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Will corrupt leaders get their due?

Politicians may be next as Ireland jails Frank Dunlop.

DUBLIN — Frank Dunlop was always a pleasant colleague, if a bit pompous, and he was also very ambitious. That’s how I remember him when we worked together in the 1970s in a much-bombed media building in Belfast, he for the Irish broadcasting service RTE, and I for The Irish Times.

If he had stuck to reporting, Dunlop might not this week be adjusting to life in a prison cell, having received the longest sentence for corruption ever handed down by an Irish court. And several politicians and property developers in the Irish Republic would not now be shaking in their shoes, as Dunlop prepares to turn state witness against them.

But the broadcaster left journalism after his stint in Belfast and began a career in Dublin that was to make him one of the most corrupting figures in Irish society. He became  press officer for the Fianna Fail party, then was appointed government press secretary when that party came to power.

In 1989 Dunlop formed his own public relations company, with an unrivalled portfolio of contacts in government and the media. As the best-connected lobbyist in Dublin, he was sought out by developers seeking to secure both the favor of government ministers and the votes of local councilors, to have cheaply bought agricultural land rezoned for building.

Both sides well knew that, in Dunlop’s words, “the ways of the world would have to apply.” The consultant was supplied with large wads of cash to wine and dine and, if necessary, bribe elected councilors and officials. At meetings in the dark recesses of Dublin pubs, Dunlop would slip bundles of cash to these local government representatives to ensure they voted the way his clients wanted. Dunlop was well rewarded for his manipulative talents, and enriched himself further by investing in lands where he knew rezoning had been "bought."

The "brown envelope" culture in Irish politics was an open secret in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, but the parties were protected by a culture of omerta, and by a system that allowed developers to claim, if payments became public, that they were just making "political donations."

The first break came when a businessman, James Gogarty, claimed to have witnessed a developer handing over two envelopes containing a total of 80,000 Irish pounds ($140,000) in cash to then-Minister for Industry and Commerce Ray Burke. A tribunal into "certain planning matters and payments" was established in 1997 to investigate this and other rumors of corruption in high places. Burke was eventually disgraced and sent to jail for six months.