Adjournment keeps Ahern out of the line of fire

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern has avoided potentially embarrassing revelations about his personal finances after the planning tribunal yesterday postponed its public hearings until after polling day in the General Election.

The inquiry was scheduled to begin the second phase of its investigation into alleged corruption surrounding the securing of planning permission for a major shopping centre at Quarryvale (now Liffey Valley) in west Dublin.

Lawyers for the inquiry were due to present a revised opening statement, which was expected to include details about an investigation into the Taoiseach’s personal finances.

Mr Ahern had been asked to explain the background of some financial transactions after the tribunal heard allegations that the Fianna Fáil leader had received two sums of money totalling £80,000 from Cork property developer Owen O’Callaghan in the early 1990s.

Both men have vehemently rejected the claims that were made by another property developer, Tom Gilmartin, who maintains he was told about them by Mr O’Callaghan.

“I never was offered, received or asked for anything from Owen O’Callaghan. I don’t believe Owen O’Callaghan ever bought me a cup of tea but he certainly never gave me a penny,” said Mr Ahern yesterday.

A large group of journalists outnumbered members of the public sitting in the gallery of the Printworks building in Dublin Castle yesterday in anticipation of a statement that could have dictated the agenda during the first week of the election campaign.

In a brief statement, however, tribunal chairman, Judge Alan Mahon, said it would not hear the opening statement on the Quarryvale module until May 28 — four days after polling day — on account of the Taoiseach’s decision to call the election.

“In following this course, this tribunal is adopting the precedence of other tribunals in not conducting public hearings in the period leading to a General Election,” said the chairman.

“Having regard to yesterday’s announcement the members of the tribunal consider it appropriate that the tribunal should not recommence a lengthy module in circumstances where it would only be possible to take evidence for three or four days.”

Mr Gilmartin is now scheduled to begin his evidence on May 29.

Although the tribunal chairman and two other members, Judge Mary Faherty and Judge Gerard Keys, independently took the decision to postpone the Quarryvale module, remarks by the Taoiseach in an interview with a Sunday newspaper about his unhappiness with yesterday’s planned opening statement would not have gone unnoticed by the three-person tribunal.

“All I can say is that the precedent since the foundation of the State has been that tribunals haven’t sat during an election. I am not going to comment on something that I’m personally involved in. I’m just quoting what is the precedent,” said Mr Ahern in an interview with the Sunday Tribune.

While the decision to adjourn the Quarryvale module did not come as a big surprise, it remains somewhat perplexing that the tribunal initially indicated that it would continue to hold public hearings until a fortnight before the election date.

Nevertheless, the Quarryvale module could still become a feature of the election as details about a £30,000 payment to Mr Ahern’s then partner Celia Larkin by businessman Michael Wall in December 1994 are likely to feature at some stage.

The Taoiseach made no reference to the payment — which was used to fund refurbishment work on a house in Drumcondra which was rented by Mr Ahern from Mr Wall — when he gave a high-profile TV interview about the so-called Bertiegate controversy last October.

The revelation could still impact on Mr Ahern’s future as the new date for the tribunal’s opening statement on Quarryvale could take place against a background of talks on the formulation of a new government after the election.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour leader Pat Rabbitte said it was a matter for the tribunal to decide whether to proceed.

Health Minister Mary Harney said the decision to postpone hearings of the inquiry was appropriate and “in the interests of justice”.

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