Slippery theory may not be enough to make mud stick to Teflon Taoiseach

To what extent have the Mahon revelations damaged Bertie Ahern’s standing as leader, asks Political Editor Harry McGee.

THOSE who work in the survival business — writers, sports people, actors and politicians — know that ultimately they are only as good as their last book, game, film or election.

Bertie Ahern is around long enough to understand, more than most, what a precarious, dangerous and unpredictable business politics is. He will be well aware of Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failures and will have seen too many of his colleagues — Charlie Haughey, Ray Burke, Liam Lawlor, Padraig Flynn, and Denis Foley — end their careers with their reputations in tatters.

Mr Ahern has undoubtedly taken a bit of a hiding this week, but what is more difficult to assess is the extent of the damage to his reputation and to his standing as Taoiseach.

What is sure is that the more he walks into booby traps at the Mahon Tribunal, the shorter his period as leader will be. But it is infuriatingly difficult to make any firm conclusions as to the aftershock.

We have seen him encounter crises like this before, where he looked like a sure goner only for his popularity to go shooting up or for FF to win elections. What you can say with certainty is that he will be browned off that his questioning did not finish last night as scheduled.

Fianna Fáil’s annual parliamentary party think-in begins on Monday and he would have wanted the tribunal behind him. Instead — for about the fifth time in a year — his personal finances will dominate the agenda at the FF gig.

Among the scribes, the consensus on yesterday went as follows: He was damaged; he had an awful day; some of the evidence was ruinous to him; it was death by a thousand cuts.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to agree with it. Sure it’s serious stuff and sure he was caught bang-to-rights a couple of times. But given his Teflon Taoiseach reputation, this ship will only be downed by an iceberg of Titanic proportions.

Having said that, the stakes are very high indeed. Mr Ahern’s explanation and clarifications of all the lodgements, the dig-out loans, the whip-arounds and the house purchase have been ropey.

That ropiness has been exposed on a good few occasions by the persistent, sometimes monotonous, questioning of tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill. On top of that, Mr Ahern’s narrative has always been that he has fully complied and cooperated with the tribunal.

Yesterday, we had further reminders that the tribunal’s own experience is at variance with this.

As well as the lateness in disclosing foreign exchange transactions, it emerged yesterday that he failed in his obligation to include Celia Larkin’s involvement in an account operating to his benefit in an affidavit of discovery. That’s pretty serious.

Yesterday, after a day and a half of thoroughly exhaustive and exhausting preliminaries, the tribunal finally turned its attention to the four specific lodgements and the substantive issues surrounding Mr Ahern.

The first payment that has come under scrutiny was a lodgement of £24,838 in punts in October 1994. Ahern’s version of events is that this is primarily made up of two separate components — the second dig-out loan he got from friends totalling £16,500 in addition to the £8,000 sterling he was handed after a whip- around by Manchester-based zillionaires in 1994.

All very well, until tribunal lawyers began to do the maths and discovered that the figures just didn’t tally. The exchange rates of the day just didn’t support the two sources that Mr Ahern claimed for the money. In other words, the sterling sum would have to be in pounds and pence.

When it did its own assessment, it found that the sum lodged of IR£24,838 exactly matched the money you would get if you exchanged £25,000 sterling. That was explosive stuff. If that was the case, it meant that the version of events Mr Ahern has put on public record just wasn’t true, that there was no £8,000 sterling, no IR£16,500 and that his narrative was a fabrication and, well, a brazen lie. And if that were true, or established, or proven, there would be no question but the Taoiseach would fall on his sword. He just couldn’t survive politically.

But there was one problem with this theory — and that’s what it is, because there are no documents to back up this version of events; or indeed Mr Ahern’s. It assumed that the bank teller had applied a rate that day that was for sums of £2,500 and below, rather than a more favourable rate for larger sums. “You are saying a person going in with £25,000 gets a rate for £2,500 and is entirely screwed by the bank,” riposted Mr Ahern to Mr O’Neill.

The lawyer pointed out that the same rate for £2,500 was mistakenly applied for £20,000 Mr Ahern deposited in December 1995, before it was corrected to the appropriate rate.

Hugely coincidental and all as it is, the theory still makes a huge assumption that the teller applied the wrong rate, either deliberately or mistakenly. The December example isn’t compelling because the mistake was rectified by the bank at the time.

Overall, the Taoiseach has done himself no favours. Every time he explains, the sands shift a little bit more.

There are parts of Mr Ahern’s account that were not convincing when he first told it and are still not convincing a year later.

The sums of money involved were huge. But having said all that, there are few who are as expert in the survival business as Bertie Ahern is.

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