The Facilitators

By Joe MacAnthony

As described in our interview with Joe MacAnthony, the following article did not appear in the Sunday Independent in 2001.

Joe Mac Anthony writes of The Facilitators who have the means but not the will to slow and even halt the flow of scandal in this country.

All wrongdoing depends on collusion for the damage it inflicts. The individual can do harm, of course, but it is within a limited compass. An organised group like the unspeakable Gilligan gang can do a lot worse, but even then it remains largely within the borders of the local community. In the end, it is those people whose professional qualifications carry them into every important area of national life and who control the machinery on which white collar crime depends, that carry the greatest menace. If they have a mind to, they can corrupt an entire society.

Having worked for a long time in investigative journalism, much of it abroad and on stories of corruption, I came to see how other countries dealt with the problem. As a general rule, it was easy to discover how serious it was from common talk. People everywhere show little reluctance in identifying those who prostitute themselves or in discussing how much they charge for their services. In poor countries, you even find sympathy and a justification advanced for what happens there. For those at the lower end, it is often seen as the only course to save their families from the possibility of starvation.

No such excuse can be advanced in Ireland. Indeed, what is happening here is unique to my experience. Nowhere else are you likely to come across the same type of endemic corruption and the apparent unwillingness to stop it, as appears to be the position up to now.

The Irish form is, like everywhere else, greed driven. What surprises is the cowardice in the ostensibly respectable middle class community who know very well what has been going on but prefer to keep their mouths shut. It is this blemished stance, which ensures that the pattern of wrongdoing will continue and that the perpetrators are most likely to confound their critics and possibly escape punishment. While it is hard to say which of the greedy or mute factions involved is the worst, the fall out from both provides an undeniably depressing scenario. What we are seeing is a corrosion of ethical standards and a hardening of hearts that were the saving grace of this country in poorer times.

I still retain images from the past of men with little formal education but of sterling character who showed no hesitation in speaking their minds or to whom they said it. And of old people who would step fearlessly into the fray whenever they saw someone abused or endangered.

Michael mac Liammoir, in ‘Enter a Goldfish’ provided an unforgettable example from his childhood in the response of an elderly woman who approached a caged lorry in which Black and Tans had tied a hostage to protect them against attack.

“Well there you’s go, back luck to you’s! It took the Boers to put you’s in khaki and the Germans to put you’s into tanks. But, be Jasus, it took the Irish to put you’s into hen runs!”

One of the Tans fired at her but missed, and she danced triumphantly homewards, singing rebel songs out of tune.

Anybody from earlier days would recognise that heroic figure because examples were legion even up to the sixties. I am not speaking from romantic vision. As a child attending Synge Street, I heard a Brother describe how he saw an older woman throw herself at a fleeing handbag thief and try to rugby tackle him. I leaped up, hand waving, spluttering with excitement. “Please, Brother, that was my mammy!”

When Scarface, the detective, arrested us for playing football on Martin Street, Mrs. Duffy from up the street thrashed the police in court for harassing children. And when the judge tried to quiet her, she turn on him with such ferocity that he shouted above the tirade. “Case dismissed! Case dismissed! Get those people out of here!”

Later, as a skinny twenty years old during an ill-starred career as a tram conductor, an elderly woman got between me and two nasty drunks who were intending to beat me up for missing their stop. She blistered them off the platform. Then went beyond her stop to see that I was left safe and sound.

Whether the incentive was religious, came from a sense of parental dominance, or a spirit of communal responsibility, people clung to the right course, even in days when there was little else to go with it. Today, those same elderly people are subjected to physical attack on the streets or left to die on trolleys because men in three piece suits prefer to flee the country rather than contribute one penny more than they can possibly avoid to the deprived people in the country that provided their treasure.

Those qualities personified in those brave and outspoken people is scarce material today. There is little of it remaining in our politicians and virtually none in what is called our professional classes.

In the 30,000 to 40,000 accountants and solicitors who practice through what can be called the scandalous years, there is not one individual I know of who stepped forward and risked all in offering chapter and verse on bogus accounts, unaudited returns, missing minutes, illegal loans, and doctored bookkeeping.

Those kinds of activities have always been open secrets and readily available to anyone practising accountancy who had a modicum of courage and enough knowledge to ask the right questions. Bogus offshore accounts is a particularly outrageous example of what is known, a fraudulent service actually offered by banks. Over a decade of it happening at least £750,000 was raked off. And not a single man or woman of conscience to come onto the podium to, “I have to speak out. This is what I saw and this is how it was done. ”

The men in the suits would, of course, race forward to explain how nobody was really doing wrong, that procedures were only a little askew. As for outside accountability, that was out of the question. Or as a President of the Leinster Society of Chartered Accountants put it at the height of the uproar in June 1998: “The ICAI should not allow itself to be held up to ransom by anyone due to any of its members that are in breach of ethical or professional conduct.” He believed the profession should deal with its weaknesses without political interference and claimed, ”the profession was completely supportive of openness, transparency and accountability.”

I doubt if those from the old days would have swallowed that. Why? Look at the record. Not just of the accountants but of those other facilitators who practice law. And all from a recent set of Flood tribunal transcripts.

Solicitor Michael O’Hanrahan, of a law firm called Fitzpatrick’s back in 1974 and now called Binchys, who saw a document of a client company displayed in a newspaper which said that politician Councillor Rafael Burke received £15,000 for his planning expertise in relation to rezoning land. Embarrassing stuff. He hotfooted down to the Company’s Office, took possession of the document, hurried back to his office where he destroyed it, though somehow retaining a copy for himself.

When a Garda investigator comes calling, as was bound to happen given the nature of the disclosure, Mr. O’Hanrahan made a statement saying he tore up the document. He failed to mention the retained copy, a vital piece of evidence in any investigation. From that point, Mr. O’Hanrahan’s memory failed him and he cannot now explain why he did what he did. The obvious explanation that it would allow the solicitor to preserve the document while leading the Garda to believe it was destroyed cannot be confirmed because of that memory lapse. But at the very least, Mr. O’Hanrahan’s actions would merit an inquiry.

The destruction of potential evidence is one of many questionable activities the Tribunal has examined in recent days. A trawl through the transcripts dealing with just a handful of companies in the eighties shows, among other things, correspondence being scripted for both sides by the same individual in property deals; a solicitor acknowledging receipt of £1.5 million in a land sale where the money never changed hands: a professional auctioneer providing services to a client in buying land he himself owned. And most bizarre of all, we have another legal professional making a sworn statement expressing ignorance of who ran a company purchasing a £1 million property when the fellow making the statement was, in fact, a principal of that company.

It is easy to travel on from there. The sad thing is that there is hardly point to it, for everything gets worse. A sad trail of accountancy without responsibility, of members of the legal procession who forget they are officers of the Court, and finally, of timid politicians or worse who preside over the wreckage.

With new disclosures about Michael Lowry and Telenor, there is no possibility of closure in the foreseeable future since every hearing to date has only served to seed new investigations. And there is every indication that will happen in this case.

So far, after nearly ten years of disclosures, tens of millions spent and more than nineteen investigations, one man, a retired local government official, is expected to go through a trial. The accountants body, for their part, have produced 2 prima-facie cases for investigation and then parked themselves until the end of the tribunals.
Their serious intent to deal with the disturbing issues brought to the surface in successive tribunals may be judged from the fact that they have not been attending the tribunals or even buying their transcripts. Despite talk of a new approach and of co-operating in introducing a new era in accountability, they don’t seem interested in listening or reading in any detail about what is really going on in these tribunals.

Perhaps they know too well that there is nothing like indifference for defeating change.

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