Lawlor, Liam (1944–2005), politician and businessman, was born William Anthony Lawlor on 19 October 1944 in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dublin, son of Gerald Lawlor, motor driver, of 8 Moracrete Cottages, Crumlin Road, Dublin, and his wife Ellen (née Gaffney); he grew up in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh. Lawlor's parents originally came from Co. Laois, as did some of his prominent business associates. His family were Fianna Fáil supporters; he attended ard-fheiseanna as a child and became a member aged 16. As a young man Lawlor represented Dublin at county level in the junior all-Ireland hurling championship, but played at club level in Laois, as he preferred the rougher style favoured by rural hurlers: 'fast, hard, and sporting … there's nothing better than a good sharp elbow' (Ir. Times, 28 Oct. 2005). He hurled for Leinster in the inter-provincial Railway Cup, and was the only Dubliner on the Leinster team defeated in the 1970 Railway Cup final. He also ran marathons in London and New York, and in later life played golf; his lifelong hyperactivity was often noted. Lawlor was educated at Drimnagh Castle CBS, Synge Street CBS, and Bolton Street College of Technology, where he acquired a diploma in engineering. While completing his apprenticeship Lawlor married Hazel Barber, whom he had met at Bolton Street; they had three sons and a daughter.
Early business and political career
Hazel's father owned a refrigeration company, and on completing his qualifications Lawlor went to work in the same area. At first he travelled around in a van servicing refrigerators, but rapidly developed a successful refrigeration company, Irish Refrigeration (later Eirfreeze), which at its height employed some 200 people. He sold Eirfreeze in the mid 1980s to become a full-time public representative and business consultant. His work brought him into contact with the Louth-based 'beef baron' Larry Goodman, a connection that later caused significant controversy.
For a time Lawlor was a member of the National Engineering and Electrical Trade Union and served on the boards of management of Lucan vocational school, Coolmine community school, and Collinstown Park community school. He lived in considerable style, in 1974 acquiring Somerton House, a Georgian mansion designed by James Gandon (qv) at Lucan, Co. Dublin, with six acres of land (adding twenty-three acres later). Lucan became his political base for the remainder of his career, and some locals dubbed him 'Lord Lucan'. He was known for elegant double-breasted suits and expensive raincoats; in the late 1980s Charles J. Haughey (1925–2006) allegedly resented Lawlor's travelling in a Mercedes limousine, larger than the state car available to the taoiseach and possessing a state-of-the-art car-phone. Lawlor was an underwriter for Lloyd's of London, paying back taxes on his Lloyd's earnings under the 1993 tax amnesty.
In 1973 Lawlor was first elected to the Fianna Fáil national executive, to which he was re-elected for many years, and in 1974 he stood unsuccessfully for Dublin county council. His defeat by the former minister Brian Lenihan (qv), who was relocating to Dublin County West after losing his Roscommon–Leitrim dáil seat in the 1973 general election, began a local electoral rivalry that significantly hindered Lawlor's political career. In the 1977 general election Lawlor and Lenihan were both elected to the dáil for Dublin County West, a three-seat constituency. Lawlor soon experienced additional internal party rivalry from Eileen Lemass after her Ballyfermot base was moved into an enlarged, five-seat Dublin West constituency before the 1981 general election.
Politics: local and national
Lawlor had been closely associated with Charles Haughey after the 1970 arms trial, and regularly accompanied Haughey on the 'rubber chicken circuit' as the former minister cultivated support among Fianna Fáil grassroots activists. In the 1979 leadership contest, however, Lawlor unexpectedly voted for George Colley (qv), allegedly influenced by rumours that Colley might appoint him to cabinet. Although it was generally agreed (even by opponents) that Lawlor was talented enough to secure cabinet office, he was already disadvantaged by sharing a constituency with Lenihan; his impulsive defection to Colley reflected the persistently flawed judgement that led Haughey to call him 'an Exocet missile without a guidance system' (Dunlop, 319). During the 1982 heaves against Haughey's leadership, Lawlor played an ambiguous role, initially supporting Charles McCreevy's no-confidence motion against Haughey, then drawing back; some of Haughey's opponents later suspected Lawlor had been an agent provocateur for Haughey, though this is unproven. Lawlor thus antagonised both party factions.
