Ahern produces more questions than answers

There was an onus on the Taoiseach to explain all the circumstances to the tribunal, but this did not happen, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

THERE’S a lovely Irish expression “Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear” which roughly translates as: “What is thought is not what transpires”.

We have all bought into the image of Bertie Ahern as the man in the anorak and street politician. But how accurate is it?

For one, you also have to take into account that nowadays he’s a millionaire politician with one of the largest salaries of any European political leader.

He might enjoy his beer and his matches but even when he was supposedly on his uppers and stony broke in the mid-1990s, he had 50 grand worth of savings stashed away and was still flying over to Manchester United matches regularly.

So often in fact, that he couldn’t remember exactly when he spoke to a group of very well-known Manchester zillionaires who crossed his palm with eight big ones.

If you detect the slightest note of cynicism there, you might be right. The image of Bertie Ahern, man of the people, is one that has long been semi-detached from reality. It follows that the impression of him that he was completely above all the shenanigans that were going on with Fianna Fáil in the 1980s and early 1990s is an impression badly in need of revision. Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear.

While you can accept that he is not a venally corrupt politician (like Charles Haughey) and that he never took a bribe from Owen O’Callaghan, there were very strange goings-on around his personal financial dealings that he has simply failed to explain.

And no matter how much he thin-lips it, how much he mashes it all up with his failed marriage, a minister for finance taking money was wrong. He has justified taking the money in Dublin and Manchester (and never paying any of it back until forced to) on the basis that it pre-dated the ethics legislation. But just because it pre-dated the law did not make it any less unethical. And he wasn’t broke. He had £50,000 in savings. He had no need in the wide world to rent a house from Michael Wall or from anybody.

Were all those weird transactions dodgy or were they crooked? The tribunal legal team has provided a relatively strong case that some of the stuff going on might point in that direction. But it’s a theoretical case — there is no bang-to-rights evidence against him. The ramifications of the Taoiseach being found to have lied in a tribunal report are massive — I sense that Feargus Flood was right in his assessment that a grave negative finding won’t be made.

But he gave us some guff and balderdash over the past 12 days. He maintained for months that the full story would out when he gave evidence. But his 18 hours in the witness box has not done that. On radio on Saturday, he urged people to read the full transcript. I wouldn’t recommend it. If you are confused going in, you will be totally bewildered by the time you come out of his testimony.

There were all those memory lapses surrounding massive sums of money. There were all those different versions of events, changed and tweaked in the light of the tribunal presenting new evidence to him (like he lodged £30,000 worth of sterling in 1995) or to fit in with the version of other evidence. And there were the rambling answers that served to muddy the waters. In particular there was the singular failure by him to prove conclusively (that is, to exclude the possibility fully) that the payments weren’t dodgy and weren’t crooked. This wasn’t a criminal trial and there was an onus on him to explain all the circumstances. That just didn’t happen.

IT’S TRUE that the tribunal legal team has relied on circumstantial evidence — in addition to some relatively (but not totally) persuasive deduction — that two of the sums that passed through accounts benefiting Mr Ahern do not seem to be what he said they were.

This is what Mr Ahern said they were:

1. A lodgment in October 1994 was made up of stg£8,000 or so that was given to him at a fundraiser in Manchester and IR£16,500, the second dig-out loan given to him by his friends in Dublin.

2. That £28,772.90 lodged into a new account opened by Celia Larkin in December 1994 was the sum of circa stg£30,000 handed over to him in St Luke’s by Micheal Wall.

But the tribunal lawyers have presented an alternative scenario for both payments:

1. They say that an analysis of exchange rates for the day in October 1994 show that the amount lodged exactly matched stg£25,000. It must be pointed out that to achieve this an inappropriate rate must apply.

2. By a second massive coincidence, the figure lodged by Celia Larkin in December 1994 seems to be exactly $45,000 on an exchange rate that could be appropriate for the day. If this were true, the evidence about Michael Wall’s £30,000 in sterling would be a fabrication. There is a piece of evidence that support this, the fact that bank records show that only stg£1,900 was transacted that day and that the sum for other currencies could accommodate an exchange of $45,000.

In the case of the latter, he had promised before yesterday to debunk a theory put forward by the tribunal legal team that $45,000 was lodged. He said he had retained a currency expert named Paddy Stronge. A complicated mathematical formula was used to show there were 67 combinations that proved the money lodged was sterling not dollars. That was based on evidence presented by bank witnesses in July. But since then the witness expanded and clarified their evidence. Yesterday, Mr Ahern had to agree with Des O’Neill that none of the 67 possibilities now stands.

And the hugely publicised report by Mr Stronge that would confirm Mr Ahern’s statement that there was no $45,000 lodgment was yesterday revealed as a two-page report.

Mr Stronge accepted it had not been possible to produce a detailed report and did little more than state he had come to the “firm conclusion” that both transactions under dispute would have involved a breach of branch (bank) procedures to become what the tribunal said they were. So much for debunking the tribunal’s theory.

Last Thursday, the Taoiseach was unable to explain when, where and how he bought stg£30,000 in 1995. Yesterday, all he could offer was that he didn’t remember it. His best guess as of yesterday was that he got somebody to do it but he doesn’t know who that is. He also thinks it didn’t happen in many instalments.

He can’t even remember driving Celia to the bank to collect the 50 grand.

Does any of this sound plausible? Not much. But is there any evidence that can contradict it completely? No. But despite all his pleas there was a full and logical explanation for this, his evidence produced more questions than answers. Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear.

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