Leak lands Bertie in deep end

BERTIE AHERN has spent the last two days wearing the riled face of a man who has been wronged. He has fumed that somebody has it in for him and has planted the political equivalent of an incendiary device just before the Dáil returns.

Very occasionally, Ahern has raw-nerve moments when he can hunch his anorak into a hoodie and send out a vibe of low-level and thin-lipped intimidation. This is one of them. He has condemned the leak in furious terms. But, as for the information itself, he has blanked and stonewalled. It is nobody’s business but his own, he says. He has no questions to answer. End of story.

But this particular story is only at its beginning. The problem for Ahern is that the wrong of the leak has been outranked by the greater wrong revealed by the leak; namely that Ahern accepted money from a small group of friends during his legal separation proceedings in late 1993.

And Ahern knows more than anybody else from his years of prowling the deep waters that there is no such thing as a shallow end in politics. He can complain all he likes about somebody not playing by the rules but the first rule at the business end of politics is that there are no rules.

Or let us put it another way, and quote the Taoiseach from a debate on ethics in the Dáil last year.

“Deputy Kenny and I have been members of the House for long enough to know that there is a code of ethics whereby those who have been elected to the House try to remain elected. That is the code of ethics in this House.”

Yes, there is an explainable context to the payments. Ahern was going through a legal separation from his former wife, Miriam. His domestic situation had been raised, to his embarrassment, by opponents when his name was first mooted as a FF leader in 1992. From a narrow political perspective, he was probably anxious that the matter be resolved by the time Albert Reynolds’ time had ended.

But by accepting donations, he may have got over that hurdle but he also began digging an even bigger ditch for himself. Through various cameo appearances at tribunals over the years, it had become a credo for his supporters that Ahern himself had never personally benefited from donations or payments. Until this week that was.

And no matter how much he fulminates against the leakers, he himself has admitted under his breath that he did accept payments. No matter how well-intentioned or personal, the political repercussions are unmistakable.

Just how serious this is can be gauged by the decision of Fine Gael to weigh in with their own criticisms on Thursday evening. The main opposition party is very wary on this issue and deliberately held its tongue when tribunal revelations were made. The reason is obvious. Any time they entered the fray, the always got burned by FF who used the following simple rhetorical device: “And what about Michael Lowry, then?”

The unvarnished truth is that Ahern has now stumbled into a political minefield of his own making. All day yesterday, researchers for the opposition parties busily assembled the best quotable quotes by the Taoiseach about dubious payments to politicians.

The most potentially damaging is one that he made during the debate in the Dáil on the Lowry affair. “In principle, apart from token presentations in respect of functions performed ... neither politicians nor officials should accept personal gifts of value from outside their family.

“However, as I have said over the past few days, campaign contributions or contributions for political expenses are of course in a different category. Any other situation is open to misinterpretation.”

A separate contribution from former Tánaiste Mary Harney to the same debate will rub salt into the wounds.

“If somebody was to offer me £100,000 tomorrow, it would not be illegal for me to accept it provided I paid the right taxes but would it be right for me to accept it?”

And the answer to that is resoundingly no. Ahern was a TD and Finance Minister at the time of the payments.

He was not the only citizen encountering domestic difficulties. Why could he not have availed of a bank loan like everybody else? In addition, he was a senior Government minister holding a position of immense influence. Ultimately, what distinguishes these personal donations from those made to Charles Haughey or to Michael Lowry?

Bertie Ahern has done his Houdini act many times before. But as things stand now, he will have his work cut out parlaying his way out of this one.

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