Reeling from incompetence and fatigue

The Government has been shaken by a traumatic three months, but the opposition has failed to capitalise. By Vincent Browne, Emma Browne and Colin Murphy

The Government has gone limping into the summer recess after its most traumatic three months in office in the nine years since it came to power. The two coalition parties are showing symptoms of distress – Fianna Fáil backbenchers in alarm over the prospect of large seats losses at the next election and the PDs in meltdown as its two cabinet ministers are said to be in a "dysfunctional" relationship with each other.

The opinion polls are predicting little prospect of the re-election of the present government but are far from signalling the demise of the fatigued Bertie Ahern for the opposing parties are failing to register the support required to get them into government.

The odds remain that Bertie Ahern will be back in office after the next election with fewer Fianna Fáil ministers with him in cabinet, far fewer Fianna Fáil TDs on the backbenches behind him and with new partners, most likely Labour.

But events could still intervene to disrupt such predictions, such as new damaging disclosures at the Planning Tribunal (see following story) or further crises that inflame public opinion, such as the recent crisis over sex offenders.

Unresolved issues with the PDs could also intervene. The party's trustees quoted Mary Harney as saying she and Michael McDowell could not remain in cabinet together "much longer" and the briefing of the media by the rival camps within the PDs is suggestive of continuing explosive tensions.

There could be "after-shocks" from the Supreme Court's judgement in the "A" case, expected on Monday, 10 July. This could result in the release of convicted sex offenders, thereby triggering another implosion of public anger, as happened on Thursday, 1 June.

For the PDs the prospect of an election must be alarming. Not a single one of the party's eight TDs is sure of re-election and that includes the two cabinet ministers Mary Harney and Michael McDowell. The likelihood is that the party will retain no more than half its seats in 2007, consigning it to the opposition benches. There is also the prospect that Michael McDowell might resign from the party and do what he spoke of doing after the 1997 general election: join one of the largest parties, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

There are all the signs of a government jaded by years in office, panicked by the imminence of an electoral verdict.

An average of all opinion polls since the 2002 general election gives Fianna Fáil just 34.6 per cent support, down from 41.5 per cent in 2002.

Fine Gael shows a marginal improvement on its 2002 disastrous election performance – from 22.5 per cent to 23.1 per cent. The Labour Party shows a more substantial improvement from 10.8 per cent in 2002 to 13.6 per cent. Sinn Féin shows the greatest gains from 6.5 per cent in 2002 to an average poll rating of 9.9 per cent.

Support for the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats in the polls has been slightly higher than in the 2002 election but poll results on their performances are liable to significant error because of the low base.

It seems certain Fianna Fáil will lose 10 to 15 seats in the next election – reducing it to between 66 and 71 seats. Fine Gael is likely to be the main beneficiary, increasing its seats from 41 to between 41 and 46. Labour is likely to win in the region of 25 seats, which means Fine Gael and Labour have no prospect of forming a government on their own with just 66 to 71 seats between them. Even with the Greens it would still be well short of an overall majority.

The economy continues to perform strongly and although there is a grave vulnerability in the reliance on the construction industry as the engine of growth, it is unlikely that the wheels will come of the economic chariot in the next year. But there is a sense in which continued economic success is taken for granted.

The battleground for the next election was clearly signalled in the motions tabled by the opposing groups in the Dail on 4 July (see panel) and, significantly, the more telling of these relate to the portfolios of the two PD ministers: crime and health.

Meanwhile there are tensions also in the opposing camp. Divisions have surfaced between Fine Gael and Labour on a variety of issues to do with crime, foreign policy, EU battlegroups and the environment. There is the further wild card of Enda Kenny's temperament, which propels him at times into indiscretions such as his claims about being mugged in the context of the Irish crime situation, whereas the alleged incident (and he has been strangely vague on being questioned about it) occurred in Kenya several years ago. There is the additional issue of Pat Rabbitte's leadership in Labour. While not in jeopardy, he is still the focus of hostility and disappointment among many Labour TDs and activists.




Election battleground

The battleground for the next election was signaled in motions tabled in the Dáil on Tuesday 4 July by the opposition and the Government

Anti-Government case:

• Failure to deal with rising crime rates, the lower detection rates and the continuing unacceptable level of crime, ranging from gun murders to vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

• Failure to adequately protect the children of the nation by its incompetent, disjointed and ill-judged response to the issues raised by the Supreme Court judgment in the CC case.

