BERTIE Ahern’s much-trumpeted appearance at the Mahon Tribunal yesterday brought a whole new layer of meaning to the notion of anticlimax.
It was like turning up to see a boxing match and mistakenly finding yourself hemmed in at a chess match from which there is no escape. Not even a good chess match. A tedious dour away fixture of a chess match in November that takes more than seven hours to grind to an inevitable stalemate.
In the middle of the afternoon, when a discussion started on document 19637, I had already lost the will to live. Imagine the headlines: Tribunal makes Bertie break by boring him into admitting everything and anything.
From the perspective of the predominantly silver-haired public gallery who packed the hall at Dublin Castle, it was tedious stuff. And the huge media pack spent most of the afternoon desperately searching for any sliver of a news line to justify an occasion that was billed as the biggest political story of the autumn.
OK, Des O’Neill may not go down in history as the Irish Bar’s answer to Rumpole of the Bailey, but there was no doubt that the strategy employed by the tribunal’s senior lawyer yesterday was masterly.
Ever since the details of Mr Ahern’s personal finances became known to the wider public, he has gone to some considerable length to say that he had gone to inordinate lengths to co-operate with all its inquiries.
His most famous utterance on the subject was intended to show that there were only a couple of aspects of his life that were excluded from the trawl:
“I’m not answering what I got for my Holy Communion money, my Confirmation money, what I got for my birthday, what I got for anything else, I’m not into that.”
But it became clear yesterday, as Mr O’Neill patiently and painstakingly went through the entire chronology of Mr Ahern’s dealings with the tribunal that there was an awful lot else that he was not answering for, and that he did not answer for a long time.
The information that was furnished by him was often partial, incomplete, conditional, and very slow in coming. And as the correspondence between tribunal lawyers and Mr Ahern’s legal team became increasingly tetchy in the spring and summer of 2006, the tribunal questioned if Mr Ahern was dealing with its questions “with the appropriate degree of urgency and importance”.
By laying out all the correspondence, the full chronology of events that takes us up to today, the tribunal lawyer achieved a couple of aims. He showed how the tribunal had slowly come to focus its inquiries on the key issues — the four lodgments made between October 1994 and December 1995. It also showed that despite his protestation, the Taoiseach’s co-operation lacked urgency and fullness at various stages. And in a sense, Mr O’Neill laid out all the relevant details and facts and background yesterday — got them out of the way, for what is sure to be a very close, very difficult and very specific examination of Mr Ahern today.
There were two good examples of the difficulties the tribunal had in receiving all the information. When it first suggested to Mr Ahern’s legal team that it might make an order of discovery, his lawyers wrote back saying the order should be confined to dates between January 1989 and December 1992 and only to lodgments or withdrawals to his account over £30,000.
Mr O’Neill got Mr Ahern to concede yesterday that such an order would have been more or less useless as he held no bank account of his own between those dates (he dealt only in cash after separating from his wife), and that all four lodgments now being examined would not have been caught by the inquiry as all fell under £30,000.
Right at the end of a long day, Mr O’Neill described the private interview it held with Mr Ahern on April 5 of this year. What he had to say was potentially devastating. It was only on that occasion that the tribunal became aware for the first time that some of the lodgments made by Bertie Ahern to various accounts were foreign exchange lodgments.
Mr O’Neill put it to Mr Ahern that this was the first time it had come to light in its two-and-a-half years of dealing with the Taoiseach: “Would you agree with me that that process, a lengthy process, that has taken place between October 2004 and April of 2007 did not in fact establish the foreign currency elements of these accounts until it was disclosed in the course of the interview?”
SURE, Mr Ahern felt hard done by. Tom Gilmartin has made a rake of allegations against him (we’ll return presently to them). He claims that they are unfounded, scurrilous and based on hearsay.
The tribunal proceeded to inquire into two of the allegations in particular — claims by Mr Gilmartin that Cork developer Owen O’Callaghan told him that he made a payment of £50,000 to Mr Ahern in 1989 and of a further £30,000 between 1989 and 1992. Both Mr O’Callaghan and Mr Ahern have protested that Mr Gilmartin is telling a tissue of lies. Despite the allegation being baseless, the tribunal began to examine Mr Ahern’s accounts.
But his problem was this: what was unearthed might have nothing to do with Mr Gilmartin, as Mr Ahern claims. But they were so unusual for a public figure retaining high office that they warranted public scrutiny. The image of the man in the anorak who liked nothing more than a beer and football didn’t sit easily with large loans from friends; spontaneous whip-a-rounds in Manchester; the foreign transactions and the curious way in which 44 Beresford Avenue became Mr Ahern’s property.
It was a day of two halves yesterday. If Mr O’Neill was preparing the ground, so was Mr Ahern. He took the unusual step of reading out a statement right at the outset. There were one or two newish things to it, but most of it was a re-airing of past clarifications and statements.
It served an important strategic purpose though, letting Mr Ahern get in his “pretaliation”, gaining the initiative when it came to the news agenda, setting out his stall. It contained specific denials. There was the refutation that he had ever handled $45,000. To bolster that there was new information, namely that a currency expert, former Bank of Ireland executive Paddy Stronge, would show it was impossible for him to have dealt in dollars.
He also floated a new explanation as to why he bought £30,000 sterling in 1995. He revealed that the pressure to buy a new home receded when he didn’t become taoiseach in late 1994. For a period he considered buying another house. He even looked at houses in Drumcondra. To that end, he exchanged Irish punts for stg£30,000 to repay Michael Wall the sum he had contributed for construction and stamp duty.
And the other strategic element was taking every opportunity to take a swipe at Tom Gilmartin. The Luton developer had been seven and a half years on Mr Ahern’s back, had variously made crazy, wild, scurrilous, unfounded and baseless allegations of Mr Ahern holding accounts in Jersey, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and the Dutch Antilles.
“This man was saying all kinds of crazy things including that I tried to get two colleagues to blackmail another colleague,” he said.
It was lucky for Mr Ahern that he had his 15 minutes of the game. For he was almost reduced to the status of a spectator for the rest of the day, for the most part having to nod agreement to what was contained in the correspondence being displayed on the screen.
You do have to appreciate that he was Taoiseach and that he had other things on his mind beside the tribunal. At one stage he said he had spent 10 Saturdays nights in a row (five or six hours each time) gathering information.
He and his counsel Conor Maguire said that there should be no implication that he didn’t co-operate.
“It took me months of knee-bending and hardship and begging to get the information,” Mr Ahern said at one stage.
Whatever about how long it has taken to get to where we are, what is certain it that so much is going to be decided in seven hours of testimony today.