Book Review by Frank O’Shea
TALES FROM THE FRAUD SQUAD. By Willie McGee. Merrion Press 2022. €16.99
The title is a deception, a fraud if you like. It suggests detailed, internal accounts of successes and perhaps failures by the Irish Gardaí. In fact, we are at page 80 before we reach those stories and, let it be admitted, they are completely riveting. So much so indeed that the reader will wish that the author had given more details or accounts of other, perhaps lesser, frauds.
Willie McGee may be better known in Ireland as a former Mayo footballer – Four Goal McGee to many. The nature of his work, first as a uniformed Garda and then with the Fraud Squad, were of necessity low-key, rarely attracting attention of the wider community.
The first example he gives happened in his early days with the Fraud Squad. It involved an attempt to extract five million punts (more than 27 million euros in today’s money) from the Irish state under the threat that the criminal would otherwise release foot-and-mouth disease into the country. This was 1979 and the Squad suspected a well-known Saor Éire character, based in the Carlow-Kilkenny area.
The book describes the various correspondences between the Department of Agriculture and the criminals, under the supervision of the Fraud Squad. One of these preparations involved the criminals being able to check out the car in which the hand-over of funds would take place. This would happen at the Gresham hotel in O’Connell Street, and naturally the Squad were hidden or ‘working busily’ nearby. The person who was seen checking out the car was a well-known barrister, a junior counsel, who had earlier been seen visiting the Saor Éire character down the country.
In the end, no money was ever handed over and no one was ever charged. In fact, the young barrister went on to become a senior counsel, a member of the Bar counsel and got lots of work from the State during the course of his career. McGee keeps a straight face as he finishes that account with a short sentence: ‘He died in middle age.’
Some of the other frauds that McGee covers involve passing of bogus cheques. This was in the pre-internet days, when banks were less careful than they, of necessity, learned to become. Some of the criminals involved were well known to the Gardaí but were too clever or too well represented by the legal profession to be able to be charged. Some successes are recorded, but in truth a reader would be excused for grinding teeth at how tardy the Irish State was in getting on top of fraud. It may help to note that this was in the days when Charlie Haughey was in power and one chapter deals with attempts to catch him or his associates in some of their shenanigans.
There is a chapter on a woman who would dress up as a nun to carry out her frauds. And there was a priest in Cork who had to eventually be forcibly retired by his bishop. Any of these stories could fill a book on its own. Eventually, the various British and even the American equivalents of the Fraud Squad became involved. The Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) is not mentioned, but the anger of the reader would be eased if they were told how Ireland led the world in legislation to cover matters like those covered here.
McGee retired at the age of 55 and went to work investigating fraud for insurance company AXA (what we used to know as PMPA). There would be a book in this too, what with all the faked road accidents, rear-end collisions and the dreaded whiplash. The Nigerians are mentioned as are the travelling people, each story carefully narrated.
The book finishes as it starts, detailing the author’s health problems, though over fewer pages than at the beginning. Recommended reading.
Frank is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.