By John Kelly
There had to be a scapegoat in the fallout from the two public tribunals in Dublin Castle. The scapegoat is now a guest of the nation for seven days in Mountjoy Prison. His name is Liam Lawlor, the Dublin West former Fianna Fail TD. Astoundingly, he cooperated fully in the infliction of his surprising martyrdom.
If Lawlor followed the advice of his legal team, he certainly paid a heck of a lot of money to ensure he went to jail. If, on the other hand, he is where he is because he did not follow legal advice, it is impossible to know what he was thinking, if he was thinking at all.
This week, he will leave the prison and will have to face the Flood Tribunal questioning yet again. This time, he faces the clear threat of having to serve out the three-month sentence imposed on him for contempt of court. The penalty was imposed because the chairman of the Flood Tribunal concluded he was not answering questions the tribunal deemed to be important.
After spending a week in jail, he is now back precisely where he was. The questions remain to be answered. And if Lawlor does not comply, he will find himself back behind bars. He was fully aware that this was how it might go when he balked at the tribunal’s line of questioning especially concerning the use of his many credit cards.
So, why did he do it?
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Lawlor is no fool, politically or commercially. He has given the state much real service for all of 30 years. He has also been close to Ireland’s most important leaders. It was he who did most of the driving for former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey when he toured the rural constituencies on the chicken and chips circuit as he fought his way back to real political power within the Fianna Fail party.
Naturally, when Haughey became party leader after successfully fighting his way back from the political wilderness, it was widely speculated that Lawlor, a successful businessman as well as an astute politician, would be quickly promoted to minister in Haughey’s government.
It didn’t happen. That is also something of a mystery. But in those years, the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Fianna Fail party was severely split. The late George Colley just did not accept Haughey’s leadership. Confused by the bitter rivalries, many backbenchers switched loyalties as often as they changed their pinstripe suits.
Haughey took no prisoners. Having finally extracted himself from the political limbo in which he was forced to languish after the arms trial in the early 1970s, he demanded unconditional loyalty. And only those who displayed such loyalty were promoted to higher political office.
Lawlor just did not fit the bill. In addition, he was then in the process of building a massive heavy refrigeration business at a time when Ireland’s agricultural sector was rapidly modernizing. Entrepreneurs like Larry Goodman, who managed a beef processing company, urgently required giant refrigeration plants. So did the supermarkets that sprouted then in cities and towns throughout the new Ireland.
Whatever about his political career, Lawlor was the right man in the right business at the right time. His refrigeration company rode the crest of the wave. He soon became a wealthy man indeed. But all of that took a lot of the time he could not devote to politics.
While he zealously guarded his Dublin West fiefdom, ensuring that constituency business was done and done well, Lawlor continued to expand his refrigeration business. He became a consultant to some of Ireland’s leading businessmen and extended his interests into various other enterprises.
Obviously, as a Dublin City councilor, he was also deeply involved in planning permission for city and county developments. He was hugely influential. Money follows influence. And money followed Lawlor.
That was what finally led to his appearance before the Flood Tribunal. The allegation by Frank Dunlop, former public relations advisor to several Irish leaders, including the late Jack Lynch, that he had given Lawlor, the man he referred to as "Mr. Big," various sums of money for planning favors, was damning.
Lawlor still insists that £30,000 he received was a political contribution for election expenses. He still has to answer a lot of hard questions before he can prove that to the satisfaction of the Flood Tribunal.
Even if he does, he faces further investigations into his personal affairs by the Revenue Commissioners. His week’s stay in prison has gained him nothing at all.
The political sins of his past have posed some considerable problems for the Bertie Ahern-led coalition government.
There are now calls from Fine Gael and the Labor Party, in particular, for Lawlor’s removal from office. Although no longer a member of the Fianna Fail party, he continues to occupy his seat as an Independent and still votes with the government.
Although Fianna Fail members adamantly deny it, informed political opinion tends to the view that there will be a general election this year, most likely in June.
So far, Ahern has managed to divorce himself from all allegations of political sleaze, adroitly distancing himself from former friends and allies like Lawlor. However, there are persistent rumors to the effect that some critical witnesses, yet to appear before the Flood Tribunal, will nail a lot of lies to the mast.
Even if that does not happen, the likely removal of Lawlor from political life will leave the government with such a slender majority, dependent as it is for support from the Progressive Democrats, as to make an early election almost inevitable.
Once the campaign swings into action, the Fianna Fail party will face a barrage of flak from opposition parties. They will not be slow about throwing much of the dirt that has emerged from the tribunals. Political sleaze will be a main feature of the next election. Almost certainly, Fianna Fail will take a lot of hits.
That does not mean that it will not survive as the largest political party in the State. No matter how much damage is done, it will continue in government albeit with a different coalition partner, most likely the Labor Party.
Under the uninspiring leadership of John Bruton, Fine Gael is hardly likely to pull any major surprises. It will probably end up with the same number of seats.
Ahern or no Ahern, Fianna Fail will still have a lot of options to play with. In fact, it is by no means certain that it will have to form a coalition with Labor. A fully decommissioned IRA will allow it the further option of joining in coalition with Sinn Fein, a party that is sure to gain more seats in the next election, whenever it is held.
However, it will still have to suffer the consequences of the huge personal successes of some of its leading members, people like the unfortunate Lawlor. His short jail term will yet prove to have major implications for politicians in the Ireland of the future.
It will be no bad thing for the country if they heed the warning.