John Byrne profiles the man behind the new Centre for Public Inquiry, Frank Connolly
Immediately prior to Kevin Myers stealing the limelight with his attack on single mothers and their children, another Irish journalist found himself under the scrutiny of his press colleagues and at the centre of public curiosity: investigative reporter Frank Connolly.
And much to his annoyance. Connolly, a veteran of many headline stories over the past 20 years (including a series on planning corruption which helped establish the Flood Tribunal, and a television series highlighting the outrageous carry-on of gardaí in Donegal) is diametrically different to the Irish Times opinion columnist. Left wing, strongly nationalist, and with a preference for fact over off-the-cuff opinion, he does not seek to make himself the focal point of controversy. But he seems to find himself there nonetheless.
Most recently, the announcement of the formation of the Centre for Public Inquiry, of which the south Dubliner will be chief executive, has brought him into the public eye, and has given plenty of people an opportunity to rake up past incidents.
Seanad leader Mary O'Rourke declared herself to be "particularly wary of the staffing arrangements", and seeing as Connolly was the only staff member the Centre had at the time, she can't have been talking about too many other people. Similarly, Senator Brian Hayes of Fine Gael said he had "concerns about the people involved – are they above reproach themselves?"
Politicians are not the only people attacking Connolly. Some newspapers have also focused on him – particularly the Sunday Independent. Referring to him as a "discredited journalist", they recently ran an old story relating to how Connolly was questioned about allegations that he had travelled to Columbia in 2001 on a false passport with a senior member of the IRA.
Connolly rubbished the claims and has never been charged, but the fact that his brother, Niall Connolly, is one of the Columbia Three, means that the association between the latter and the fake passport allegations has remained in the public consciousness.
In light of all this recent publicity, a frosty Frank Connolly – a reserved person most of the time – is not in the humour for talking about himself to Village. Any attempts to cover anything other than his career in journalism are met with sour replies and threats to terminate the interview. "If you want to find out other things about me", he advises, "go and talk to other people".
Luckily, other people are not so reticent. Ursula Barry, of the UCD Women's Education, Research and Resource Centre, remembers him from her time in Trinity, where he studied in the early to mid 1970s. "Frank was very involved in student activism, and he was Education Officer of the Students' Union", she says. "Politics has always been the centre of his life – radical politics in particular, both in relation to the national question, and in terms of social and economic terms in the South."
She continues: "As a person, he was quite intense, and determined around political issues. He worked very hard in any area that interested him, and he was particularly taken with miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six or the Guilford Four."
He was heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and also worked in RTÉ, including a research slot for The Late Late Show.
Connolly remembers: "I was a season on the Late Late, and researched a special show on nuclear power for them. It was an issue that I had a lot of interest in."
All did not go totally smoothly at RTÉ, apparently. "At the time in RTÉ", he says, "there was quite a tense situation going on. I had my own differences with people, particularly in relation to issues relating to the North."
Having left RTÉ, he then worked freelance for a number of publications in the 1980s, including the Sunday Tribune, the Sunday Independent and Magill (where he first wrote about Ray Burke's alleged involvement in planning corruption). But despite developing a reputation as an extremely driven and hard-working journalist, his strongly nationalist views worked against him. Some potential employers shied away from him, fearing a lack of balance on issues related to the North.
It was not until he joined the Sunday Business Post, which largely mirrored his political views, that he really established himself. The Post was the natural home for Connolly, as he himself admits. "I think that's probably true, in that it had a very good and courageous editor in Damien Kiberd... I think that certainly was where I felt most comfortable."
He worked there as Northern Ireland editor, and wrote a series of interviews with key players from all the political parties as the peace process developed.
Within the Business Post, he was well liked, and was particularly close to editor Damien Kiberd. Kiberd says: "He started off as a freelancer, and then became staff. I hired him because he was a very good story-getter, very persistent, with a good sense of news.
"He broke a lot of good stories – but lots of them were attacked when they came out first by the mainstream media. Some of his stories were bitterly attacked in Dáil Éireann, particularly the Ray Burke one."
And how did Frank react to all of this? "Well, what can you do?" says Kiberd. "It's just something you have to live with. I think he still had the respect of other journalists."
Connolly has always been viewed as something of a maverick by his peers, and not one to run with the journalistic pack. Eamon Dunphy, to whose radio shows Connolly has been a regular contributor, backs this up. "Frank is one of the good guys", he says. "But he's not one of these guys with a trilby hat, standing at the bar, talking out the side of his mouth. He just gets the job done, and does his own thing."
One serious blot on his career concerns a story the Sunday Business Post ran in 2000. Connolly was approached by a business man known as Denis "Starry" O'Brien in 1998, about allegations of corruption concerning senior Fianna Fáil figures. After publication, O'Brien was sued for defamation by Bertie Ahern, who won Circuit Court damages of €30,000.
The full story has yet to emerge – "and I'm not going to tell you the story", says the testy Connolly. "I'm going to tell it myself some time. And there are certain things that I have to respect – and you have to respect as well – and that is that the story led to a defamation action by the Taoiseach. That action was won by the Taoiseach. He got a settlement from O'Brien, and he got an apology from the Sunday Business Post."
Soon after Kiberd left the Post, Connolly was hired by Martin Clarke, the British executive editor of Ireland On Sunday. Owned by the Daily Mail, the paper was hardly the natural home for a left-wing, Irish nationalist. But Connolly continued to break big stories (although they didn't get the prominence they would have in his old place of work), notably the Monica Leech affair, and continued to work there until the Centre for Public Inquiry was formed.
The one time that Connolly does relax when talking to Village concerns a live radio spat he had with Michael McDowell on the Pat Kenny radio show in 2002. In his car on the way to work, he heard McDowell attacking a story he'd written for Ireland on Sunday. He became so incensed by the Minister for Justice's thrashing of his reputation that made the almost Myers-esque move of ringing up RTÉ to defend himself. After they'd finished rowing with each other, but still on air, they arranged to meet up for a pint to talk further about the story.
"I met him some time later, at the launch of the report of the Morris Inquiry" says Connolly. "McDowell says to me – 'why didn't you ring me for that pint?' And I says – 'I thought you were going to ring me'."
"There you go – you can put that in at the end of the piece, as a joke."