• The shocking waste of public money on such ill-judged and mismanaged projects as electronic voting and PPARS.

• Failure to deal with the crisis in accident and emergency units and to clear all hospital waiting lists within two years, as promised in May 2002.

• Failure to provide adequate school buildings in developing areas; the increase in the number of children in classes of 30 or more; and the reneging on the commitment to reduce class sizes for children under nine to below international best practice of 20:1.

• Failure to honour the commitment that 80 per cent of all taxpayers would pay at the standard rate.

• Failure to deal with escalating house prices which have increased at nine times the rate of inflation since 1997 or to deliver the required level of social and affordable housing.

• Failure to ensure that the benefits of economic growth were shared out fairly, as a result of which, 21 per cent of the population are at risk of poverty.

The Fianna Fáil/PD case:

• More than 600,000 jobs have been created since the Government took office in 1997 while the rate of unemployment has been reduced from 10.3 per cent to 4.3 per cent over the same period.

• An integrated national transport network is being developed in Ireland through a record ?7.8 billion investment in transport infrastructure over the past 9 years.

• A far more equitable tax system where the top one per cent of earners pay more than 20 per cent of all income tax and the top 4 per cent of all earners are expected to contribute about 40 per cent of the total income tax yield for 2006.

• Net impact of the Government's successful measures to boost employment and improve social welfare rates has been to remove 250,000 people from consistent poverty.

• An unprecedented reduction in waiting times for hospital procedures.

• A five-fold increase in investment in school buildings, a new proactive approach to school planning in developing areas has been introduced and by next September there will be 4,000 more teachers in our primary schools.

• A programme of resourcing and reform of the criminal justice system, including bringing the strength of the Garda Síochána up to 14,000, so that serious crime rates are now lower per head of population than 10 years ago.

• Pensioners have a decent income by increasing rates this year by ?16 to ?193.30. (contributory) and ?14 to ?182 (non-contributory).

• Delivery of record increases in housing supply.



Issues that matter

The central issue has to do with that of inequality, which Village has highlighted repeatedly. And central to that are the findings of the report "Inequalities in Mortalities" published by the Institute of Public Health which has shown that for all the major diseases the mortality rate for the lower occupational classes is a multiple of the mortality rate for the higher occupational classes.

This reveals not just inequality in the health care system but in society generally – in housing, education, income and wealth, influence and power. It shows that in spite of improving economic standards, such deep inequalities persist, which is hardly surprising since it rates hardly at all on the political agenda. Policies that confront the issues of inequality in health, education, housing, income, influence and power remain of central relevance but are rarely discussed.

Another major issue has to do with sexual abuse and violence. While every now and again there are alarms about the incidence of sexual abuse, the scale of the abuse has not impinged on public consciousness. The authoritative report on this, the SAVI report, has disclosed that about 120,000 women were raped in childhood – ie subjected to penetrative sexual contact.

The recent panics at the prospect of a few child abusers being released from imprisonment showed the extent of the misperception of the problem. There are tens of thousands of child abusers at large, who have never been confronted, never been charged or questioned, never been identified. The damage done by child abuse is enormous and affects victims throughout their lives. We have never confronted the issue in its true dimensions, never devised a strategy for dealing with it. That must be an issue in the forthcoming election.

There is the issue of road deaths, which also is an issue that impacts only occasionally. On average one person is killed on the roads every day and far more are very badly injured. This is a huge price to pay for the license we allow in the use of private transport. That tens of thousands of people, whose incapacity to drive safely has been established in driving tests, continue to be allowed drive on our roads is testimony to official indifference on the issue. Ditto the failures over so many years to introduce random breath testing and penalty points.

No party is wiling to confront public indifference to road deaths by saying only those whose capacity to drive has been established by testing may drive on our roadways.

There is further the rise of what is known as gangland crime. We all know that this is linked intrinsically to the criminalisation of illicit drugs and we further know that the "war on drugs" has failed dismally – ie the policy of criminalisation has failed dismally. Communities remain devastated by drug abuse and we refuse to devise new strategies to deal with it. New strategies that would involve at least the decriminalisation of "soft" drugs.



