There was a salutary reminder that not everything we are told about medicine should be taken on trust when the dwindling number of Thalidomide survivors came to Dáil Éireann in protest a couple of weeks ago.
For those too young to remember, Thalidomide was a German developed drug prescribed for expectant mothers back in the 1960s as a treatment for morning sickness. The drug was presented as having been thoroughly tested, perfectly safe and guaranteed free of side effects. The truth was that it was none of those things. In thousands of cases, it resulted in foetal damage so severe that babies were born without limbs, or with foreshortened limbs, or with impaired hearing or vision, or with other hideous deformities.
Thalidomide had been manufactured under license for the British and Irish markets by the Scottish company, Distillers, which was primarily an alcohol spirit manufacturer but with an expansive foothold in the pharmaceutical industry. As the first reports of malformed births began to come in, Distillers swiftly stonewalled all enquiries and denied any negligence. In this, the company had the backing of the establishment – the Ministry of Health, the medical profession, the media, all lined up behind Distillers in spite of mounting evidence.
It eventually took a determined campaign by the celebrated editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans, who took up the crusade on behalf of aggrieved parents, and who eventually succeeded in securing £32 million in damages from Distillers. (This despite the fact that Distillers were the biggest advertising customers of the Sunday Times, and had spelled out the consequences should Evans persist in his campaign).
Come the 1980s, and Distillers was back again in the news, again for the wrong reasons. This time, the company had become the target of a takeover bid by Guinness (a much smaller company) involving a piece of sleight-of-hand which led to the Guinness share price fraud trial, one of the most infamous British business scandals of the time.
And it was a trial which revealed a tenuous link to a Castlebar individual who also found himself arraigned before the Old Bailey in London.
The background was that four major figures in Guinness, all business tycoons in their own right, had devised a plan to manipulate the London Stock Market so as to artificially inflate the value of Guinness shares, which would in turn make it easier to complete the £4 billion takeover of Distillers.
The plan leaked out and reached the ears of the Fraud Squad. The Guinness Four were charged with conspiracy, false accounting and theft. The case dragged on and appeal followed appeal for years, but eventually the law took its course. Ernest Saunders, the Guinness chairman, and Gerald Ronson, were both fined and jailed. It had been a sensational trial.
But what of the Castlebar man? A short time after the trial ended, a man was arrested at Heathrow on his way home to retirement in Mayo. He was charged with trying to cheat the (now jailed ) Gerald Ronson, by claiming he could nobble the trial jury on his behalf.
Tom – for that was his name – had reportedly written to Ronson posing as a member of the jury who could arrange for Ronson’s acquittal on payment of a £30 million bribe.
Soon after the trial started, it was dropped by the Old Bailey judges on compassionate grounds because of Tom’s age and ill health. Tom died a few years later. Gerald Ronson got early release and was subsequently awarded a CBE for his contribution to charity.