AS A biography on his father tops Ireland’s bestsellers, Tom Gilmartin Jnr tells Robert Mulhern why the finest achievements of Tom Snr are more at home in Luton.
People recognise your father’s name because of the corruption he exposed more than his success as a businessman. Is that fair?
What went on with the Mahon Tribunal was only a small portion of his life. For people in London and Luton who knew him, the tribunal was only a drop in the ocean. They knew him for the remarkable things he did, coming from humble beginnings in the West of Ireland, coming to Luton and London and doing incredible things.
Some people following the story from Luton in the ’90s have expressed their wonder at how your father could withstand the pressure. How did he not break?
If they knew dad they would have known he wasn’t like other people, he was incapable of being bought. He was very much motivated by what the right thing was.
What was your dad like?
He wasn’t a man to go out drinking. He was always about the family, he was home every evening. In terms of his working life, engineering was what he was most proud of.
What do you remember of the Mahon Tribunal?
The very first day I certainly was wondering what the hell are we letting ourselves in for. We are up against the Government; we’re up against politicians; we are up against the biggest bank in the country.
This was a time when the Celtic Tiger was rising high, so it was a question of wondering who would believe us. But at that point, dad didn’t care. He was going to tell the story and that was that.
What was the toughest time?
When we had no money and my mother was struggling to put food on the table. We’d been made bankrupt on foot of false information given by people in Dublin and that was a very tough period. Dad felt guilty even though it wasn’t his fault.
In terms of the tribunal itself, there were certain sections of the media that had been bought off, portraying my father as a loose cannon – that was tough because we knew dad and we knew better and the on-going stress did play a part in dad’s heart condition.
When did you develop awareness of what was going on?
We used to see Frank Dunlop* in a TV programme and the very fact that this man was being given a TV programme at all was just amazing because we knew he was the bag-man for corrupt payments to politicians and that came out in the period of the tribunals. I knew the story inside out and it was me that encouraged dad to go to the tribunal to cooperate with them.
* Frank Dunlop: A lobbyist for developers and former broadcast journalist who spent 124 days in the witness box at the Mahon Tribunal where he described a widespread network of corruption and named more than 25 politicians he had made payments to in 1992 and 93. In 2009 he became the first person to be convicted on corruption charges under the Ethics in Public Office Act. He served 14 months of a two year prison sentence.
Are you most proud of his stand against the Irish Government?
I’m certainly proud of him for that, he was up against everyone and he didn’t bend and that’s extraordinary. Most of all I’m proud of the man himself and his morality. He was looked down upon in certain circles because he was a strict moral man – he would not turn.
Did he regret his decision to return to Ireland?
Yes he did. If he had known then what he knew subsequently he would never have gone back. I think there was a culture of contempt for Irish emigrants shown in Ireland. I think people from that background looked down on them [returned emigrants] or patronised or dismissed them as plastic paddies or whatever. I think with the benefit of hindsight – if he could have made that decision again, he would not have gone near Dublin.
Did he always want to go back home?
It was a period when there were huge numbers of young Irish looking for work where there was none - and he felt he had the power and the connections to be able to do something to make a contribution and stop the emigration that he had been a victim of. He would have done as well had he not been shaken down by corrupt politicians and officials.
Did your father create a legacy of transparency in Ireland?
I know my dad exposed a huge level of corruption among politicians but if you look at it now, no one had been prosecuted for perjury and when you look at recent stories – the garda whistle blowers, you see this culture of contempt for people who tell the truth.
Has your own relationship with Ireland been tainted?
I’ll put it this way...my view of the Irish state and how things work is a little more jaundiced than when I was a child. When I look at how politics, big business and banking work in Ireland, I look at my father and I think these people have spat on the graves of those people who fought for Irish independence. To me they betrayed that legacy and to me they are not fit for office.
The people who betray public office, I believe it is such a gross betrayal that I would make it treason because of the legacy left to them by the people who fought and died for Irish independence.
You have mentioned some of your father’s career successes but what was his best moment?
Dad’s father wasn’t happy about him going to England when he left because his father was an IRA man he was in the War of Independence and England was the old enemy, but when dad had his engineering company up and running and when it was doing so well my granddad used to visit with my granny.
It was a huge factory in Northampton and he stood there and saw all the men under dad’s command, the huge nature of the job and the regard that my father was held in and my granddad turned to my dad and said: ‘You done very well.’ And I think for my father that was his finest achievement.
Tom Gilmartin: The Man Who Brought Down a Taoiseach and Exposed the Greed and Corruption at the Heart of Irish Politics is out now.
Tom Gilmartin Jnr lives in London and is training to be a solicitor.