It was approaching midnight on Wednesday, 19 February 1992 when Ben Dunne rang the escort agency. Dunne was alone in his suite in the Grand Cypress Hotel, Orlando, Florida. He was bored. All he had for company was a big bag of cocaine, which he had procured a few nights earlier.
The agency was advertised in the local telephone directory. Its tagline was 'Escorts in a flash – we can be with you in an hour'. Dunne dialled the number and left a message.
Somebody called him back with a price list. He could have a female escort for two hours for $300, and anything extra could be negotiated with the girl. This was no problem for Dunne, who had around $9,000 playing money in the safe in his suite. Soon after, a man called for the money. Dunne handed it over. Then he waited.
For the previous few years, Dunne and about 10 friends flew to Florida at the beginning of February for some rest and relaxation, golf in the sun and a few beers in the shade. This golfing trip so far had been uneventful.
They had arrived the previous Saturday. On Tuesday, on a whim, Dunne decided they would all upgrade to the Grand Cypress because it had an adjoining golf club. He booked the accommodation in the hotel with his Bank of Ireland credit card. His 10 companions were each staying in rooms costing $255 a night. He took a suite at $1,320.
On Wednesday evening he stayed in his suite on his own rather than dining with his friends. It is unclear when exactly he started into the coke or how much he had ingested, but, as midnight approached, he was in serious party mode.
In another part of town, Denise Wojcik took a call from the agency. A client was waiting at the Grand Cypress. Wojcik worked for the agency most nights of the week, but she always claimed that there was no prostitution involved. Six months earlier she had lost her job as a librarian. Her fee for escorting came to around one-third of the $150 an hour that the client was charged.
At 1.30am Dunne answered the door of his suite. He was holding a glass of Dom Perignon champagne. He welcomed Woj-cik in and gave her a tip of $400. After some initial chit-chat, Dunne produced the bag of coke. They did a few lines and then he led her to the bedroom area, which included an en-suite bathroom.
They both got into the large bath. The lines of coke kept coming. Dunne was chopping them up with a plastic membership card from the K Club, the exclusive Irish golf resort in Co Kildare.
One of the most basic effects of cocaine is a loss of inhibitions to the extent that some who use it cannot stop talking. The conversation in the bath was non-stop, most of it coming from Dunne.
Dunne and Wojcik had been shovelling cocaine up their noses for the best part of four hours. Dunne's stash was something north of 40 grammes, enough to get arrested for trafficking. But the millionaire was not interested in making money from the drug. He just had an insatiable appetite for it, particularly when he went abroad on golfing trips.
Some time later, Dunne went to open the safe in the suite. He tried the combination lock. It would not work. He began pacing up and down the room. He was out of his mind on coke, in a hotel room with a woman from an escort agency and a big bag of cocaine and somebody apparently had fixed it that he could not open the safe where his money was. Under the circumstances, paranoia was quite easily induced.
What unfolded over the following hours would transform the life of 42-year-old Dunne. It would also ultimately lead to the break-up of Ireland's best-known retailing empire, bring down a government minister and unmask as a kept man Ireland's most controversial politician. The sequence of events would also provide the impetus for judicial investigations of a type never seen before in the Irish state.
Dunne tried the combination of the safe again. Same result. He had the number written on a crumpled piece of paper. Slowly, he read out the numbers and tried once more. Nothing budged. Wojcik told him to calm down, to take it easy.
Dressed in nothing but his boxer shorts, Dunne, a man of considerable bulk at the time, began pacing up and down the room. "Leave me alone," he told her. "Leave me alone." She suggested that he ring security. He rang security, explained his problem and then got up on the bed and began jumping up and down. Wojcik, who was also in her underwear, was growing uneasy. She went to get dressed. Wojcik then noticed that Dunne had picked up a piece of wood and was swinging it around. He was "like some crazed King Kong, jumping up and down and swinging this object over his head," she later observed.
A security guard called to the door. He was dressed in a black boiler suit, which seemed to set off further panic in Dunne's head. "Get the police," he said.
Dunne moved towards a balcony that looked down on the hotel lobby 17 floors below. The security guard thought he might jump.
