We've been here before. On Friday, in the bowels of the Four Courts, the list for the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court was called. The courtroom was packed with the usual personnel. Barristers attempted to take up positions that would allow them address Judge Katherine Delahunt when their cases were called. A number of gardaí perused cardboard files, hanging in there in the unlikely event that they would be required to give evidence.
Then there were the defendants, most of them in attendance to witness the next leg of the process that will bring them to court, and, for the vast majority of them, the
likelihood of a conviction. The bulk of those charged were young men. Many of them had found themselves drawn into the criminal
justice process through the drugs trade. It would be safe to assume that most had low educational attainment and not a few carried unstable backgrounds.
Standing amidst this sea of desperados was 61-year-old Frank Dunlop. When his name was called his lawyer Aidan Redmond said the matter was for arraignment. The judge put them to the back of the list, to be dealt with after she had called over everybody else.
Fifteen minutes later, Dunlop stepped forward. Five sample charges from the original 16 were read to him. Each stated that he had made a payment as an inducement to councillors to vote to rezone land in Carrickmines, south Dublin. The payments were made between 1992 and 1997 and varied from IR£1,000 to IR£3,000. The councillors named as recipients were Seán Gillane, Colm McGrath, Liam Cosgrave, Don Lydon and Tony Fox. The only one of them now serving as a councillor is Fox.
In response to each charge, Dunlop replied in a clear voice "guilty." The judge set 18 May as the date for the sentencing hearing. Dunlop and his lawyers left, and the standard fare of the court resumed.
We've been here before. Four years ago, Ray Burke was processed through the same court. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was subsequently jailed for six months. Dunlop's case and the charges are vastly different and whether he is sentenced to prison remains to be seen.
Both Burke and Dunlop were incongruous figures in the Circuit Criminal Court. Both men had once bestrode the country, Burke as a minister, Dunlop as the pioneer of political PR in serving as the first government press secretary and subsequently a pioneer of organised lobbying. Both had acquired wealth, which in turn had been severely depleted as a result of the exposure of their respective activities. Both would once have been regarded as untouchable, despite the knowledge of the dogs in the street that they were crooked.
The two men were also the only ones to be convicted of serious offences arising out of over a decade of investigation into planning corruption (George Redmond was convicted of corruption, but this was subsequently set aside). Plenty of corruption has been uncovered, but the law apparently isn't designed to accommodate sanction in most of these cases.
Four years and a world apart separates the arraignment of Burke and Dunlop. The latter's guilty plea had been signalled but the reaction to his appearance illustrates the different world we live in today. RTÉ Radio 1's News at One on Friday didn't even carry news of his conviction. The response was in sharp contrast to the coverage of his acceptance in April 2000 that he had been involved in extensive bribery. Back then, the country was shocked, not just at the allegations of corruption emanating from the tribunal, but the realisation that those involved were actually being brought to book.
The revelations at the time confirmed suspicions about the manner in which the country was run. Backhanders ensured that things got done. The loose world of political donations provided perfect cover for bribery. The audacity involved in numerous rezoning decisions was finally unmasked for what it was – the result of corruption. And, it was to emerge, in most cases the price of votes was a measly few thousand quid.
All of that appeared a world away last Friday. Dunlop's court appearance was lost next to the EGM of Anglo Irish Bank taking place in the Mansion House. The attendance at the meeting weren't concerned about politicians selling their office for a few grand. Instead, they were being exercised about Seán FitzPatrick concealing handy loans of over €100m from a bank that is now on its last legs.
Just as the early years of the tribunals gave vent to public anger at how the country was run, so now the story breaking around financial institutions, developers and government is the focus of anger today. No laws appear to have been broken in the more recent scandals, which probably has more to do with how the laws were constructed than any reflection of moral rectitude.
Today, we are seeing once more how the country was run for the maximum benefit of the chosen few. Criminally corrupt planning decisions from the early 1990s had disastrous consequences for the planning of Dublin in particular, and all that flows from such bad planning. Morally corrupt lending practices, reckless oversight by bankers, regulators and government is the flavour of today's scandals.
Meanwhile, Dunlop's fate will be decided in May. For those he admitted bribing, a nervous few months await. Dunlop was pursued by the Criminal Assets Bureau, which was investigating Jackson Way, the company behind the rezoning of the most valuable tract of the rezoned land in Carrickmines.
A criminal investigation of the politicians would most likely be carried out by the gardaí. It would require Dunlop's co-operation and his willingness to testify. It would also require the DPP to determine whether such prosecutions are worth his office's while.
Tony Fox remains the only one of the named politicians still active. He is a sitting Fianna Fáil member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and has not indicated whether he intends to contest June's local elections. Since Friday, he may well have more pressing matters on his mind than hunting down first preferences.
Then, there are those who profited most by the activities Dunlop says he carried out. Dunlop has claimed in the planning tribunal that some of the landowners who employed him knew how he was achieving success in lobbying to rezone.
While the lobbyist did well, and the politicians got a few extra thousand, it is the landowners who profited to the tune of millions from the corrupt practices. For now, they remain among the ranks of the untouchables.