Confronting Power – Part 1

An Interview with Frank Connolly

“[I]t is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect” [George Orwell, Preface to ‘Animal Farm’, 1945] [1]

‘Freedom of the press’ is one of those few concepts that can bring erstwhile journalistic adversaries together in almost unanimous agreement. The term is generally bandied around for several weeks whenever some authoritarian oligarchy attempts to restrict or oppress the local press. The concept is of course admirable, and few competent commentators would reject the idea that this freedom provides a means to protect democracy. But it is often used to evoke a rose tinted idea of journalism – one where all journalists are forging their democratic paths in a truly campaigning vocation. The Irish Times editorial on World Press Freedom Day last year stated proudly – ‘A well equipped reporter with a satellite phone is virtually impossible for any regime to control’. However, these well-equipped reporters are subject to numerous controls far less obvious than the clumsy military fist. Where economic factors are concerned these ‘campaigning’ journalists have shown reluctance in certain instances to bite the hand that feeds them. And it is left to those journalists who not only understand but are willing to accept the consequences of confronting concentrations of power to fulfil an ideal the rest are only willing to pay lip service to. [2]

We recently interviewed Frank Connolly, one of Ireland’s few investigative journalists, discussing issues of corruption, the exploitation of Ireland’s natural resources and the mainstream Irish media’s performance on these issues. [See Biography] [3]

[FC – Frank Connolly, MB – MediaBite, Miriam Cotton and David Manning]

In September 2006, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was under cross-examination at the Mahon Tribunal (an investigation into corruption in Irish public life that has been ongoing since 1997). During a number of days in the witness box irregularities in the Taoiseach’s financial affairs became apparent. The tribunal’s scrutiny of Mr Ahern’s finances has focused mainly on a period of time from 1987 to 1993 when the Taoiseach was Minister for Finance and during which, he claims, he had no bank account of his own and so has been unable to produce records of his financial affairs. Frank Connolly has been assiduous in reporting the known facts and in investigating matters which other Irish news outlets have been more reluctant to cover. His reports have appeared in the Irish version of The Sunday Mail and its counterpart The Daily Mail – an English owned newspaper.

MB: Eamon Dunphy [a well known Irish journalist and radio and TV personality] has recently entered the story of Bertie’s finances…

FC: Well, Eamon Dunphy is being used as a target. I saw a copy of his statement to the tribunal two weeks ago and published it last week, which is a very important story – the story being that Dunphy has come forward to the tribunal and has told them about conversations he had with the developer Owen O’Callaghan during which O’Callaghan said that Bertie Ahern took money in exchange for political favours and he specifically mentioned in exchange for a lucrative tax designation that O’Callaghan got in 1994 from Bertie Ahern. This was just hours before the government collapsed. Ahern was Minister for Finance and had to sign off on the tax designation…

MB: Albert Reynolds [then Taoiseach] came into see him – is that right?

FC:…Yes, for Golden Island, and according to Dunphy he was told by O’Callaghan that Bertie Ahern had received money for this tax designation but hadn’t delivered and that Albert Reynolds had to put a gun to his head at the last minute – at quarter to twelve just before the government fell. That statement in itself is very important even though he [Dunphy] had made a subsequent formal statement which dilutes a lot of the private statement made on his own to the tribunal. The formal statement was made in cooperation with his lawyers who took a lot of the heat out of the original statement. Anyway, I published both of them in the Daily Mail last week and all hell broke loose. Instead of concentrating on the content of what was being said the Sunday papers – and the Sunday Independent in particular, as is its style – attacked the messengers – attacked Dunphy and attacked me in particular and claimed that there was some conspiracy. [‘Defiant Dunphy writes himself a starring role in ‘Bertiegate’’, Sunday Independent, 15 October 2007] [4] In other words, they ignored completely that here was a man who had worked with O’Callaghan, a respected broadcaster who is known to have his own opinions and who has now come forward with a very important statement and he has no interest – nothing but grief can come out of this for Dunphy – and yet the tactic of the Sunday Independent was to literally shoot the messenger rather than look at the content of his story and the significance of the story. Because now you have somebody else corroborating what Tom Gilmartin [a Sligo born property developer] has said – because he was also told in private conversations with O’Callaghan that O’Callaghan had paid money to Bertie Ahern on a number of occasions – including on one occasion in relation to the same tax designation.