Investigation stalled into allegations concerning Bertie

At a recent High Court hearing, allegations of corruption concerning unnamed senior politicians, based on hearsay, were aired. From proceedings of the Planning Tribunal these politicians are identifiable as Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds, both of whom always had denied any impropriety. No investigation of these allegations is likely to take place before the general election, if at all. By Frank Connolly

Allegations that a senior politician received two payments of £50,000 and £30,000 and monies were paid into accounts in Jersey, Liechtenstein and the Dutch Antilles in return for specific favours were aired at a recent High Court hearing. The politician was not named in the High Court but was named in connection with these allegations at a hearing of the Planning Tribunal in November last. The politician is Bertie Ahern, who has, at all times, denied the allegations. Associates of Bertie Ahern have said it is unlikely Bertie knows where Liechtenstein and the Dutch Antilles are, let alone have bank accounts there.

Allegations involving another unnamed politician were also aired at the High Court hearing, this time to do with the receipt on behalf of Fianna Fáil of £100,000 following a fund-raising function in Cork. Again it is possible to identify the politician referred to on the basis of previous disclosures at the Planning Tribunal, as Albert Reynolds. He too has at all times denied any impropriety.

The High Court was hearing an application by the Cork developer, Owen O'Callaghan, and an associate, John Deane, to have the Planning Tribunal stopped from pursuing its inquiries into the Liffey Valley (Quarryvale) development, on the grounds that the Tribunal has exhibited bias against them.

The allegations concerning Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds derive from claims made by another developer, Tom Gilmartin, and his allegations are founded on what he says he was told by Owen O'Callaghan, when they were in partnership together.

The High Court heard that Tom Gilmartin had told lawyers acting for the Planning Tribunal (now chaired by Judge Alan Mahon) that Owen O'Callaghan told him that £50,000 was paid to an unnamed politician (who is identifiable from Tribunal hearings as Bertie Ahern) in 1989 in return for assistance with a land exchange at Quarryvale, and that a further £30,000 was paid to the same politician in 1992 in return for his assistance in ensuring that a rival developer, John Corcoran of Green Properties, did not obtain tax designation for his shopping centre at Blanchardstown. Gilmartin also told Tribunal lawyers that O'Callaghan said he (O'Callaghan) had paid monies into accounts held by this unnamed politician in Jersey, Liechtenstein and the Dutch Antilles.

The Court also heard that Owen O'Callaghan said he had given £100,000 to the other unnamed politician (whom is identifiable as Albert Reynolds from previous hearings of the Planning Tribunal) on behalf of Fianna Fáil, when the latter was Taoiseach in 1994, after a fundraising function in Cork.

The judge, TC Smith, has yet to deliver his judgement on the application. Whatever the outcome, there is a virtual certainty the decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court, which means the Planning Tribunal will not be able to further its investigations into Quarryvale until some time in 2007, if at all. It seems unlikely these issues will be investigated before the general election, expected in May 2007.

Paul Gallagher SC for Owen O'Callaghan told the High Court of notes made by Tribunal lawyers following conversations with Tom Gilmartin on 25 November 1999.

"Mr O'Callaghan had paid around £150,000 to senior politicians in 1989 and in total, had paid £250,000 to senior politicians in connection with Quarryvale. In 1989, £50,000 was paid to (that senior politician) and £50,000 to (that senior politician) who also got another £30,000 subsequently."

Reading a memo of another telephone conversation between Gilmartin and a tribunal lawyer on 26 November, 1999 Paul Gallagher SC, representing Owen O'Callaghan said; "(My client – ie Owen O Callaghan) made offshore payments to politicians including (the named ones). He made payments into (that politician's) account in Jersey. (Both of them) have accounts in Jersey, Liechtenstein and the Dutch Antilles. (That politician) has deposits in England and got in excess of £100,000 from (my client). Over £1 million was stolen from Barkhill (a property company established to develop Quarryvale by Tom Gilmartin – Owen O'Callaghan, with the assistance of Allied Irish Bank subsequently took over the company) and it was from this money that (my client) paid the politicians." Again the politicians referred to are Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, respectively.

Paul Gallagher SC, speaking on behalf of his client, Owen O'Callaghan, said "the allegations are untrue". He said it was unfair to his client that he was not informed of the content of the allegations previously and at a time when he was asked to give evidence during the first module of the public inquiry known as Quarryvale One. The details of the allegations were fully disclosed to O'Callaghan only after he had made an application to the High Court to obtain the statements from the Tribunal. Paul Gallagher SC said Tom Gilmartin had told tribunal lawyers that £30,000 was paid to an unnamed politician (Bertie Ahern) after a meeting of the board of Barkhill in 1992.