In 1979 Lawlor was elected to Dublin county council. In April 1980 the council voted (against the advice of its permanent officials) to rezone 150 acres of agricultural land in the Lucan area for housing; seventeen of the acres were owned by Lawlor. Lawlor did not vote on the rezoning, but was widely suspected of influencing the councillors' decision; he always denied this. After a public outcry, the rezoning was reversed. (Haughey ordered Fianna Fáil councillors to vote for the reversal.) The issue of rezoning haunted Lawlor's career; he maintained that his general support for land rezoning reflected sincere belief that this was necessary to meet the needs of west Dublin's rapidly growing population.
Lawlor's election campaigns were invariably very expensive and highly personalised; he and Lenihan regularly accused each other of poaching votes in each other's territory and engaging in smear campaigns, though Lawlor later claimed their personal relations were amicable. Lawlor was an assiduous constituency representative, whose activities included personally delivering bread to families in Neilstown cut off by a snowstorm in the early 1980s, sending Christmas hampers to needy constituents and coal to poor families in Ballyfermot (though it was rumoured the coal was taken back if opposition literature was noticed in the house).
Lawlor's defeat in the new Dublin West five-seater in the 1981 general election was attributed to the 1980 rezoning controversy and the presence of an H-block candidate. He won back the seat in the February 1982 general election but was defeated in the November 1982 election, after which he unsuccessfully sought election to the seanad on the industrial and commercial panel. With a long record of serving on party electoral strategy committees and particular expertise in organising by-election campaigns, he became the party's strategic organiser (1983–6), overseeing major reorganisation in Dublin. Known for savage and witty verbal attacks on opposition politicians, he remained on affable terms with them in private; he was always approachable in his dealings with journalists (though some of them complained that they found him a master of bluff, stonewalling, and misdirection). When asked by a female journalist about Lawlor's organisational prominence, Haughey allegedly replied: 'You may not like him, madam, but he gets the job done' (Ir. Times, 24 Oct. 2005).
Topping the poll in his area, Lawlor was re-elected to Dublin county council in 1985 (Fianna Fáil securing an overall majority), and served as council vice-chairman (1985–6); it has been claimed that his failure to secure the chairmanship the following year reflected unease about him within the party. Over the six-year term of 1985–91, the council passed 185 'Section 4 motions' (rezoning land for development that had not been scheduled under the county development plan) despite protests from planners that the land lacked adequate road, sewage, and water facilities. Critics later complained that this indiscriminate rezoning (which made large profits for the owners of rezoned lands) led to the creation of large areas of housing with insufficient services and amenities, severely affecting residents' quality of life.
It was later alleged that Lawlor engaged in corrupt business relationships with property developers and played a key role in marshalling councillors to vote in favour of rezoning. He claimed that he acted in good faith, and that payments made to him were either bona fide political contributions or payments for consultancy work, conducted on the basis of 'gentlemen's agreements' with little committed to paper. In 1989 a Garda investigation of Lawlor was mounted after complaints by property developer Tom Gilmartin, who alleged that Lawlor extorted payments from him in connection with rezoning of land for a shopping centre at Quarryvale, and contributed to Gilmartin's loss of control over the Quarryvale scheme. (Though Lawlor claimed the payments were consultancy fees, Gilmartin insisted: 'I would not have that man consulting on a shithouse' (Ir. Independent, 25 Oct. 2005).) The investigation, which lacked the power to access bank accounts, failed to substantiate Gilmartin's claims and concluded that Lawlor 'emerges from this inquiry with his reputation unscathed' (quoted in Ir. Times, 24 Oct. 2005).
Gilmartin's allegations that Lawlor had extorted money from him in connection with the Quarryvale scheme (along with other politicians), lobbied councillors by corrupt means in association with the consultant Frank Dunlop to approve the scheme, and subsequently colluded with another developer to exclude Gilmartin from Quarryvale, were subsequntly investigated by the Flood (later Mahon) tribunal of inquiry, which upheld most of Gilmartin's contentions. The Mahon tribunal's final report (2012) suggested that, considering the limitations on the 1989 Garda investigation, its statement vindicating Lawlor was overly emphatic.
