The life and times of Liam Lawlor: a story of modern Ireland

He had 110 bank accounts. He was jailed three times. A judge once called him a disgrace. Now the death of one of Fianna Fail's most notorious politicians has, characteristically, been tinged with scandal. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online

"Liam Lawlor used to breeze into the Dail like he was his own dual carriageway," a veteran Dublin political journalist reminisced. "He was a big man - big presence, burly, with the coat flapping.

"He was a wide-boy, not particularly clever. He'd always know your name. He knew everybody, it was always hail fellow well met. But he was a bad guy."

Now the death of Lawlor, who was jailed three times in relation to corruption, has characteristically been touched with dispute. He died outside Moscow on Saturday when the Mercedes in which he was travelling hit a street light.

Yesterday his family protested against media reports that a woman injured in the incident was a prostitute, saying it was "deeply shocking and distressing that such hurtful allegations should be made in this way without checking their veracity."

It seems that Liam Lawlor's death may, like his life, be surrounded by controversy. The primary charge against him is that he helped bring the politics of the Irish Republic into disrepute by enthusiastically operating the culture of the backhander and the brown envelope stuffed with illicit cash.

The secondary charge is that he was so blatant and so brazen about it. He would be wafted to the Dail in a chauffeur-driven top-of-the-range Merc sporting an expensive suit and stylish overcoat. He was one of the first people to have a car-phone.

He spent large amounts of money in elections, and had political and business connections in many places. He exuded money, and did not seem to care that he also exuded a sense that it was fast-made unexplained money - a quick, dodgy buck.

His flash ways, and the fact that he lived in a fine house near the village of Lucan near Dublin, earned him the nickname of "Lord Lucan". This was a man with 110 bank accounts spread over many countries: eight of them in Lichtenstein.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, paid solemn tribute to Lawlor, in line with the Irish political custom of refusing to speak ill of the dead. "Liam was an engaging, witty and a larger than life character," the Irish prime minister said. "He was also a man with a keen intellect and strong views that he was never afraid to articulate trenchantly. He was extremely popular with his parliamentary colleagues across the political boards."

Yet, just three years ago, Mr Ahern was solemnly and publicly telling Lawlor in the Dail, the Irish parliament: "You have let politics down and your position is untenable."

This was on the remarkable occasion when Lawlor was temporarily released from Mountjoy jail and conveyed to the Dail in a prison van. This was so that he could mount a political defence: the judge warned him not to "disport" himself in the Dail's bars while he was out.

Reaching new heights of brazenness, he defiantly defended himself even as, unprecedentedly, the five main Irish party leaders stood up in turn and called on him to resign his seat. No vote was needed on the motion: it was unanimous, and afterwards Lawlor was whisked back to jail.

This political obloquy was matched by judicial condemnation. One judge who locked him up accused him of blatantly defying the law, declaring: "That he did so as a citizen is a disgrace; that he did so as a public representative is a scandal."

Sending a message which must have worried other political wrong-doers, the judge intoned: "No one is above the law - there are no untouchables." Irish voters can be forgiving of their politicians, even in cases when they regard them as suspect and less than trustworthy. But the disgrace and isolation which befell Lawlor was so complete no recovery was possible: he was briskly de-selected by Fianna Fail.

Ireland has had some senior politicians who have been both extremely corrupt and extremely skilful: two other Fianna Fail examples are Charles Haughey and the former foreign minister Ray Burke. Mr Haughey, who escaped prosecution, is nonetheless regarded as being in disgrace, having been exposed as lying by several tribunals. The tribunals caught up with Burke too earlier this year, when he was jailed for six months for tax evasion.

The three - Haughey, Lawlor and Burke - seem to have functioned as cash-hungry individuals rather than as a tight team. Lawlor, whose political judgement was often shaky, backed Mr Haughey but then broke with him. Mr Haughey never promoted him after that, dismissing him as "an Exocet missile without a guidance system". Nonetheless, Lawlor's dual membership of the Dail and of Dublin County Council was to prove most valuable to his financial fortunes.

Although the scale of wrong-doing which has since been exposed has shocked some, the fact that it existed had been pretty much an open secret for decades. A Haughey rival within Fianna Fail spoke publicly of "low standards in high places".

Corruption was touched on occasionally in the Irish media in the 1970s, but legal and other considerations discouraged full disclosure. There was, in any event, a popular sense that Haughey and others were go-getters who could get things done and modernise a once-sleepy Ireland.

