From airs and graces to disgrace

THE letter that would ultimately end Bertie Ahern’s career was sent on Oct 15, 2004.

The Mahon Tribunal informed him it was investigating an allegation that he had received bribes of £50,000 and £30,000 for planning favours. The allegation originated with builder Tom Gilmartin. He claimed his then partner Owen O’Callaghan had told him of the bribes.

The investigation was routine. Over the course of its life, the planning tribunal investigated dozens such allegations. The vast majority turned out to have no basis, or at least no supporting evidence.

The inquiry’s modus operandi was to follow the money trail. This meant anybody accused of an allegation had to hand over their financial records. If the records showed nothing unusual, the matter would, in all likelihood, end there. Nobody would even know there had been an investigation. If, on the other hand, the records threw up further questions; well, who knows where it might lead.

By Oct 2004, Ahern was at the zenith of this career. First elected to the Dáil in 1977, he had never lost an election. He had served in a number of ministerial portfolios, culminating in finance. In 1997, he had, against the odds, led Fianna Fáil back into power. He inherited a booming economy, and rode the wave all the way to the 2002 poll. His standing by that election was such that the party strategy was to plaster the campaign with his image. You weren’t voting for Fianna Fáil. You were voting for Bertie.

He was Everyman. Women liked him. Men liked the idea of going for a pint with him. His mentor, Charlie Haughey, had once dubbed him “the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning”, but to most people, he was mostly harmless. A nice man. A hard workin’ man, who was devoid of airs and graces, a bit brighter than he let on, with no interest in material possessions. In terms of image, he was a perfect politician for the times that were in it. The investigation into his finances would drive a coach and four through that particular image.

Once the tribunal began looking into Ahern’s finances, strange lodgements and facts began popping up. Ahern revealed he had no bank accounts between 1987 and 1994, during which time he served for a while as minister for finance.

Over the course of two years, between Dec 1993 and Dec 1995, a total of £147,500 had been lodged in accounts associated with him. None of the lodgements matched a salary cheque. There was also another £30,000 that may or may not have been $45,000. The more the tribunal looked, the stranger the details that tumbled out.

Ahern was slow to offer explanations. Eventually, some 20 months after the initial inquiry, he introduced the dig-outs as explanations for two large lodgements. These were monies gathered by friends to dig him out of an alleged financial jam. Then there was a whiparound in Manchester, in which a group of millionaire businessmen passed around a metaphorical hat to throw together a few bob for Bertie. Originally, he claimed this was because he was on his uppers at the time. Later, he said it was just given to him as a mark of appreciation for a speech he gave.

In Sept 2006, news of the investigation broke in the press. The tribunal “was investigating a number of payments to Bertie Ahern in and around December 1993, including cash payments”.

The foul stuff came into violent contact with the air conditioning.

Ahern decided to go on TV to clear up matters. He gave a tearful interview with Brian Dobson, which would go down in history. He told of the dig-outs from his friends, when he was on his uppers. (It would later emerge that he was flush with cash at the time.) He mentioned his daughters. It was all about his marriage break-up. The nation watched and hearts melted.

He rounded off a masterful performance. “It’s best that I just give the true facts and, you know, from the position of the Irish public, they’ve always been kind to me about being separated.”

Time would show that far from the true facts, his response to questions in the interview was a strange and elastic interpretation of the truth.

The interview did the business. Opinion polls showed he was back in the driving seat. He rode it all the way through the general election the following year. Victory assured him of a place in electoral posterity at the right hand of de Valera.

It didn’t last long. He began his evidence in Sept 2007. It was downhill all the way from there.

Over the following six months, he gave evidence on a number of occasions in Dublin Castle. Slowly and methodically, tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill brought him through his strange finances. Uncomfortable and sometimes unpalatable facts kept spilling from the evidence. Opinion polls suggested most people didn’t believe him, but a majority also felt he shouldn’t resign.

The weight of evidence eventually did for him. Following highly controversial testimony by his former secretary Gráinne Carruth in late March, he endured a long Easter of the soul.

On Apr 2, he called a press conference. He was stepping down. “The decision I am taking today — like all other decisions that I have taken in a lifetime of politics — is solely motivated by what is best for the people,” he said.

At the time, many saw him as a future president. The subsequent economic collapse put paid to any notions in that direction.

Any negative fallout he shipped from the tribunal was massively overtaken by the public perception that the country had been set on course for the rocks while he was at the helm.


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