Gilmartin, Tom (1935–2013), businessman and tribunal witness, was born on 11 March 1935 in Lislary, a coastland near the village of Grange, Co. Sligo, the eldest son of two sons and five daughters of James Gilmartin, a farmer of Lislary, and his wife Kathleen (née McDermott). His father voted Fianna Fáil and had served in the IRA during the war of independence and the civil war.
From Lislary to Luton
Leaving the local national school aged thirteen, Tom worked on his father’s 30-acre farm and on a land reclamation scheme. Years later when someone remarked to him on Lislary’s beauty, he replied ‘It is windy, wet and damp. Life is hard there.’ (Keena, Haughey’s millions, 54). He played Gaelic football and attended the local technical school at night, winning a scholarship to the agricultural college at Ballyhaise, Co. Cavan. Quitting his studies out of boredom, he blamed his subsequent failure to get employment on nepotism and left for England in July 1957. Almost all his friends had emigrated already, and he could become emotional when recalling the loneliness and sense of rejection that drove him away.
Settling in Luton, like many others from his locality, he worked as a bus conductor, then joined Vauxhall, the car manufacturer, where he was fascinated by the conveyor belt systems and moved on to a company that made them, gaining practical engineering expertise. After obtaining a certificate in welding from a night school, he set up as a jobbing mechanical engineer in 1959, specialising in conveyor belts. He proved a competent, tough and straightforward businessman. In the 1960s he built a factory in Luton, which developed computerised car production systems. Employing 400 workers at its peak, Gilmartin Engineering expanded into North America in the 1970s but was then crippled by the chaos besetting British industry. The firm went into liquidation in 1981. The experience and contacts gleaned from building a second company factory in Northampton in the late 1970s brought him into property development. In the mid-1980s he advised on retail and office schemes by identifying sites and devising layouts. He headed a consortium that acquired a shopping centre for redevelopment in Bangor, Co. Down, but after it was damaged in a fire in July 1987, he claimed the insurance and sold out profitably.
In 1965 he had married Vera Kerr from Urris, Co. Donegal. They had three sons and one daughter and moved in 1970 from Merrick Avenue, Luton, to Whitehall Avenue nearby. Maintaining the accent and mannerisms of a bluff Irish countryman, he was founder chairman of Luton’s GAA club and contributed generously to local Irish community groups. He defied attempts to intimidate him into donating to the IRA during the 1970s. Although gruff, stubborn, and short-tempered, he could be engaging if somewhat garrulous company. Troubled by the renewal of mass emigration from Ireland in the 1980s, he determined on guiding British investment towards the stricken Irish economy.
From early 1987 he bought sites for a large retail development at Bachelors Walk, on a rundown part of the quays in Dublin city centre. Arlington Securities, a listed British property company, soon took over the scheme while keeping him as project manager with a twenty per cent interest. Thus began several years of shuttling between England and Ireland. Impressed by his connections with British financial institutions, the Fianna Fáil government acceded to his lobbying in 1988 by extending the tax incentives for inner city regeneration to encompass the entire Bachelors Walk site. Arlington, however, had exasperated him by awaiting this decision rather than proceeding with the site purchases. In the interim, news of the scheme broke, pushing up the price of the remaining lots, which thwarted further progress. He cashed out of the Bachelors Walk venture in January 1990 with a £1 million profit.
From mid-1988 he pursued another retail scheme at Quarryvale in Palmerstown, west Co. Dublin. This time he operated alone, foregoing the safety net of a big financial backer for the purposes of accelerating the land purchases. His proposal contravened the Dublin county development plan by effectively precluding the construction of a town centre at nearby Neilstown for the amenity-deprived suburbs of Lucan and Clondalkin. Quarryvale was beside a planned motorway around Dublin city, making it ideal for a large regional shopping complex but too peripheral to form a nucleus for Lucan/Clondalkin. Encouraged by senior politicians desperate for any development in this neglected area, he disregarded opposition from county council planners and assembled Ireland’s most valuable site by committing himself during 1988–9 to paying £12.7 million for land at Quarryvale.