The hotel managers were contacted. There was a drug-crazed Irishman on the 17th floor, threatening to jump. Initially, they thought the crazy Irishman must be attached to another Irish party staying on the 17th floor that night. U2 were in town to launch their US tour, which was to begin in Orlando the following night. Perhaps this was some expression of rock 'n' roll Babylon. Perhaps it was a member of the U2 crew living up to the caricature of rock music tours. Two of the U2 security detail were asked to accompany hotel security up to the 17th floor to talk this guy down. When they got there, they saw it had nothing to do with them and left. Downstairs, Bono noticed the commotion. He later said he had never seen anything like it.
Meanwhile, Dunne's friends were already out on the golf course, unaware that the man himself was behaving like a suicidal baboon. At 9am the cops arrived. One of them talked Ben down and got him away from the edge of the balcony for enough time for three other officers to hold him down and cuff him. He was still screaming and roaring and it was decided that the only way to get him out of the hotel was to hogtie him to a pole.
Guests looked on as the police officers walked through the hotel lobby with a man tied, hands and feet, to a pole, as if he was a beast being brought off to roast over a fire. Dignity was entirely absent from the spectacle.
Dunne was taken to hospital initially, but later that morning he was transferred to Orange County Jail and handed a prison uniform. Inside the hotel suite, the police officers found a bag with 32 grammes of cocaine and thousands of Irish pounds and US dollars. It was inevitable that he would be charged with trafficking. The following day he was released on $25,000 bail. The story appeared in the Sunday Tribune and dominated the media over the weekend and into the next week.
On advice from his solicitor, Noel Smyth, Dunne decided to give a press conference at his home and to do an interview for RTÉ television. It was a masterstroke. Dunne appeared on TV looking somewhat unkempt, and entirely contrite. "I can blame nobody but myself," he said. The interview immediately won over the public to his side. He was a sinner who was attempting to repent. Who but the most righteous could quibble with a man who had fallen from the path briefly and was doing his utmost to get back?
The interview also had a major impact on the business of Irish public relations. Appealing to the better nature of the Irish people when in trouble is a tactic that has often been used since. In Dunne's case, it was not even a PR professional who advised the approach, but his solicitor.
The public were onside. Over in Florida, the trafficking charge still loomed, but Dunne had the best lawyers money could buy and, when all was taken into consideration, no judge would really think he was a drug dealer. Besides, the manner in which the drugs were discovered in his suite constituted an illegal search.
His lawyers suggested a plea bargain that might involve Dunne pledging to get treatment but would mean he would never see the inside of a US prison. Not all parties to the affair would be so easily appeased.
Some of Ben's siblings, and particularly his sister Margaret Heffernan, were horrified at the spotlight that had been thrust on the family.
The Dunnes' parents had been private and very religious. The episode in Orlando and the fallout from it were the antithesis of everything they stood for. Within weeks of Ben's return to Ireland, there were rumblings that all was not well in the family.
Dunne's case in Orlando came up on 1 May 1992. The state dropped the trafficking charges and he pleaded guilty to possession of a small amount of drugs. A number of character references, including two from professional golfers Des Smyth and Christy O'Connor Jr, were presented in court. His lawyers said he was willing to undergo treatment in a London clinic. The judge ruled that he was to do so and the court was to be updated on his progress.
In June Dunne entered the Charter Group clinic. A few days later, a radio scanner in the Phoenix Park picked up a telephone call between Margaret Heffernan and Noel Smyth. The contents were leaked to the media. Heffernan was heard berating Smyth that the clinic was a holiday home and that Ben could have done with six months in prison. She also suggested that Smyth was a bad influence on her brother.
In July the Dunne siblings voted at a board meeting to change the rules that governed the company. The following February, one year on from the Orlando episode, Frank and Margaret moved against Ben. With the support of one of their other two sisters, Ben was removed from his role as chairman. He immediately pledged to leave the company. He said the family trust which governed Dunnes Stores should be broken up. He alleged that some of his siblings had not abided by the rules of the trust and that it was a sham.
