By John Kelly
As we begin the "real" Millennium or end the first year of it, depending on your mathematical point of view, the big question dominating Irish headlines is what big, burly Liam Lawlor is going to do next.
Sleaze still lies like a fog over the island of Ireland as we stagger into the uncertainties of 2001. And Lawlor is the new pivot in Ireland, the man who will put Christmas cheer to bed.
The formidable ex-footballer, who was also no mean hurler for Dublin and Leinster, is taking up huge chunks of newspaper space for all of the wrong reasons.
A veteran TD within the Fianna Fail party he was very much a backroom player of no mean ability and real influence far exceeding his apparent back-bench stature.
Many believe he should have become a Cabinet minister long ago, but one of his biggest opportunities went out the window when he supported the late George Colley in his vain bid to oust the then very young Charles J. Haughey as taoiseach.
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Now the public and a lot of legal luminaries just do not know what to make of him at all. All that is painfully clear is that he shared an instinct common to too many of his colleagues scattered throughout all of the political parties but mainly concentrated, it has to be said, within Fianna Fail.
While he sought political office, he also yearned for huge financial success. Not alone was he a good politician, he was also a hugely successful businessman.
Like Haughey, he never seems to have been overly concerned about where the money came from or even where it went, just so long as the flow was continually in the right direction — his.
While Lawlor currently occupies most attention in the lower yard of Dublin Castle, former Taoiseach Haughey continues to grab the headlines in the upper yard.
The Moriarty Tribunal has trawled through the dusty details of just about every aspect of his financial affairs.
Unbelievably, Haughey, who is an accountant and co-founder of one of the most successful accounting firms in Ireland, seems to have dealt with his own money — and other people’s money, for that matter — in an astonishinly cavalier fashion.
All three of his children, Conor, Ciaran, and Eimear, have had to give evidence to the tribunal.
While all back up their father’s testimony, there are some minor cracks that may yet turn the tribunal down other roads.
There was, for example, the sale of a horse, a yearling, for no less than £50,000 in 1985. The buyer was the wealthy Saudi Arabian Mahmoud Fustok, who also has an extensive bloodstock business in Lexington, Ky.
Fustok was introduced to Haughey by another pretty wealthy man, Dr. John O’Connell, the former Labor Party stalwart who later joined Fianna Fail and was appointed minister for health by Albert Reynolds.
He supported Reynolds in his successful coup against Haughey. Just why he did so is another question entirely. Could it be that it was because Haughey did not award him the health portfolio he expected?
Subsequently, Fustok, at a London luncheon, is known to have handed the doctor a £50,000 check to pass on to Haughey. The Saudi described it as payment for the yearling. No records exist to back it up.
O’Connell deposited the check to his own account. Haughey asked him to write him a check made out to cash and the £50,000 was dutifully lodged to the former taoiseach’s offshore bank account, operated by his financial controller, the late Des Traynor.
Thus, there were no records.
By a strange coincidence, if you believe that sort of thing, the Fustok family had been presented with Irish passports, a valuable acquisition, enabling them to do business anywhere in Europe.
There is no record of the yearling sale. There is a record concerning the passports.
There is also no doubt that O’Connell possessed information that could have seriously damaged Haughey, if ever he, or any of his confidantes, chose to use it. A little leak to the newspapers, which were then expressing a great interest in the passports-to-foreigners issue, and bingo.
Ipso facto, when Reynolds wanted to unseat the then taosieach, O’Connell had the goods.
Nobody is saying anything. It is all purely in the realm of political speculation. But was it coincidental that O’Connell became minister for health after Reynolds won his fight against Haughey?
There is tribunal food for thought there, but the chairman, Justice Moriarty, has indicated that he hopes to finish his work by mid-January.
Haughey, who is ill, suffering from prostate cancer, will now have to attend only one hour a day four days a week, depending on the state of his health, which will be monitored by the tribunal.
He still has scores of questions to answer, including one over his use of funds intended to defray the medical expenses for the late Brian Lenihan, who was treated for cancer of the liver at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Every shred of new evidence seems to beg more questions for him. Even this week, revenue officials made it clear that he had not filed proper tax returns and never listed his Kerry island home of Inishvickillaun for property tax reasons.
Neither did he enter a £300,000 lodgment to his account from Patrick Gallagher of the former powerful Gallagher Group, once one of the largest construction companies in Ireland. It was entered only after it was traced.
There is a lot more questions that he has to answer.
However, it is now Lawlor who occupies center stage.
The former refrigeration specialist operated various companies and consulting firms. They made him a wealthy man indeed.
What he is alleged to have done is to have opened a bewildering series of bank accounts under various company names in cities throughout Europ.
His purpose, it seems, was to hide his dealings from the banks because he owed so many of them large debts. Coincidentally, his profits would also have been free of Irish income tax laws.
When he wanted to filter overseas money through his accounts, he used a variety of devices. For example, he set up one bank account in the name of a friend, a taxi driver. At one stage, John Long, the driver, lodged as much as £50,000 in an account set up under his name.
In reality, of course, the account was Lawlor’s.
The same driver obtained credit cards and checkbooks for him so as to avoid exposing Lawlor’s real wealth to any of the financial institutions that wanted their loans repaid.
Now, because of his lack of cooperation with the Flood Tribunal, he has been committed to the High Court. Dates fixed are Dec. 30 and 31, New Year’s Eve. It indicates the seriousness of the situation he faces.