Making the mafia look like monks
Rezoning in Dublin was chaotically subject to a corrupt ring of local politicians loosely coordinated by the Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin West, Liam Lawlor (qv). (Gilmartin first fell foul of him in May 1988 when Lawlor arrived uninvited at an Arlington board meeting, claiming to have political responsibility for Bachelors Walk. Arlington hired Lawlor as a consultant over Gilmartin’s objections.) Lawlor warned Gilmartin that he would have to pay him and the assistant city and county manager, George Redmond, £100,000 each if he wanted to make headway at Quarryvale; four Dublin county councillors also demanded payments. He stopped lobbying councillors, trusting instead to his supporters in the cabinet who pressured Dublin County Council on his behalf and expedited his purchase of a crucial block of land at Quarryvale owned by Dublin Corporation.
In February 1989 Redmond thwarted his £2.75 million purchase of the Dublin Corporation property by condemning the mooted deal as a giveaway. Dublin Corporation put the land up for public tender, forcing Gilmartin to pay £5.1 million. He protested to various senior politicians and officials about the attempted extortions of Redmond, Lawlor, and certain councillors, and his complaints were included in a garda inquiry, already underway, into planning irregularities. He had three interviews with an investigating officer in March 1989 before withdrawing his cooperation upon receiving a threatening phone call from someone who demonstrated inside knowledge of the inquiry. The investigation dismissed his allegations.
In an incident that he dated to early February 1989, he was summoned to meet Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) in Leinster House. Following a cursory discussion about Bachelors Walk and Quarryvale in the presence of eight cabinet ministers, Gilmartin was ushered alone into a corridor where he claimed an unknown man handed him an Isle of Man bank account number, telling him to deposit £5 million into it. Gilmartin rebuffed him with the subsequently much-quoted gibe ‘You make the … Mafia look like monks’ (Connolly, Tom Gilmartin, 41). There is no reference to this encounter in the notes taken of his complaints to the authorities in March 1989, but over a decade later two acquaintances vouched for him mentioning it shortly afterwards.
From spring 1989 Gilmartin relied on the government either exempting Quarryvale from the planning system or, more realistically, conferring tax incentives on the scheme. Such favours were the preserve of the minister for the environment, Padraig Flynn, who Gilmartin liked and trusted. Flynn was his foremost advocate in the cabinet and one of several prominent Fianna Fáil figures to solicit him for donations to the party. In either May or early June 1989, Gilmartin handed Flynn a cheque for £50,000; he left the payee section blank and did not require a receipt. The cheque was filed to cash and lodged in Flynn’s bank account. Flynn claimed later that he accepted the £50,000 on the understanding that it was for his personal election expenses, though little or none of the money was put to such use; neither was it passed on to Fianna Fáil. Subsequently, Gilmartin was adamant that it was intended as a party donation and said so to the Fianna Fáil national organiser Sean Sherwin in 1990.
In January 1990 Gilmartin, by then strapped for cash, secured an £8.5 million bridging loan from Allied Irish Banks (AIB) for completing his land purchase instalments. He anticipated quickly landing a big investor once the mooted tax incentives came through. That April, however, the government, having grown nervous about openly favouring such a controversial scheme, enjoined him to canvass wider support. At a public presentation in July, Gilmartin unveiled a proposal for one of the biggest shopping complexes in western Europe, comprising 2.5 million square feet of retail, industrial and leisure space. That nothing even remotely on this scale had been contemplated before in Ireland spurred opposition from retail interests throughout the greater Dublin area. This backlash lost him the confidence of AIB and the cabinet. In default of his AIB loan from August, his attempts to secure alternative financing were thwarted by an economic downturn in Britain and by an associated property correction in Ireland.
AIB pressured Gilmartin to relinquish control of Quarryvale through a partnership with Owen O’Callaghan (1940–2017) who was a longstanding AIB client as well as an experienced, politically-connected developer. An earlier mistake proved Gilmartin’s undoing. In 1988 he had considered the competing (and far more locally popular) Neilstown site such a poor proposition, mainly due to road access problems, that he spurned the chance to take an option on it, allowing O’Callaghan to do so. Belatedly grasping that Quarryvale’s rezoning was politically untenable while Neilstown remained in play, Gilmartin bought out O’Callaghan for £3.5 million in January 1989. But his inability to pay the final £1.35 million instalment allowed O’Callaghan to request planning permission for the Neilstown development in late 1990.