His siblings in turn commissioned a report into how Ben had run the business when he was in charge. The accountancy firm Price Waterhouse was retained. The resulting report would be devastating, not so much to Ben, but to two major political figures.
Michael Lowry was already going places before Ben Dunne latched onto him. He was born in 1954 in Holycross, Co Tipperary. Like Dunne, he did not complete his second-level education, leaving early to join a local company, Butler Refrigeration, where he worked as an engineer.
Lowry threw himself into politics at a young age. He joined Fine Gael and rose quickly through the ranks, displaying an ability to get on with people and to get things done. He gravitated towards GAA politics, ultimately serving as chairman of the Tipperary County Board. He was also instrumental in fundraising to pay off the debt on Semple Stadium in Thurles, where the GAA was founded. In 1981 he stood for the Fine Gael nomination in the Tipperary North constituency, but was defeated. His chance came again in 1987, when he was selected and romped home. By then he was a major cog in the Butler firm. He cut a deal whereby he would continue to work part-time while concentrating more of his energies on politics.
One of Butler's main contracts was with Dunnes Stores. Fitting and maintaining the refrigeration units of most of Dunnes' 90 outlets constituted a large chunk of Butler's business.
In the course of their business dealings, Dunne spotted talent in Lowry. He approached him with an offer. Leave Butler, set up your own company and work exclusively for Dunnes. Dunne told him, as recounted at a tribunal years later, "If you are good for Dunnes Stores and if you achieve the savings that I think are possible, I will certainly make it worth your while and your company will be successful and you will be a wealthy man."
In January 1989 Lowry left Butler, taking with him some of the company's key personnel and the Dunnes contract. It soon became known that Lowry's company, Streamline, had Dunnes Stores as a major client, but it was much later before it became public knowledge that Dunnes was Streamline's only client.
The young, ambitious TD was working for one of the biggest retailers in the state. If that was the extent of the relationship, Lowry might have sailed through any revelations. The real problem arose in the manner in which Lowry was remunerated.
The contract he signed with Dunnes Stores ? the only one Dunnes was offering ? was designed such that his company would earn a small annual profit of up to £50,000. Bonuses above that would be paid separately through Ben Dunne himself.
Most of the cheques subsequently paid to Lowry were drawn from a company bank account that Ben's siblings ? and fellow directors ? were unaware of. Payments ranging in size from £6,000 to £12,000 were made to Lowry between 1989 and 1991.
There were other larger payments also. Dunne arranged for the opening of two offshore accounts in the Isle of Man to receive payments. Lowry himself opened an offshore account in Jersey with £100,000 in September 1991, which included a £34,000 sterling payment from Dunnes Stores. Ben made a number of other payments to the Isle of Man accounts.
Lowry has always maintained that all of these payments were for work done by Streamline. However, he often lodged the money to personal accounts, effectively taking it from the company for his own benefit. Dunne's pledge to make him a wealthy man was taking shape, but by the standards of any sort of corporate governance, it was a highly unorthodox arrangement to say the least. There was also the question of how much of the money Lowry was declaring for tax, particularly as he was building up large balances in his offshore accounts.
In 1992 Lowry also decided to move his family to a larger home, one better befitting his new-found status as a wealthy entrepreneur and an up-and-coming politician. He bought a Georgian house for £140,000 just up the road from where he had been living in a bungalow. The house needed some serious repairs.
Lowry rang Dunne and told him about his domestic difficulties. He did not have the cash on hand to undertake the extensive work. Dunne put him in touch with an architect and builders who had worked for Dunnes Stores and on Ben's house. Dunnes Stores was about to fund the refurbishment of Lowry's stately pad.
The total bill for the refurbishment came to £395,000. In the books of Dunnes Stores the payment was treated as work done on the company's Ilac Centre store in Dublin's city centre. It was actually a beneficial payment to Lowry, on which he was not paying any tax.
A legendary figure on the other side of the political divide, however, had as much reason, if not more, to be grateful for the generosity of 'big Ben'.
