The media barrage against the tribunal by cabinet ministers began soon after Ahern began giving his evidence in Sept 2007.
On the Sunday after Ahern first stepped into the witness box, Willie O’Dea, the defence minister, joined the battle. O’Dea was, and is, a columnist with the Sunday Independent. On Sept 16, the paper’s splash front page headline read: ‘All Out War: Ahern Takes On Tribunal’. The story was based on an interview with O’Dea. The first line read: “In a dramatic escalation of the confrontation between cabinet and the Mahon Tribunal, a government minister last night accused the inquiry of acting outside its terms of reference in its inquiries into the financial affairs of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.”
The tone of the story suggested that the executive of the government was locked in a battle with the tribunal. Its subtext was that the inquiry was not about Ahern having to explain where he got pots of money, but actually about the cabinet defending its integrity.
The story went on: “It is now expected that other government ministers will follow Mr O’Dea’s lead and aggressively attack the tribunal before it resumes its public sittings on Thursday.”
O’Dea’s accusation effectively painted the Mahon Tribunal as acting outside the law. If he believed that to be so, he was obliged to bring his concerns to the floor of the House.
He did nothing of the sort. In fact, when approached to expand on his comments days later, O’Dea declined. He had thrown out an impression for public consumption, but there was no way he was going to follow through in a manner demanded of his office.
Attacks like this persisted over the following months. Some of it veered into the ridiculous. When the inquiry moved to Ahern’s tale about millionaires in Manchester having a whiparound for him, Éamon Ó Cuív stepped forward. He told Newstalk there was a long tradition of immigrants sending money home for those less fortunate. He was comparing the tradition of remittances for impoverished families to Ahern’s tale about a whiparound at an exclusive Manchester knees-up.
The lowest point in the behaviour of cabinet ministers came on Dec 20. Ahern was in the witness box that day. At around 3.50pm, the tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill put to him a scenario that might explain how he got a wedge of money. Ahern was offended at the suggestion.
“It is unbelievable, Mr O’Neill,” Ahern replied. “And I really, really don’t believe it… that you or anybody else would put that together other than trying to set me up or stitch me up.” In fact, O’Neill’s theory made more sense than Ahern’s bizarre explanations.
Among those in attendance at Dublin Castle that day was Eoghan Ó Neachtain, the government press secretary. There was no government business afoot that required his attention, so his presence was highly unusual.
Over the following two hours, radio talk shows were contacted by a representative of the government and offered ministers for interview on the condition they would not have to debate with any other party.
Noel Dempsey, Séamus Brennan and Micheál Martin all gave interviews to talk shows, criticising, to a greater or lesser extent, the tribunal. On the Six One news, Dermot Ahern did likewise.
The following morning, Dick Roche was on Morning Ireland accusing the inquiry of “bias” and “badgering a witness”. He referred to the “appalling treatment of the taoiseach”.
“Every citizen has rights, and when a powerful, powerful body like the tribunal tramples on the rights of a citizen, they diminish the rights of all citizens,” he said.
Roche did not bring his concerns of “bias” to the floor of the House, which is where it should have been explored.
At lunchtime, O’Dea stepped forward on RTÉ’s News at One. “I’m waiting for the day that the tribunal goes back to Bertie Ahern’s First Communion money and starts questioning whether he got it in notes or coins or whether he put it in a real bank or a piggy bank...” O’Dea said.
He added that he was not attacking the tribunal, but it was difficult to read his comments in any other way but an attack.
This is the background against which the Mahon Report found that the tribunal had come under “a sustained and virulent attack from a number of senior government ministers who questioned, inter alia, the legality of its inquiries as well as the integrity of its members”.
The report didn’t name specific ministers and in that vacuum, a number of them, including Martin and O’Dea, are claiming the reference has nothing to do with them.