, is able to tap into the Garda Pulse system (ie, the Garda computer), but he (Billy Flynn) is not in a position to do that.

Billy Flynn explained: "I was driving home from Dublin to Enfield and I gave a hitchhiker a lift. He was not a usual hitchhiker, something had happened his car and he was in a hurry to get to a destination before public transport would get him there. On the way I discovered he worked in Eircom and as he was getting out of the car I asked if he could help me. I told him what I had in mind and he said he would.

"Afterwards I would meet him in an agreed location. I would drive up and we would exchange envelopes, his containing the phone logs I needed and I remunerating him."