Charles Haughey was not a favoured figure among some of the Dunne siblings. In the 1960s he had insulted their father at a trade fair in New York by telling him his merchandise was too cheap and tacky for a display of national wares. Some within the family never forgot the slur. Ben Jr, however, was an admirer of Haughey. Des Traynor dealt with Haughey's finances. In November of that year he compiled a list of businesspeople who he felt might be willing to make contributions of at least £100,000 to the Haughey lifestyle fund.
The first name on the list was Ben Dunne. Traynor approached Noel Fox, the Dunne family confidant and trustee on the family board. Fox told Dunne about the plan to gather together at least half a dozen people to tackle Haughey's debt. Dunne replied, "I think Haughey is making a huge mistake trying to get six or seven people together . . . Christ picked 12 apostles and one of them crucified him."
He said he would pay the whole debt, which he was under the impression was around £700,000. He said he would need time to come up with it, but Traynor did not have much time.
A few days later, Dunne instructed that a sterling cheque for the equivalent of £205,000 be drawn from a store in Bangor, Co Down.
The following July, another cheque was sent, this one for £471,000 sterling. In April 1989 a cheque for £150,000 was issued. Another for £200,000 sterling followed in February 1990. In total, over the course of 26 months, Dunne contributed over £1m to Haughey.
All of the above payments were made through the Dunnes Stores company and involved Haughey's bagman, Traynor. Haughey never handled any of the money. There was, however, one transfer that was directly between the two men, Dunne and Haughey.
During this period Dunne often called on Haughey at home in Abbeville in Kinsealy. On one occasion in November 1991, Dunne was playing golf in Portmarnock and before leaving the club, he rang Haughey, whose home was on Dunne's route back to Dublin. He had in his pocket three bank drafts made out to fictitious individuals.
Haughey was at a low point. The previous week, he had repelled the latest internal challenge to his leadership. It was the first since Des O'Malley had left to form the Progressive Democrats in 1985. This time, though, it looked as if the game might be up
Haughey looked wretched when Dunne called. "He looked like a broken man," Dunne later said. Dunne felt sorry for him and wondered whether he might be able to cheer the old dog up. As he was leaving, he dug the three drafts from his pocket and handed them to Haughey
"Look, that's something for yourself," he said. "Thanks, big fella," Haughey replied, having just been handed another £210,000 for his trouble.
W atergate haunted a generation of reporters throughout the world. The investigation by two Washington Post reporters into the activities of the Oval Office was a high water mark in journalism. Few scoops thereafter have been able to live up to it.
In Irish journalism, Sam Smyth's scoop in November 1996 came at least close. Smyth was working for the Irish Independent as an investigative reporter of some repute. In late 1996 he had been writing for some time about the apparently bizarre conduct of the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Michael Lowry.
Lowry had been appointed to the office in December 1994, when Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left formed a coalition after the Fianna Fáil/Labour administration collapsed. Lowry's ascent occurred just a month after the Dunnes' infighting was settled out of court.
Lowry was colourful and controversial from the off in government. He declared that he was going to clean up the semi-state sector. He began cutting a swathe through the sector, although it was difficult at times to distinguish what he classified as 'cleaning up' from blatant political manoeuvring, often targeting figures who were associated with Fianna Fáil.
Throughout 1996 Smyth followed Lowry's progress in, as the minister saw it, tackling the wrongs in the semi-state sector. Smyth wrote a number of stories on the matter for his newspaper. Out there among the paper's large readership, somebody was taking notice of the reporter's byline on stories written about Lowry.
As he later revealed in a book about the affair, Thanks a Million, Big Fella, it was late one Thursday evening in October 1996 when Smyth picked up his house telephone. The caller had rung twice previously but had not left a message. Smyth knew him, but not well. He told Smyth he had a story for him about Lowry.
The next afternoon the pair met. The man was sweating, agitated and nervous that they might be seen together. He told Smyth that Dunnes Stores had paid for the refurbishment of Lowry's Co Tipperary home. Over £200,000 was involved and the job was done through the company's architect and builders.
Smyth was taken by the story, but he explained that he would require substantial documentary proof before the newspaper's lawyers would ever let it reach print. A number of further meetings followed. At each, the contact gave a little more, beginning with the photocopies of cheques for the work done.