Now, to a lesser extent the Sunday Tribune and the Sunday Times picked up on spin that emanated from Bertie Ahern, according to themselves, at the weekend that said, [they believed] that Dunphy only came forward because he was annoyed about what had happened to me at the Centre for Public Inquiry a couple of years ago and almost that I had put him up to it. The idea that Eamon Dunphy could be put up to anything by anybody is absurd enough but that was the spin that was flipped by the government and a number of journalists just followed the spin.

MB: The story smacks of desperation to a lot of people.

FC: I agree

“a very large slice of the media – and certainly the print media are, firstly, refusing to accept responsibility in examining the story – they were given the same details as I have received in relation to the extraordinary personal finances of Mr Ahern – and that’s a man who claims that as Minister for Finance he never had a bank account in 1993. I mean that suggestion on its own is absurd.”

MB: Even from just anecdotal evidence and speaking to a number of life long Fianna Fail supporters, people really don’t believe Ahern anymore. The tide may be beginning to turn.

FC: That’s because Bertie Ahern’s accounts and his explanations are totally incredible – you can’t believe a word of it. What it has become is a battle of spin and the most important story of say the last ten years, which it is – whether the Taoiseach took money from business people while he was Minister for Finance in the early 90s. It’s the sort of thing that would have brought down senior politicians like him no matter what position they hold – recently the Prime Minister of Japan went because it emerged that he had taken money from business people in the early 90s and had not come up with a proper explanation – and that’s only in the last two months.

MB: And we also recently had the example of the Swedish politician who had not renewed her television licence and who resigned her job because of it…

FC: Exactly, and so this is the key story and yet what’s happened is that a very large slice of the media – and certainly the print media are, firstly, refusing to accept responsibility in examining the story – they were given the same details as I have received in relation to the extraordinary personal finances of Mr Ahern – and that’s a man who claims that as Minister for Finance he never had a bank account in 1993. I mean that suggestion on its own is absurd. RTE appear to be slightly afraid of the story having given Bertie his opportunity to make up his convoluted explanations last year and are not chasing it as hard as perhaps they should. Other newspapers just seem flummoxed by the whole thing.

MB: That goes to the heart of what we have come to talk to you about. There are a few issues in there – media ownership for example, the Sunday Independent and Tony O’Reilly – you can’t say on the face of the known facts its definite influence – but understood influence in the situation?

FC: Well I think you need to look at the actual sequence of events and then draw your own conclusions. The sequence of events this year alone is that information was circulated in April concerning Bertie’s finances – it was quite extraordinary. We published it the day the election was called. Two weeks before that and after the information was circulated or some weeks before hand Bertie Ahern had a private meeting with Tony O’Reilly [owner of Independent News & Media]. [The current Tánaiste/Minister for Finance] Brian Cowen attended for some of that meeting but not all of it. Although the Sunday Independent got access to the same information which was in the public interest and clearly something that should have been published – especially as an election was about to be called – the Independent flipped in their coverage. Instead of publishing the information they had about Bertie Ahern’s finances they actually announced the election on that day in May.

MB: They went into overdrive?

FC: Not only that but they also had an exclusive interview with Bertie Ahern done on the previous Thursday – by the editor of the newspaper, Aengus Fanning. So there are a series of choreographed events leading up to Bertie’s decision to suddenly go to the President to call an election. During that period he had meetings with the owner of Independent Newspapers and then the coverage of Independent Newspapers dramatically changed in favour of Mr Ahern. Specifically, to the extent that the Editor of the Sunday Independent was told in advance the date of the election – before even members of Mr Ahern’s election team or cabinet were informed. There was a massive row when the Mail covered the story [based on information circulated about Ahern’s finances] on the day the election was called.

But one of the effects of the calling of the election was to dampen the coverage of our story because RTE got worried they were now covered by restrictions which apply during an election period – so they didn’t even mention the Mail story and Bertie’s extraordinary finances that day and secondly, in the course of the Independent interview he attacked the tribunal for suggesting that it might have an open public hearing for the first opening statement in relation to this issue on the day after the election was called. As it turned out, the tribunal cancelled its proposed opening statement which would have included a lot of material that was in the article we published which made it even more of public interest that that article was published – otherwise people would not have had any idea. We did two other stories during the election which tended to dominate the election campaign in the early weeks and obviously we know what the result was afterwards. The main newspaper group which controls 80% of the print media decided not to put the material in the public domain even though we know, and they have subsequently admitted, that they had it. That’s the sequence of events.

“Not only is it that other organs are not publishing these stories, even though they are in the public interest, but they are attacking people who are publishing these stories and they are making the messengers ‘the problem’.”

