The planning tribunal, in its heyday, was box office. For years, nightly news led with the latest from Dublin Castle, where the public gallery was regularly packed to capacity. Evidence was re-enacted on the radio and as cabaret theatre.
Flood retired and the tribunal moved on to other things – mostly involving Frank Dunlop or Bertie Ahern. Burke and the businessmen who bribed him were told to pay their own legal costs, although the criminal proceedings expected by some never materialised. The tribunal, now chaired by Mr Justice Alan Mahon, completed its hearings and published a final report in 2012.
End of story, or so it seemed, with only the substantial legal costs of hundreds of witnesses remaining to be paid. Yet, this turned out to be far from the end of the tale for a tribunal that always had the whiff of controversy about it.
Years after the hearings into Burke and former planning official George Redmond, a succession of legal challenges has unpicked its work to such an extent that those early years now seem largely to have been a waste of time.
All of those who appeared before the tribunal in this era, even those found to have been corrupt, are getting their legal costs; in Burke’s case, these may run to €5 million. Findings that they hindered and obstructed the inquiry have been withdrawn. The corruption findings against Redmond have been withdrawn and it is expected corruption findings against others will also be retracted.
So how did it come to this? How did a tribunal with a massive budget, widespread public support and copious material to investigate end up falling flat on its face? Whose fault is it and who should foot the bill?
While this unravelling of the tribunal stems from legal actions taken by witnesses, the judiciary has long had its doubts about the tribunal process, and the planning tribunal in particular.
As far back as 1999, a High Court judge was describing the tribunal’s powers to make orders as “draconian”. A former taxing master in the court called tribunals “the Frankenstein of modern Irish society”.
Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court, one of the tribunal’s chief critics over many years, complained about the “grotesque” cost of tribunals and their duration, which he characterised as “nothing less than appalling”.