Dáil Éireann; Goodman connection; eastern European interests
Eileen Lemass's move to the European parliament cleared the way for Lawlor's return to the dáil at the 1987 general election, commencing an unbroken fifteen-year tenure as TD for Dublin West (1987–2002). He became chairman of the oireachtas joint committee on commercial state-sponsored bodies. At the same time he served as a non-executive director of Larry Goodman's corporation Food Industries and played a significant role in canvassing shareholders to secure Goodman's takeover of Bailieborough Co-op in Co. Cavan (against a rival bid by Killeshandra Co-op). In 1988 he visited Iraq as part of a delegation seeking payment of money due to Goodman for beef sold to the Iraqi government, and gave the impression that he was an Irish government representative. In 1989 Lawlor was obliged to resign his oireachtas committee chairmanship because of a potential conflict of interest; his committee was responsible for oversight of the Irish Sugar Company – whose factory in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, Goodman wished to purchase – and had access to information useful to a potential bidder. Lawlor denied that he had used his position to benefit Goodman, stating that there was no contradiction between his committee membership and his involvement with Food Industries, since rationalisation and expansion of Irish food production was in the national interest. The incident led to calls for TDs to be obliged to make public their business interests.
The controversy over his committee membership crystallised Lawlor's dissatisfaction with Haughey's leadership. During the 1990 presidential election Lawlor acted as an unofficial spokesman for his old rival Lenihan when the latter was resisting pressure from Haughey to resign from cabinet, and at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting after Lenihan's defeat Lawlor was the only TD to call on Haughey to resign. According to Frank Dunlop, Lawlor subsequently worked to secure the succession of Albert Reynolds (qv) as Fianna Fáil leader, in the mistaken belief that Reynolds would make him a junior minister; Lawlor failed to realise that he had become too controversial to be considered for ministerial office. In 1993 he became a member and convenor of the dáil committee for enterprise and economic strategy, and also served on the oireachtas committee on employment.
In the mid 1990s Lawlor went through a period of financial difficulty; at one point, banks that had lent him money threatened to repossess Somerton House. He weathered this storm by selling land at Somerton to house builders (who succeeded in getting the land rezoned; it was subsequently revealed that Lawlor retained an interest in the land), and succeeded in getting some of his debts written off. From 1993 he participated in property deals in eastern Europe (where he allegedly exaggerated his importance as a government figure). He claimed to have earned between €400,000 and €1,000,000 in 2000 from a property deal involving a Czech company, Zatecka, and had a major involvement in another Czech-based property company, the Irish Consortium. Some of his critics alleged these activities allowed Lawlor to repatriate illicit profits as returns on foreign investments.
In 1995 Lawlor became opposition frontbench spokesman on arts, culture, and heritage, but failed to secure government office when Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1997 in coalition with the Progressive Democrats. The new taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, nominated Lawlor to the dáil ethics sub-committee, a move that aroused considerable comment.
Flood tribunal and political demise
From October 1998 Lawlor became embroiled with the Flood (later Mahon) tribunal, established in 1997 to investigate planning matters and payments to politicians. He argued (June–October 1999) before both the high court and supreme court that he was entitled to know the allegations that the tribunal required him to answer, and succeeded in his application to quash orders requiring him to answer questions in private session and to swear an affidavit of his business interests. Although Lawlor failed to overturn an order to supply certain documents, the effect of this decision was to limit the ability of the tribunal to adopt inquisitorial procedures and force it into a slower and more complicated adversarial framework.
In testimony before the Flood tribunal in April 2000, the lobbyist and former government press secretary Frank Dunlop admitted making corrupt payments to councillors to secure rezoning decisions and referred to a 'Mr Big' constantly seeking payments for orchestrating such decisions. Lawlor – subsequently identified as 'Mr Big' – admitted receiving payments from Dunlop but stated they were for legitimate consultancy services; he denied Dunlop's contention that he had initiated Dunlop into a 'system' whereby certain councillors were bribed to support rezoning motions. Investigation of Lawlor's financial affairs revealed that £4.5 million had passed through eighteen bank accounts (altogether he had held 110 bank accounts in Ireland and offshore since the 1960s), of which he was only able to account for £2.5 million. Amongst other irregularities, he was found to have issued a false invoice claiming that payments from National Toll Roads later described as political contributions were for consultancy work on refrigeration at a fish-processing plant in Nigeria. In June 2000 Lawlor was expelled from Fianna Fáil after the party's committee on standards in public life ruled that his evidence had been uncooperative and contradictory; he continued to sit in the dáil as an independent and voted with the government. He remained a member of three oireachtas committees (later resigning as vice-chairman of the finance and public services committee to avoid a vote of no confidence; he resigned from two committees in 2001).