MB: From what we can make out there doesn’t seem to be another serious investigative journalist in Ireland – at least no other journalist that is functioning the same way you do, for instance picking up on stories like this one [Ahern’s finances] and the Corrib Gas issue and searching for information behind the official account.

FC: There is a dearth of investigative journalism. There is a lot of good opinion writing including some very good opinion pieces and Fintan [O’Toole] is an example where there is analysis based on documents and on information that’s come into the public domain etc. Some other journalists are also trying to do investigative work, beyond opinion. RTE’s Prime Time has made some important programmes in recent years. But there isn’t an appetite for it and there isn’t investment by the main media groups into investigative journalism. It does tend to cost money and resources and time. And it is ironic that it is an English-owned newspaper, The Mail, that are the only ones willing to deal with this particular issue and to publish big stories in relation to the Taoiseach’s finances which without question is quite definitely the biggest story of the decade. I was involved in the Ray Burke story which originally resulted in the setting up of the [Flood/Mahon] tribunal, and in the Garda corruption story and, as you mentioned, the Corrib Gas story, and in a whole series of other ones. Not only is it that other organs are not publishing these stories, even though they are in the public interest but they are attacking people who are publishing these stories and they are making the messengers ‘the problem’. That is the most sinister and cynical development in the Irish media in my view over the last ten or fifteen years.

MB: And where are your colleagues – are they rallying round, do you find?

FC: Which colleagues?

MB: In the press generally.

FC: Well what happens is that when a story is published such as the Dunphy story last week, there tends to be a great silence for a period as people take in the significance of the story. Then they decide how they are going to deal with it because they can’t ignore it – it’s like the elephant in the room. The media elephant in the room for several days was that we had published the inexplicable explanations given by Bertie Ahern about very large amounts of money going through his accounts. And we published those explanations in his own words – it wasn’t even an allegation by somebody else. They were his own words in private to the tribunal. So clearly, the newspapers have to deal with this and eventually after a few days the Irish Times dipped their toes in the water having been concerned that they had themselves been hauled before the courts by the tribunal. Understandably the Irish Times are little bit wary of tribunal-related stories. But they did dip their toes in the water and some of the other papers such as The Sunday Tribune started to pick up on it but by and large it was only after Ahern’s appearances at the tribunal itself where clearly he couldn’t explain why large amounts of money in cash that equated to round figure sums of sterling and in one case a huge dollar figure sum were passing through his accounts between 1992 and 1995. Then it became the big train of a story that it has become over the last number of months since the election.

Now the point I’m making is that people went to vote in May and they clearly voted for reasons that we can now understand – they didn’t want Enda Kenny [Leader of Fine Gael] in sufficient numbers or Pat Rabbitte [former leader of the Labour Party] and they were nervous about the way the economy was going so they didn’t want to change horses but if all of the media had carried out their responsibilities and had pushed the story to its logical consequence I think the outcome may have been very different. But the media didn’t do that and it was isolated to the Mail to do it. But then when the tribunal resumed in September and all of this stuff came out and Bertie’s own explanations were put to the test, and clearly didn’t pass the test of public opinion – not to mind the tribunal’s opinion – people’s attitudes changed. Most people don’t believe him; as you know yourselves anecdotally and in every other poll most people simply do not believe him.

MB: It seems there may be a perception that this might all be a ‘tip of the iceberg’ situation as well.

FC: There are at the moment five transactions that the tribunal have uncovered going into accounts controlled by Ahern or Celia Larkin [Ahern’s former partner] during that period that equated to round figures in sterling or in one case in December 1994 a $45,000 equivalent. Ahern has denied that the transactions are round figure sterling sums even though the mathematics point in that direction. While there are five transactions during that period of 18 months, what about all the other transactions that we don’t yet know about and that the tribunal has yet to uncover? The tribunal has also discovered that Mr Ahern knew about these transactions two years before he had told the tribunal about them. In other words he had identified these specific transactions as being particularly questionable and yet when the tribunal sought discovery of his bank accounts these particular transactions were omitted first time around. He only admitted earlier this year, in 2007, that there were foreign transactions underlying a series of lodgements and withdrawals. He also withheld details of some transactions despite an order from the tribunal to disclose everything back in 2005.

MB: And given all his statements in the autumn of 2006, it was extraordinary to hear all this new information.

FC: Previously, last September, he hadn’t mentioned any of this to Brian Dobson when he cried on the television about his family life. And remember it was Ahern himself who brought his marital breakdown etc. into the explanation. Nobody else raised it – because nobody else cares, really, about his private relationships.