Smyth did his own homework. He knew a report had been compiled for the High Court action between the Dunne siblings a few years previously. Could the contact get a copy of the report? Initially the man said no way, but in the end he showed Smyth a photocopy of the pages involving Lowry.
It was a scoop in every meaning of the word. When the sheet did hit the street, all hell broke loose. The minister's department was inundated for media interviews. The Taoiseach, John Bruton, was asked for his opinion of the story. He replied that the private dealings of a TD were a different matter to how that TD conducted himself once appointed to ministerial office.
Opposition TD Michael McDowell of the Progressive Democrats captured the public mood when he reacted to Bruton's comments. "Are we really to believe that John Bruton thought it acceptable for his party chairman and a prominent front bench public representative to have his home massively refurbished at the expense of a large commercial company under any circumstances?"
Lowry was returning to his constituency for a family matter that day, and he agreed to give RTÉ an interview in the Green Isle Hotel in the western suburbs of Dublin. Charlie Bird was dispatched. But by then the media frenzy had heightened, and both Lowry and the RTÉ crew were followed to the location by other reporters.
In the interview, Lowry suggested that he was a victim of that hoary old chestnut – the witch-hunt. This specific witchhunt was being conducted by one journalist in particular. He said he would not be hounded out of office. And on he went, talking and talking around the main issue, dancing past the glaring question ? how is your position tenable, now that you have been exposed as a kept man?
Back in Leinster House, all eyes were glued to the item on the six o'clock news. The reaction was uniform. Lowry's body language spoke a lot louder than his words. He was finished. As he de-miked after the interview, Lowry engaged in his own little effort at spin. He told some of the reporters that the real story was that over £1m had been given by Dunne to another politician. He did not offer any names, but it did not take too long for the penny to drop.
It would be two months before Haughey was unmasked as the beneficiary. In the interim, the papers would begin referring to 'Mr You Know Who', until Cliff Taylor in the Irish Times finally got his hands on the relevant section of the Price Waterhouse report.
It was all downhill for Haughey from then on. A tribunal of inquiry into the Dunnes Stores payments to politicians was set up under Judge Brian McCracken. Haughey was hooked by Dunne's solicitor Smyth, who told the inquiry about the money handed over in Abbeville.
If Dunne had not lost control, he might have sailed on for years, powdering his nose to beat the band until finally going into rehab on the advice of those around him. He might still be chairman of Dunnes Stores, Michael Lowry might now be leader of Fine Gael and Charlie Haughey's 30 years of double living may never have been exposed. Instead, however, the activities of those individuals were exposed, the Revenue Commissioners' coffers replenished and a salutary lesson was issued to any other politician who might have had difficulty interpreting right from wrong.
We are where we are. It has become one of the great truisms of the economic and financial crisis that Ireland finds itself in – a catch-all shorthand for the mistakes by government, banks, regulators and property developers that landed everyone in a giant mess. There have been some efforts to explain 'why we are where we are'. But they all relate to 21st-century events. And the reality is that the seeds of the current crisis were sown over the decades that went before.
A glance back at the 90 years since the foundation of the state confirms that there is nothing surprising about recent events. It was one giant accident waiting to happen. All roads led to this point. Think about it. What really lies at the root of the economic and banking crisis? Greed. Poor political leadership. A lack of proper regulation and respect for the law. Jobbery. An overly close relationship between politics and big business. An inability to hold powerful institutions to account. These are not new features in Irish society.
There are copious examples of this over the past nine decades and 'Scandal Nation' (published by Hachette Ireland €15.99)?analyses 12 such key examples that have shaped our history, our present and our future.
# The Civil War that stunted politics over the following decades
# The Hospital Sweepstakes and how the rule of law was ignored by successive governments
# The Battle of Baltinglass and the prevailing culture of jobbery in Irish public life
# The dominance of the Church as demonstrated during the Mother and Child controversy
# Taca and the links between big business and politics
# Planning corruption
# Activities of the 'Heavy Gang'
# The Hep C blood scandal
# The corruption of the body politic by Charles Haughey
# The ICI bailout of 1985
# The Ben Dunne Florida incident
# The passports for sale scandal
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