Time was running out for lodging a motion through a sponsoring county councillor to change Quarryvale’s zoning under the review of the county development plan; without one Quarryvale could not realistically be rezoned for five years. Immediately before the deadline, AIB called in Gilmartin’s loan on 12 February 1991. County councillors also appear to have warned him that no motion would be lodged for Quarryvale until he neutralised Neilstown by partnering with O’Callaghan. The motion proceeded after he signed an interim agreement on 15 February handing O’Callaghan management control of his Quarryvale company, Barkhill Ltd.
On threat of AIB liquidating Barkhill and leaving him penniless, Gilmartin ratified a financial restructuring in September that reduced him to minority shareholder status. Without informing Gilmartin, O’Callaghan then used Barkhill to make substantial payments, via the lobbyist Frank Dunlop, to assorted politicians in return for their support in Quarryvale rezoning votes during 1991–3. A suspicious Gilmartin objected unavailingly to the hiring of Dunlop. Just as the campaign to undermine his control of Barkhill climaxed in early 1991, the UK Inland Revenue billed Gilmartin for £6.35 million sterling in taxes, having previously pursued him, more justifiably, for £700,000 sterling. He blamed this inflated demand on misinformation emanating from Dublin. Inland Revenue officials raided his Luton residence and seized his car and second house. Upon going bankrupt in the UK in October 1992 on foot of a court judgement against him for unpaid taxes, he could not afford to travel from Luton for Barkhill board meetings, losing all influence over the company. He was also preoccupied with caring for his wife who was wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis from 1994.
Convinced that AIB and O’Callaghan had orchestrated his bankruptcy, he threatened to publicise various frauds and planning corruptions before initiating legal action as Barkhill was closing a partnership deal with a British property company in early 1996. Five years of penury ended when he settled for being bought out of Barkhill that March for £7.6 million, having put in at least £4.4 million. Soon after he destroyed his Quarryvale records. His difficulties with the Inland Revenue continued for several years.
It happened on The late late show
By the time O’Callaghan opened the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre at Quarryvale in October 1998, its genesis had drawn the attention of a state tribunal investigation into corruption within the planning system. The planning tribunal contacted Gilmartin in February 1998, after which there was a series of phone calls and meetings wherein he shared his misgivings and began cooperating. He countered attempts being made to depict him as an embittered crank by talking to Jody Corcoran of the Sunday Independent and Frank Connolly of the Sunday Business Post. Both newspapers broke a succession of Gilmartin-related exclusives from September 1998.
After the Irish authorities granted his request for immunity from prosecution on 1 October, he signed a sworn affidavit on 2 October outlining most of his accusations before deciding against testifying. He was receiving threatening phone calls and believed that a state inquiry could only deliver a cover up. That changed in January 1999 when Flynn appeared on the RTÉ chat show The late late show to dismiss the by-then publicly aired allegations of a £50,000 bribe, saying that Gilmartin was ‘out of sorts’ (Connolly, Gilmartin, 2). Gilmartin immediately gave media interviews proclaiming his intention to testify, complaining ‘he made me out to be a mental patient’ (Connolly, 4).
Previously wary of the limelight, Gilmartin enjoyed the ensuing media frenzy and added to it by leaking further revelations, despite being warned against this by the tribunal. He stated publicly that he knew enough to bring down the incumbent Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, revealing that in 1989 he had appraised Ahern, then the minister for labour, of the payment to Flynn. Ahern denied this. Likewise, neither Ahern nor all bar one of the ministers allegedly present could recall Gilmartin’s 1989 meeting with Haughey in Leinster House: Mary O’Rourke could, however, and she testified to this in 2004. Furthermore, the tribunal’s investigations bore out much of Gilmartin’s claims about Flynn, Lawlor, Redmond, Dunlop, and the widespread corruption prevailing in Dublin County Council. By passing on details of Barkhill expenses, he initiated a line of inquiry that culminated in Dunlop confessing in April 2000 to bribing county councillors in relation to various rezoning campaigns.