“up to now there has hardly been any critical analysis of Ahern’s decisions in favour of very significant business interests in the country – not just while he was Minister for Finance but also currently in his position as Taoiseach.”

MB: While there are other journalists who write fairly robustly about this situation – Harry McGee in the Irish Examiner for instance and some others – nevertheless they don’t ever seek out the background information that you are publishing in the Mail. And even when they are clearly relying on information that you have published they don’t credit it to yourself or to the Mail.

FC: No they don’t credit The Mail. That actually happened during the last week with the Dunphy story. It’s actually in the Mail on Sunday that I have mainly been publishing the story but because of concerns about whether other outlets will get their hands on information – like for instance last week – we decided to run in the Daily Mail with the Dunphy story. Normally I would do that on a Sunday. But because of the timing of it and because we thought it might leak out in some other direction we decided to run with it during the week which has less of an impact than on a Sunday. But it is to do with journalistic reasons, and we decided to go with it as soon as we had it rather than hang onto it because what happens is that the government, and particularly Bertie Ahern’s own people will spin out their own story and use their established support mechanisms in the media – most notably the Sunday Independent. The Sunday Times has been running favourable stories about Ahern now for several years without any criticism or analysis. That is beginning to change as the mood of the country changes – we see that there is a certain scepticism creeping in. But up to now there has hardly been any critical analysis of Ahern’s decisions in favour of very significant business interests in the country – not just while he was Minister for Finance but also currently in his position as Taoiseach.

MB: There’s another consideration here too which is that in looking at the Taoiseach’s conduct, it’s holding the mirror up to quite a few people around the country who are involved in comparable if lesser versions of the same carry on. And it’s very easy to swallow the spin when they have framed it as an issue of marital breakdown and people see it in terms of things going on in their own lives or those of people they know.

FC: But I think that is again a media responsibility because people have to distinguish between what happens in a marital breakdown and decisions made by the second most powerful politician in the country where you can clearly see the decisions and you can now clearly see a stream of money. Even Ahern’s own explanations are not acceptable in a moral, ethical or political sense where he says he took dig outs from friends while he was Minister for Finance. – including a large amount from a group in Manchester whom he doesn’t remember – who ‘gave me £8,000 sterling’. That in itself is wrong. As former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds said, you don’t take money from a business group whether they are in a company in Ireland or not. And when he goes on to say that he appointed some of his benefactors to positions in state bodies because they were ‘friends of mine’ – that in itself is unethical and wrong – and contrary to their own ethics legislation introduced in 1995. But his account then is to say that this all occurred in a period before the legislation. I think that really hits the nail on the head because what has happened is that Ahern, like his now disgraced colleague Ray Burke, and others who were immersed in the culture surrounding the Haughey era were actually doing what we now know Charlie Haughey was doing – which was accepting large sums of money from people who were in very powerful economic positions in this society. That in itself is wrong and has been described as wrong by the tribunal set up during that period [the Flood tribunal]. So Ahern is doing what he has said should not be done and what tribunal chairmen over the years have said should not be done.

But in relation to his marital breakdown, that raises another question. He himself says that that was settled in the High Court in October 1993 and he again got a whip around of IR£22,500 in December to help him with the legal costs arising from that. Firstly, why did he end up in the High Court unless his former partner was resisting his explanations about his assets? Secondly why did he need a whip-round in December 1993 when he had IR£50,000, by his own account, in cash which he said he had accumulated over those previous years? Why did he need a further whip-round in 1994 when clearly he was getting monies going into his accounts which are shown by a trail of lodgements as well as the 50K that he says he had in cash during that period? So even by his own account and including bringing in the confusing issue of his marital breakdown, none of it makes sense. And there is a serious question which has been posed in newspapers – and I’m not the only one asking it – is whether he disclosed the 50K during the course of the settlement of his marriage breakdown – during the separation proceedings. If he didn’t that means an oath on affidavit that he would have had to make during that settlement may not be accurate. That in itself would be unacceptable. So even his own explanations lead to a series of questions that need to be answered.

MB: And then having introduced the explanation himself that his marital breakdown was the cause of all his difficulty he moves it out of the scope of the tribunal’s inquiry.

FC: Yes, Ahern and his former partner opposed the move by the tribunal to ascertain what the settlement had been and the High Court accepted that they could prevent the tribunal from finding out.

“We don’t yet know what happened in Ahern’s meeting with Tony O’Reilly before the election that made them so determined to cover up his clearly manufactured explanations for his convoluted financial arrangements.”

MB: It is extraordinary. Do you think that it is the effectiveness of the spin that has kept public opinion on the fence on the issue up until recently?