And if they should cut a few corners and take a few short-cuts, it was regularly said, didn't they deserve a bit of reward if they were transforming the country, to the benefit of all? Thus, as they say, the dogs in the street knew about it: but the dogs did not bark, and most of them did not care.

One of the most obvious, straightforward and most profitable scams involving Lawlor centred on the expansion of Dublin, which was developing large new housing estates and shopping centres in the north and west of the city.

Builders and developers would buy up disregarded pieces of land, then apply for permission to build houses or shops there. Liam Lawlor, at the head of a caucus of councillors, would obligingly fix it so that the land was conveniently re-zoned.

The value of the land instantly increased dramatically and fortunes were made overnight. According to one estimate, the 5,000 acres which were re-zoned in one six-month period netted their owners some £200m in windfall profits.

The scam was not rocket science:, in fact it was extraordinarily simple. But Lawlor was blatant about the whole thing, not having the political sense even to try to conceal the obvious corruption. He did not trouble to observe the common decencies of corruption.

Businessmen would sit in the public gallery of Dublin County Council during meetings watching as Lawlor guided their applications through. Afterwards some of them and some councillors would repair to a nearby pub. There, it is presumed, cash-stuffed brown envelopes would surreptitiously change hands.

The amounts of money involved, however, became so large that few envelopes were large enough to hold the bigger bribes. Chapter and verse on this emerged a few years ago when a reluctant whistleblower emerged and, under heavy tribunal pressure, spilled the beans.

This was Frank Dunlop, a senior lobbyist who for years had been the government's press secretary and who had once boasted: "I have balls of iron and a spine of steel."

Under threat of heavy legal penalty, however, the metal buckled and Mr Dunlop came clean, revealing that business figures had supplied him with a "war-chest" containing hundreds of thousands of pounds to pay off councillors.

Lawlor's share at one point, Mr Dunlop testified, was almost £50,000, 40,000 of it in cash.

This was not a victimless crime, because it resulted in the building of thousands of new homes in vast characterless areas, often without proper planning, facilities or infrastructure.

The re-zoning scam was a steady source of income for Lawlor, but he expanded into "consultancy work" - it is said he once received £10,000 for a single day's work.

A builder, Seamus Ross, testified to a tribunal how Lawlor had regularly extracted money from him, repeatedly telling him about the "good turns" he had done for him.

The builder, who said he had handed over £25,000 in "political donations," said he was "very unhappy" about giving him money, saying he had planning applications in the system and was concerned that Lawlor might use his influence against these.

He explained: "He would leave you in no doubt that he had certain powers and would use them against you as well as for you. I was angry with Liam Lawlor. He was like a plague, always in your face, making himself friendly."

Again, the work of the tribunals brought such activities to light in damning detail. But, although Mr Dunlop caved in, Lawlor would not, maintaining his bluster and vainly professing his innocence long after his guilt was universally accepted.

When he was first locked up one newspaper called it "the day the swagger died and the brass neck vanished". But, in fact, if he was crestfallen it was only momentary: "You'd think he'd be mortified about going to jail," said one observer, "but in fact it was more like water off a duck's back."

Although his three jail spells ended his political career, his business enterprises continued in Ireland and abroad. Travellers reported sightings of him breezing around Hungary and other countries. But while his experience of the tribunal system, and indeed of prison, may not have changed his fundamental character, he has certainly helped change the system itself.

The work of a range of tribunals has exposed Lawlor, Haughey, Burke and others, and has recouped more than €30m (£20m) for the exchequer. But it has taken years and the cost has been immense, generating much public disillusion about the whole exercise.

Dealing with miscreants such as Lawlor has cost Ireland more money than he ever extracted in bribes, sweeteners and backhanders. Most of the public and most of the politicians are weary of the whole process and want to see it curtailed, as quickly as possible. The government has taken steps to do so, but even so it will all drag on for years yet.

The irony in all of this is that Ireland today is run by a government headed by Fianna Fail, some of whose one-time leading members were up to their neck in the corruption.

Yet Bertie Ahern has successfully won election after election, being universally viewed as free from his party's previous bad old habits. Through all of this, Fianna Fail has remained Ireland's largest party.

Voters seem to have concluded that Bertie Ahern has successfully put an end to the era of the brown envelope. Their judgement appears to be that the corruption issue should now be laid to rest, as a piece of history rather than the stuff of today's politics.