Gilmartin moved back to Ireland in February 2001, settling first in Co. Sligo, then in Bishopstown outside Cork city. During March–April 2004 he spent twenty-one days testifying at the planning tribunal in Dublin Castle about the Quarryvale development up to 1990. Despite revealing little that was not already known, his appearances drew large crowds to the public gallery and were accompanied by applause and laughter as he fulminated against the corruption he had encountered.
Impressing initially with his plainspoken manner, he struggled once he came under cross-examination. Growing increasingly bad-tempered and heedless, Gilmartin seemed to invent details for accounts that were broadly true while discrepancies emerged between notes taken of his complaints in 1989 and his later claims. His habit of conflating events and getting dates mixed up did not always came across as innocent. He was keen on impugning O’Callaghan and his claim that O’Callaghan had falsified their Neilstown contract unravelled under questioning. When cornered, he would either conveniently miss the point or play to the gallery with quasi-political harangues. On 28 July 2004 he underwent heart-bypass surgery, making a good recovery by the year’s end. Assorted legal challenges against the tribunal then caused a long hiatus in proceedings, though there was time in November 2005 to unveil Gilmartin’s most explosive claim – that O’Callaghan had bragged to him about bribing Ahern with £50,000 in 1989 and £30,000 in the early to mid-1990s.
… or loose cannon?
Gilmartin resumed testifying on 29 May 2007, by when the tribunal had been forced to release transcripts of his private briefings with its lawyers going back to February 1998, thereby publicising his more unlikely-sounding assertions. These included a false allegation of Ahern holding £15 million in offshore accounts and unsubstantiated claims concerning various prominent politicians. Gilmartin protested that he was just relating what he had heard, some of it from anonymous sources. The released material shows that while his account of the £30,000 bribe allegedly paid by O’Callaghan to Ahern arose relatively early, he did not mention the £50,000 payment until November 1999 when he credited this knowledge to a different source. Other allegations emerged later still. Appearing across thirty-seven half-day increments due to his diminished health, he completed his testimony on 24 October 2007. Interest in Gilmartin waned, as much of his evidence seemed far-fetched and was either uncorroborated or based on hearsay. His former solicitor discredited two of his more colourful accounts.
Gilmartin’s detractors accused him of spreading gossip peddled by the journalist Frank Connolly, his principal media conduit since 1998. A Fianna Fáil deputy contended that Gilmartin was ‘a vehicle for floating all sorts of hypotheses in the hope that an investigative trawl will throw up something’ (Dáil Éireann debates, 31 Jan. 2008). Crucially, something had been thrown up: while attempting unsuccessfully to find evidence of O’Callaghan bribing Ahern per Gilmartin’s claims, the tribunal discovered suspicious deposits (not involving O’Callaghan) made to Ahern’s bank account. Ahern’s inability to explain this satisfactorily eventually forced his resignation as taoiseach in 2008.
A reckoning of sorts
Before dying in Cork University Hospital on 22 November 2013 – his remains were buried in the graveyard at Urris, Co. Donegal – Gilmartin saw the planning tribunal’s final report vindicate him in 2012, though he doubted whether the exercise had been worthwhile. In relation to Quarryvale, findings of corruption were made against Lawlor, Flynn, Dunlop, O’Callaghan and seven Dublin county councillors. Gilmartin’s £50,000 payment to Flynn was deemed to be inappropriate rather than corrupt because the tribunal concluded, somewhat questionably, that the sought-for tax incentives would have had little bearing on the Quarryvale project. The tribunal accepted as true his testimony of O’Callaghan boasting to him about bribing Ahern but could not determine whether these bribes had occurred.
Tom Gilmartin became an unlikely avatar of justice after gambling unsuccessfully on an overambitious venture that destroyed any lingering hope of imposing order on Dublin’s westwards sprawl. Implicated in the corruption that he struggled against and ultimately exposed, he embellished the truth and made unproven allegations, one of which helped the planning tribunal justify its interminable and costly proceedings by ousting a taoiseach. An intractable maverick with bold plans, he was of an ilk that was for generations shepherded onto the emigrant ship. And it was the shattering of his returning emigrant’s illusions that drove his vengeful testimony. Perhaps, though, it was only fitting that someone breathing righteous fury on behalf of all those deemed surplus to requirements should force Ireland’s political class into such a messy and uncomfortable reckoning.