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Tribunal rules Digifone paid bung for Irish GSM licence

'Pretending that Ireland is a functional state'

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An investigation into payments made to two Irish politicians has, for the last four years, focused on the GSM licence awarded in 1996, resulting in a decision that improper payments were made.

The Moriarty Tribunal, part II (volumes 1 and 2 available now), explicitly states that Denis O'Brien's Esat Digifone made payments to political party Fine Gael, while the chap himself (indirectly) handed over cash to Irish minister Michael Lowry, with both payments being related to the award of the second GSM licence for Ireland. O'Brien remains robust in his defence, absolutely denying the tribunal's findings while accusing the presiding judge of confirming his "pre-determined position whilst rejecting everything else".

The tribunal's findings aren't legally binding, and any police investigation will have to start again digging up evidence and getting sworn statements about conversations that took place in pubs 15 years ago, and might be put off by the €100m or so the investigation has already cost.

The exact price isn't clear. Denis O'Brien runs a live ticker that puts the total cost of the tribunal to Irish taxpayers at more than €227m, but direct costs are probably somewhere around €40m. That seems a lot of money to spend investigating a loan of £147,000 and a political donation of €50,000, but that's not the point: if the law has been broken then it's important to establish the facts, even if that process takes the best part of 15 years.

Esat Digifone has only been part of the investigation for the last four years, but working out what happened often comes down to remembrances of conversations, some of them having taken place after a drink or two.

The key evidence relates to meetings that took place between Michael Lowry – who at the time was Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications – and Esat Telecom's CEO Denis O'Brien, who led the consortium's application process (Esat Telecom and Telenor AB together formed the Esat Digifone consortium). Neither party denies meeting on various occasions, but sworn testimony differs on what the two men said to each other.

The tribunal's report states it's "beyond doubt" that Lowry helped to Digifone get its licence, and that the minister received £147,000 for his trouble, which it claimed had been routed through two middle-men. O'Brien reckons there is more than doubt, and describes the report as "a work of fiction" while calling for the tribunal team to be investigated for their conduct.

Esat's partner Telenor also gave money to the political party Fine Gael directly after the licence had been awarded. The tribunal says that €50,000 was given to the party, which the report states Telenor then recovered from Digifone via three invoices.

As the tribunal got underway in 1998, Telenor sought legal advice, and eventually Fine Gael returned the donation, but Telenor didn't want it (having already recovered the money) so passed the cheque on to Esat Digifone, which didn't want it either, and tried to return it again to Fine Gael – which still didn't want it. The Tribunal report concludes that "when [the cheque was] last mentioned in evidence [it] had come to rest somewhere in Esat Digifone".

The report is attracting attention in Ireland, with talk of the result being referred to the public prosecutor for consideration. That will take more time, and money, though if that doesn't happen it begs the question of why the government should go to the trouble of investigating in the first place. As the Irish corruption blog Public Enquiry puts it during its own summary of the report:

"[T]ribunals are designed to sideline proper investigation into serious corruption ... designed to allow everybody to indulge in the great Irish tradition of pretending that Ireland is a functional, democratic state." ®

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