This is an edited extract from Frank Connolly’s new book “Tom Gilmartin: The Man Who Brought Down A Taoiseach And Exposed The Greed And Corruption At The Heart Of Irish Politics”, published by Gill & Macmillan on April 3. Frank Connolly was ireland's leading investigative reporter for many years. His exposure of the Gilmartin charges of corruption at the highest levels of the Irish government subsequently led to the downfall of Berite Ahern as Irish leader.
It was on 1 February 1989 that Tom Gilmartin was summoned for an audience with CJ Haughey. Again, Liam Lawlor was at the centre of events and the Dublin TD met Gilmartin that day at about 5pm in Buswells Hotel in Molesworth Street, across the road from Dáil Éireann in Kildare Street.
Lawlor had told him that ‘the Boss’ wanted to meet him. The Boss was, of course, Charles Haughey, then Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, which made him Ireland’s most powerful politician. Gilmartin followed Lawlor across the road into the Dáil building and ascended by lift to an upper floor.
Ray Burke, a Government minister, was in the lift on the way up but they hardly exchanged a word. Gilmartin recalled being led by Lawlor along a gangway, past partitioned offices on each side and towards a lobby area. He was then ushered through dark oak double doors.
Lawlor stayed outside when Gilmartin entered a large meeting room where a group of Government ministers were gathered around a large rectangular table.
Pádraig Flynn sat at the top left-hand corner of the table and beside him Albert Reynolds. Beside Reynolds was Gerry Collins, Minister for Justice, while along the right-hand side were Bertie Ahern, Minister for Labour, Brian Lenihan (senior), Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Séamus Brennan, Minister of State for Trade and Marketing. Ahern, Brennan and Lenihan, all of whom he had previously met, greeted him. Burke then entered through a door in the middle of the room, followed by Charles Haughey.
‘I know you: you’re Gilmartin from Lislary,’ Haughey said, making reference to Gilmartin’s original Sligo home, as he walked around the table towards his visitor. He told Gilmartin that he knew of Lislary because he had a holiday home by the sea in the townland. After chatting about the two projects at Bachelor’s Walk and Quarryvale, the Taoiseach gave Gilmartin an assurance that no obstacles would be put in his way at a time when jobs were desperately needed.
Before he ended the conversation Haughey asked whether ‘Liam was taking good care of you.’ After the brief and informal encounter with these members of the Government he was ushered from the room. As he entered the lobby area outside, Gilmartin says he saw Lawlor and another man in conversation to his left. He was then approached by yet another man, short in stature with ‘salt and pepper’ (ie: black and white) hair and a casual jacket.
This man, whom he did not know, told him he would do well out of his business projects. He gave Gilmartin a piece of paper with a number written on it. It was the number of a bank account with Bank of Ireland in the Isle of Man. The man asked him to deposit £5 million in the account.
Describing the incident in detail, Gilmartin told me: ‘Well, he approached me, I looked around, and...he says: “Do you realise that you’re going to get every assistance to get these two projects off the ground?” and I said, “Well, it’s a major investment that I’m bringing into Ireland, so I would expect that they would be happy to see it under the current economy,” and he says to me, “You’re also—we’re all aware that you are going to make hundreds of millions out of these two projects,” and I said, “Well, not me. Whoever invests in it will. It won’t be me that will make hundreds of millions.”
‘And he said to me, “Well, we think that you should give us some of that money up front.” So I say, “Yeah?” And he said, “Yes, we would like you to deposit five million pounds before you start.”
‘And I say, “What do you mean?” and he says, “Well, we want you to deposit five million pounds, and we want it deposited into an Isle of Man account,” and I said, sarcastically, “That’s not much”’ or words to that effect.
With that—he had his hands in his jacket pocket and he took out this piece of paper . . . a striped piece of paper about an inch and a half wide . . . and he says, “I want you to deposit the money into that account.”
Gilmartin took the piece of paper, put it in his pocket, turned to the man and said, ‘You make the f***ing Mafia look like monks.’ The man grabbed him by the hand in an apparent attempt to take back the piece of paper, which Gilmartin had put in his pocket, and as he did so the unidentified man said, ‘You could f***ing wind up in the Liffey for saying things like that.’
There were no witnesses to the conversation. Lawlor, who had been present in the hallway when he left the meeting with the Government ministers, was nowhere to be seen.
Not surprisingly, his first experience at the highest levels of political power in Dublin left Gilmartin with the distinct impression that corruption was rampant at every level.
Later Gilmartin assessed the potential significance of Haughey’s remark about whether ‘Liam was looking after’ him.
Given that Lawlor had already hit him for substantial sums of money, it was not surprising perhaps that his visit to the Taoiseach would be used as another opportunity to get a slice of the multi-million investment Gilmartin was bringing to town, either for the party or for prominent individuals in it.
But there may have been another issue at play for Haughey at the meeting. This concerned his reference to the Gilmartins of Lislary.
Several years earlier Haughey had acquired a property close to the Gilmartin family land and had then sought to extend his holding onto a portion of their land through his company Larchfield Securities Ltd.
When it emerged that there was an attempt to alter the ownership with the Land Registry, Chris Gilmartin, Tom’s sister, objected. After an exchange of legal correspondence and a complaint by her to the Land Registry, Haughey’s company withdrew its claim to the 1½ acres.