Lawlor persistently refused to supply his financial records to the Flood tribunal or to be interviewed by it, and in October 2000 refused a direct order to appear before it with the records (thus trying to repeat the stonewalling tactics he pursued with journalists and political adversaries, and disregarding the tribunal's powers to force disclosure). After being ordered by the high court to appear before the tribunal and provide records dating back to 1964, Lawlor testified for four days in December 2000, ending with the chairman referring him to the high court for obstructing the tribunal. On 15 January 2001, Lawlor was sentenced to one week in prison on contempt charges for failure to cooperate with the Flood tribunal, thus becoming the first serving TD sent to prison for non-political offences. He served the sentence in Mountjoy prison, Dublin, phlegmatically using the opportunity to catch up on paperwork. He subsequently served two other short sentences: one week in January 2002 and one month in February 2002. During the latter sentence Lawlor was brought from jail to Leinster House to speak against a motion calling on him to resign his dáil seat; he stated that his non-compliance had been 'unintentional and non-malicious'. The motion, which had no legal force, was passed. His sentencing was greeted with expressions of glee from the Irish tabloid press; one paper was widely interpreted as expressing a thinly veiled hope that Lawlor would be raped by other prisoners. After the dissolution of the dáil on 25 April 2002 Lawlor decided not to contest the general election. He continued to attend the tribunal, representing himself and showing considerable skill in cross-examination. At the time of his death he had testified on four tribunal modules and was scheduled to give evidence in several more.
Death and aftermath
Lawlor continued to pursue business interests in eastern Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic but also in Russia. On the night of 21 October 2005 he flew from Prague to Moscow to engage in negotiations concerning property in the Russian capital; as he did not speak Russian, he was accompanied by Julia Kushnir, a professional translator employed by his Prague solicitors. Shortly after 1 a.m. on 22 October (Moscow time), as a business associate drove them to Lawlor's hotel, the car swerved to avoid a pedestrian and struck a concrete lamp-post, killing Lawlor and the driver. When a journalist in Moscow told Irish colleagues that local police sources were speculating that the woman in the car might have been a prostitute, several Sunday newspapers reported the speculation as fact in a highly sensationalist manner. When the next day these reports were revealed to be false, the widespread public indignation that ensued contributed significantly to the establishment of the Press Council of Ireland and the office of press ombudsman. Ms Kushnir brought libel actions against the Observer and five Irish newspapers, which were settled in February and November 2007 on terms believed to include the payment of substantial damages.
Planning tribunal: final report
The Mahon tribunal stated in its final report, published in March 2012, that on the balance of probabilities it accepted Tom Gilmartin's allegations that Lawlor had corruptly demanded payments from him in connection with planning matters, including Quarryvale and an earlier development undertaken by Gilmartin at Bachelor's Walk, Dublin, and also accepted Frank Dunlop's claims to have made corrupt payments to Lawlor in connection with Quarryvale; it concluded that Lawlor 'abused his role as an elected public representative, and … corruptly sold political services for personal gain', and that his relationship with Dunlop and the property developer Owen O'Callaghan regarding the Quarryvale development was 'firmly based on corruption' (Final report, 1,261). (O'Callaghan and the Lawlor family continued to dispute these conclusions.) The tribunal also concluded that Lawlor received corrupt payments in connection with several other rezoning proposals and development projects, and that payments were often made to him not merely to secure his lobbying services (legitimate and illegitimate) but out of fear that if not paid he would use his political influence to block proposals. Describing him as possessing 'an insatiable appetite for money', and employing methods 'to obtain and receive money [that] were occasionally ingenious', the tribunal found that the majority of the payments made to him between 1988 and 1998 were 'entirely inappropriate, improper, and on occasion corrupt … Mr Lawlor abused his public office by, in effect, charging enormous sums of money to perform the work of an elected representative … Mr Lawlor's evidence was on many occasions deemed by the tribunal to have been untrue' (ibid., 2,405–06). The tribunal recommended large-scale legislative reform (in addition to measures already enacted in response to its proceedings) to prevent the occurrence of such corruption in future.