Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has come under fire in Ireland following his admission that he canvassed Independent Tipperary TD Michael Lowry – convicted last week for not returning accurate tax returns – for support to become Taoiseach.
Mr Lowry, a former Fine Gael Communications minister, was found by Ireland’s Moriarty tribunal to have assisted, as a Minister, Ireland’s richest man Denis O’Brien to get a lucrative mobile telephony license which he subsequently sold on for several hundred million euro.
The inquiry said Mr O’Brien enriched Mr Lowry – the minister at the department responsible for issuing the license – by nearly a million euro in cash and loan support.
The Moriarty Tribunal was established in 1997 to look into the financial affairs of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and former Fine Gael communications minister Michael Lowry and finally reported in 2011 when then Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised to act on its findings without delay.
The tribunal report in 2011 detailed its investigation into possible links between telecoms tycoon Denis O’Brien – now Ireland’s richest man – and then communications Minister Michael Lowry at the time Ireland’s second mobile phone license was awarded to Denis O’Brien’s Digifone in 1995.
The report stated that it is ‘beyond doubt’ that Michael Lowry imparted substantive information to Denis O’Brien which was ‘of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence’ and described Michael Lowry’s role as ‘disgraceful and insidious’.
Mr O’Brien has always vehemently rejected and disputed the findings and says it was an unfair process deliberately intended to denigrate him.
Last week former minister Lowry, who spent the days after his conviction spinning it as a victory and vindication – had he received a sentence of more than six months he would not have been allowed to continue sitting as a TD – told an Irish newspaper Mr Vardkar had begged him for his support as Taoiseach.
Mr Varadkar, in New York campaigning at the UN for Ireland to be allowed the next rotating seat on the Security Council, admitted he had contacted him but denied he ever made a formal agreement or deal with him for his support.
Irish news media suggested Mr Vardkar’s response was more equivocal than the Irish Government’s Press Secretary’s statement last week that there was absolutely no arrangement whatsoever with Mr Lowry. Lowry said he had been offered increased funding for Clonmel Hospital in his constituency but that he had agreed with Mr Varadkar – for political reasons – that no written agreement should be drawn up.
Questioned by Irish reporters travelling with him in New York the Taoiseach said: “First of all I would point you to comments I have made in the Dail consistently on this and not a briefing a spokesperson gave…I speak on my behalf.”
He admitted he had sought Mr Lowry’s support despite the damning findings of the Moriarty Tribunal of corrupt practices.
“When I was running for Taoiseach before the vote happened in the Dail I naturally rung around a number of independent TDs, to ask them for support or to ask them to abstain as the case may be.
“As confirmed by Michael Lowry in his interview he didn’t seek or set down any conditions nor were any concessions made to him. So he doesn’t have a formal agreement.
“Michael Lowry had voted against the government 10 times in the last year. For those who support the government most of the time they can certainly raise constituency issues with my office or Ministers and if it’s good policy then we do,” said Mr Varadkar.
He admitted Lowry discussed with him the question of extra money for Clonmel hospital.
“I am sure I did. The conversation was over a year ago, I’m not sure I remember the details of every conversation I have but having been a former Minister for Health I’m very aware there has been a long standing overcrowding problem at Clonmel hospital. It was very much in the government’s plans to increase the capacity there,” he said.