Haughey had obtained the land from John Andrew Currid, a relation of the Gilmartins who left Lislary to find work in the 1930s.
Currid had inherited an amusement-arcade business in Dublin and Bray from a Jewish family that had left Ireland when the Second World War broke out in Europe and did not return. The then wealthy Currid had returned to Lislary, rebuilt and renovated his seaside family home there,
and had given small plots of land to various neighbours and relations, including James Gilmartin, Tom Gilmartin’s father.
On the latter’s death his daughter Chris was given some of the rough grazing land at what was known as the ‘Bent’, a turn in the road close to her family home and overlooking the sea.
Haughey’s accountancy firm, Haughey Boland, had acted for Currid, and on his death Charles Haughey took over the house and the land around it for use as a holiday home.
In the late 1970s Haughey sought to spread his holding onto the Gilmartin lands but perhaps did not anticipate the opposition he would meet. In June 1984 a firm of Sligo solicitors, Horan, Monahan and Company, wrote to Haughey’s solicitor, J. S. O’Connor, on behalf of Christina McGoldrick (Chris Gilmartin’s married name) asking whether Larchfield Securities intended to pursue an interest in the lands at Ballinfull, county Sligo, but she received no reply.
Two years later, in May 1986, Haughey, then leader of the opposition, was confronted by Chris Gilmartin during a visit by him to the town. She approached him as he was meeting and greeting members of the public and asked when he was going to relinquish his claim on her land.
Haughey invited her to meet him to discuss the matter later that evening in the Ballymount Entertainment Centre in the Silver Slipper Hotel in Strandhill, where he was to address a Fianna Fáil function. As she waited to meet him after the event she was informed that Haughey had already left for Dublin.
Finally, Chris Gilmartin contacted the Land Registry directly and was informed that an agent for Larchfield had sought to register ownership of the land by telephone but that no written application had been made.
The Land Registry then gave ten days to Larchfield to respond in writing with a submission. When it failed to do so, the land was registered in Chris Gilmartin’s name.
Haughey was not used to being challenged and even less so to losing such a battle. It was undoubtedly an embarrassment for him and perhaps one that he had not forgotten when he encountered Tom Gilmartin at the Leinster House meeting less than three years after his confrontation with the developer’s sister in Sligo. Given his character, it was an experience Haughey was unlikely to forget, or forgive, but whether it would have motivated the extraordinary efforts to interfere with, and jeopardise, Tom Gilmartin’s ambitious plans for Dublin is another matter.
‘I would never have considered that a piece of scrub land at the edge of the sea in Lislary would have any bearing on my discussions with Haughey or anyone else in Dublin. It never crossed my mind at the time, but when you consider his comments about Liam “taking care” of me and what followed, you could never rule it out,’ Gilmartin remarked years later.
Tom Gilmartin died on Friday 22 November, at the age of 78, several weeks after his admission to Cork University Hospital with a recurring chest infection compounded by a deteriorating heart condition. Doctors discovered the source of the virus causing the recurring lung infection, which at first responded positively to treatment.
A plan to fly him to London for complex heart surgery was put on hold, however, as his condition weakened. Once again his kidneys failed, and as he was being prepared for surgery to open a blocked valve in his heart, he passed away.
In final conversations he once again expressed his concern at leaving behind his beloved Vera, his children and his sisters. He also complained that the stress and suffering he had endured over the years since he returned to do business in Ireland had irreparably damaged his previously sound health and constitution. However, he dealt with his serious medical condition with his usual good humour and expressed the hope and intention of being around for the launch of this book in the spring of 2014. Sadly, that was not to be.
During his funeral service his son Thomas spoke of his father’s devotion to his wife and family and of his and their sadness that he had received no apology for the manner in which he was treated by those in positions of power in his own country. There were no political leaders at the funeral services, and no party issued a statement of regret at his passing.
In his eulogy in St Michael’s Church in Urris, Thomas Gilmartin (junior) said: ‘It is difficult to know where to begin. There are so many stories, so many achievements, so many ways in which my father left his mark that I could keep you here until my own funeral if I were to try to include even most of it. Suffice it to say, he was a one-off. I said to my wife, in the hour after his passing, that there was now a Dad-shaped hole in the universe.
‘Dad grew up in Lislary, county Sligo, the oldest boy born to James and Kathleen Gilmartin. As a boy he was able to handle horses, fish for his supper, work in the fields, and, like his father before him, was an expert ploughman. But apart from being physically strong and able from such a young age, he was extraordinarily intelligent and inquisitive about the world around him. It wasn’t uncommon, even in recent years, to hear him recite entire poems, from Robert Service’s “Songs of the Yukon”, word for word, which he had taught himself as a youngster.
‘Unfortunately, my father was let down repeatedly by men for whom moral scruples, of the type my father lived by, were viewed as weakness. Later, giving evidence about his experience, he never wavered in his commitment to the truth, even when subjected to an extraordinary campaign of vilification. He would never perjure himself, even when it was disadvantageous for him to tell the truth, such was his honesty, so strong was his religious faith.
‘Dad loved his country and was a proud Irishman. It truly grieved him, as the son of a man who fought for his country’s independence, to see the sacrifices of his father’s generation discarded by lesser men. It is a source of great sadness to us, his family, that Dad was never truly given the credit he deserved for what he did, or the apology he was owed for what was done to him. He deserved better.’