"This was the board meeting at which Mr O'Callaghan left the room for a period and came back and announced Blanchardstown was not going to get tax designation," Gilmartin told the Tribunal lawyers. During the board meeting O'Callaghan allegedly told Gilmartin that he had just spoken to the Minister for Finance, Bertie Ahern, who had given him assurances in relation to Blanchardstown. According to counsel for Owen O'Callaghan these allegations were known to the tribunal but their client was not alerted to them when he was called to give evidence during the first Quarryvale module hearings two years ago. (Had the Blanchardstown development been given tax designation it would have damaged the prospects of the Quarryvale development.)

In response to these representations, the Tribunal claimed that it considered itself "neutral" in terms of the truth or falsity of allegations it received in private. Only when it felt that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a public inquiry were these allegations circulated to those concerned.

During the April hearings the High Court heard details of a fund raising dinner in Cork in March 1994, attended by Reynolds when £100,000 was raised for Fianna Fail.

The Court heard that Gilmartin claimed to Tribunal lawyers that he was told by O'Callaghan of a much larger sum given by O'Callaghan after the dinner and that this was in exchange for a commitment by the then Taoiseach to ensure that a shopping centre O'Callaghan was developing at Golden Island in Athlone would receive urban renewal tax incentives.

(The Golden Island centre was granted urban renewal designation by Bertie Ahern, then Minister for Finance, in the final hours of the Reynolds-led Coalition government in December 1994 and a day after Bertie Ahern met Owen O'Callaghan in government buildings. Bertie Ahern at all times has denied he received any monies or that he did anything improper.)

The High Court heard another claim that files relating to sensitive tax designation proposals went missing from the offices of the Department of Finance while Bertie Ahern was minister during the mid 1990s and were shown to a number of influential, and named, property developers in a Dublin hotel.

The Court heard Tom Gilmartin had claimed over £1.5 million was removed from the accounts of Barkhill Ltd., the company he formed to develop the Quarryvale site, and used to pay bribes to politicians and others; that over £1 million was paid to Frank Dunlop (the lobbyist, who has claimed to have bribed several politicians in return for supporting rezoning applications) and that monies lodged in his (Dunlop's) Shefran account at Allied Irish Bank at its branch in Terenure were used to bribe dozens of councillors.

Paul Gallagher SC also said in court that former tribunal lawyer, Pat Hanratty SC had told Gilmartin AIB could be proven to have acted fraudulently in its dealings with him. This, Gallagher said, proved bias on the part of the Tribunal against O'Callaghan and AIB. This is denied by the Tribunal which claims that Hanratty's comments referred to a possible case for fraud against the bank if Gilmartin's allegations were proved to be true.

In what was described as a "Myles Na gCopaleen" type incident the court heard of a claim (by Gilmartin) of how he was brought by O'Callaghan to meet a person wearing tinted glasses and purporting to represent the IRA in a public house in Clondalkin in late 1990.

According to Gilmartin, the man said he would be run out of town if he (Gilmartin) tried to develop the Quarryvale site. Gilmartin has privately named the man he met as a prominent current member of Sinn Féin in Dublin. The man has denied that he was present on any such occasion and says he has never met Gilmartin or O'Callaghan nor does he live in, or represent, anywhere near west Dublin.

Paul Gallagher said Tom Gilmartin had made demonstrably untrue statements to the Tribunal some of which he subsequently withdrew. For instance, Gilmartin had claimed Owen O'Callaghan told him that the route of the Lee tunnel in Cork was moved to benefit a property he owned but it transpired O Callaghan did not own the property concerned until years afterwards and therefore the claim was demonstrably untrue, Gallagher submitted.

Denis McDonald SC, for the tribunal, accused O'Callaghan's lawyers of "knitting unconnected things together and selected things together and trying to knit a garment from them, a garment of bias". He said that the tribunal had provided all the documentation of its private discussions with Gilmartin following a High Court ruling and they were now being used to stop the inquiry.

"The Tribunal has given all these documents to the Applicants. And then low and behold after they have got all the documents they come up with this new allegation (of bias) instead of getting on with the business of getting Mr Gilmartin back into the box and cross examining him to their heart's content."