Ben Dunne was a rich man from a relatively poor country when a cocaine-induced panic attack in a Florida hotel set in train a series of events that caused reputational and financial damage to some of the most powerful people in Ireland.
Dunne, who has died in Dubai aged 74, was the de facto head of the Dunnes Stores retail group established by his father, Ben snr, when he went on a golfing holiday in the US in 1992. Alone one night in his Orlando hotel room, he started to take cocaine and then rang an escort service. The young woman who came to his room also began to take cocaine. At some stage Dunne, who had been kidnapped by the IRA in 1981 and held for a week before being released, completely lost it, threatening to throw himself from a balcony during a drug-induced panic attack. Hotel security was called, the businessman was arrested, and eventually convicted of possession. Back in Ireland, Dunne’s siblings moved against him and, eventually, wrested control of the hugely valuable Dunnes Stores group from him despite his determined opposition.
It was by way of this intense family feud that some explosive secrets eventually made their way into the public domain. In 1996 Sam Smyth in the Irish Independent published what was to prove an enormously consequential story. He revealed that work worth hundreds of thousands of euro on the Tipperary home of the then Fine Gael minister for communications, Michael Lowry, had been paid for by Dunnes Stores and treated in its accounts as if it was work on the Ilac Centre in Dublin. Lowry, as well as being a senior figure in Fine Gael, not least because of his fundraising activities for the party, was the owner of a refrigeration company that supplied services to Dunnes Stores, and Dunne had elected to reward him in this way.
Soon after the Smyth scoop, Cliff Taylor of The Irish Times reported that a senior Fianna Fáil politician had received £1 million (€1.27 million) from the supermarket magnate. It quickly became clear that the politician being referred to was the former taoiseach, the late Charles Haughey, who had retired from politics some years earlier.
The Dunnes payments tribunal was established in Dublin Castle and headed by Mr Justice Brian McCracken. It quickly secured evidence that both Lowry and Haughey had indeed received money from Dunne. Haughey tried to deny it at first, but in the end had to admit the truth. As well as being left with their reputations in shreds, Haughey and Lowry found themselves facing inquiries from the Revenue Commissioners. And the public fallout from Dunne’s panic attack in Orlando was just getting going.
The payments from Dunne to Haughey had brought into the open the activities of an accountant, the late Des Traynor, who had played a “bagman” type role in Haughey’s life for years, securing funding from rich benefactors for the politician’s extravagant lifestyle. Furthermore, Traynor was publicly linked to Guinness Mahon bank in Dublin, which had a branch in the Cayman Islands where many wealthy Irish business executives kept clandestine bank accounts. It emerged that Traynor facilitated lodgments and withdrawals to these accounts during meetings with these business figures in Dublin, acting as a kind of walking ATM for accounts that were nominally offshore, but really based in central Dublin. The accounts for the scheme, which became known as the Ansbacher Deposits – named after the bank that then owned the Cayman operation – were maintained by Traynor in the offices of Cement Roadstone, on Merrion Square.
The public looked on agog as a second tribunal was established, the payments to politicians tribunal, which again sat in Dublin Castle, this time under Mr Justice Michael Moriarty. It had wider terms of reference than McCracken and would end up sitting for more than a decade. As well as discovering further payments from Dunne to Haughey, it identified others who had donated or contributed money to the former taoiseach. These included the financier, Dermot Desmond, who gave money – he described it as a loan – to Haughey after the politician had retired and also helped fund the Haughey family yacht, the Celtic Mist.
The McCracken tribunal had speculated that Dunne had given money to Haughey to buy the friendship of a powerful individual, but the Moriarty tribunal decided that the payments were linked to the Dunne family trust. It discovered meetings between Dunne and the former Revenue chairman, Seamus Paircéir, that McCracken had not known about, and that had been arranged through Haughey. A settlement deal on a tax issue for the trust that would have saved the trust £22.8 million was arrived at, but never taken up. Nevertheless, the tribunal concluded it was “a valuable and substantial benefit conferred on Mr Dunne, directly consequent on Mr Haughey’s actions”.
The tribunal also discovered an unsuccessful attempt by Lowry, at Dunne’s request, to intervene in the valuation of a building owned by Dunne but leased by Telecom Éireann, so that Dunne would get double the market rent from the State. The evidence, the tribunal reported, “indicated the lengths in which Mr Lowry was prepared to go in securing financial advantages for Mr Dunne, for whom he had reasons to be grateful for his contributions to Mr Lowry’s own personal finances but also for his contributions to the Fine Gael party”.
Meanwhile, inspectors had been appointed under company law to investigate the Ansbacher Deposits and their eventual report was used by Revenue to investigate cases of unpaid taxes. By 2005 it had collected €47.8 million from almost 300 people and companies associated with the clandestine banking scheme. Many were named publicly.
In the years after the tribunal revelations, Dunne, who had hitherto been a very private individual, became more of a public figure, appearing in radio advertisements for the gymnasium chain he established, and granting interviews to the media where he spoke about his drug addiction difficulties and his mental health struggles. His voice became one of the most recognisable in Irish society.
The public image that emerged contrasted with the image painted by some who worked with him during his time at the helm of Dunnes Stores. In 2001, an accountant called Michael Irwin gave evidence to the District Court in Naas, Co Kildare, in a case taken against the building company that carried out the work on Lowry’s home, for failing to keep proper accounts.
Irwin, who was working for Dunnes in the early 1990s, told the court of discussing the accounting treatment of the expenditure on Lowry’s home with Dunne but failing to resolve the matter. Dunne, he said, “always got his way”.
The same building company had done work on Dunne’s family home in Castleknock that was also invoiced as work done for Dunnes Stores. When Irwin had queried the matter with Dunne, he told the court, the businessman had replied: “You’ve got your f**king ethics and I’ve got a business to run. I want it done that way.” The meeting lasted “about one minute and 30 seconds,” Irwin said.