FC: No, I think what happened was that people gave him the benefit of the doubt after his September interview with RTE of last year. When the stuff came out during the election people were balancing it against all the other stuff they were concerned with. Most of the media, as I said, didn’t follow the real story during that period. When the election was over and he started his famous 17 hours in the witness box – when every hour was just a nightmare for him – I was there for the whole time – and although he came out of it saying how he was delighted to have it over with, that was just another spin. He was torn apart, his credibility was destroyed, he clearly was not believed. If you read the mainstream coverage of that for instance in the Irish Times

MB: Miriam Lord?

FC: Miriam’s pieces consistently refer to the same thing – that she could not believe a word that the man said in terms of his personal finances and most of the newspapers including the Mail, Irish Independent and the Irish Examiner had the same analysis of it. So the only people who were shoring up Bertie Ahern even after his contradictory utterances at the tribunal were actually the Sunday Independent, which is carrying a particular flag and beating Bertie’s drum. We don’t yet know what happened in Ahern’s meeting with Tony O’Reilly before the election that made them so determined to cover up his clearly manufactured explanations for his convoluted financial arrangements.

MB: At this stage, The Sunday Independent is really embarrassing itself – it’s too much, they’re overdoing it and it’s beginning to backfire.

FC: Yes, I heard a Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuiness rubbishing the Sunday Independent, which is quite unusual even though it was in a light-hearted fashion, on Marian Finucane’s show, to the effect that the paper’s coverage had turned into a comedy show in its efforts to bend over backwards to help Bertie Ahern in a way that is not credible journalism. So I don’t think people are taken in by the spin in that respect. Most ordinary people that I talk to just don’t believe the man. Ordinary members and even senior members of Fianna Fail know that his time is up and that it is now just a matter of how the thing is sorted.

MB: But he was given a chance even after he had said that he had appointed people because they were his friends. Ordinarily that would have changed a lot of people’s minds.

FC: I think there is a culture in this society where because so much money has been made over the last ten or fifteen years people didn’t always pay their taxes and would try to hide money from the authorities. But every time a tribunal has uncovered serious corruption – for instance leading to the jailing of Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke – the public has come behind the tribunal. Yet the tribunal has been subjected to vicious attacks consistently over the last ten years. The closer it got to Bertie Ahern over the last five or six years in terms of its investigations the more bitter the attacks have become. Those attacks are led by certain media quarters and there has been a sustained attack on the credibility of the tribunal itself. That attack has taken various forms. People are raising various questions, sometimes justified – about the cost of the tribunals, the duration of the tribunals, the manner in which allegations are thrown about by the tribunals, leaks from the tribunals – everything is thrown in, in the attack. And if you really track it down it always turns out that the source of the attack is coming from within certain elements of government who do not want us to see where the tribunal is going. The tribunal is getting closer and closer to Bertie Ahern all the time and he is the most powerful politician in the country. And even though some of those criticisms are justified in terms of the way tribunals operate, they are nevertheless a safety valve for the system. And indeed Bertie Ahern kept saying for years that he had set up the Flood/Mahon Tribunal – “I introduced it into the Oireachtas” – which he did – but in recent years as it came closer to his own personal finances, his criticisms have been more and more apparent. Now he is tired of the tribunal, now he has put in seventeen hours at the tribunal and now it’s wearing him down a little – where is it all going to end and what is going to happen next?

MB: But attack is very much Ahern’s style – it’s the way he always deals with criticisms. He doesn’t make a case as a rule, he attacks the questioner and the questions.

FC: I can understand that to a certain extent. That’s politics and it’s the politics of spin and it applies in every modern country and I think it is to be expected. The point is whether people will believe it or not and how long people will put up with it. Ahern has had a troop of cabinet ministers coming out to defend his position at the tribunal. But how would they know whether there aren’t other explanations for his personal finances?

For Part 2 of the interview click here.

3. Frank Connolly is an investigative reporter who currently writes for the Irish Mail on Sunday. He was previously the executive director of the Centre for Public Inquiry, an agency formed in 2004 to investigate matters of public importance. Previously, Frank worked with the Sunday Business Post where he broke the story on planning corruption which led to the establishment of the long running Planning and Payments Tribunal as well as stories on Garda corruption in Donegal which led to the establishment of the Morris tribunal. He also served as Northern Ireland editor at the Sunday Business Post during the years leading up to and following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Over 25 years in journalism Frank has worked with most Irish national and daily newspapers, has contributed to a number of international publications and has done extensive radio and television work in Ireland and abroad.

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