Former Taoiseach simply reminds us of Bertie Ahern’s wrongdoing

IN all fairness, Bertie Ahern should organise a whip-around for his old buddy Joe Burke, who obliged when the Taoiseach hit a spot of bother himself a few years back.

The builder was one of the businessmen who gave Bertie Ahern a dig-out, the equivalent of €50,000 in two stage payments, when Bertie was Finance Minister in Albert Reynolds’ Government.

Joe probably could use a dig-out himself right now after his company, J and H Burke, was wound up last Monday with debts of €1 million.

The High Court appointed a liquidator to deal with the former Fianna Fáil councillor’s building firm — although it’s not much of a start to a new year for the company’s 16 employees.

At the time of Bertie Ahern’s marital difficulties, he described Joe Burke as a “close friend”, one of 12 who dug deep into their own pockets for the then Finance Minister.

He must have been a close friend, because while €50,000 nowadays is a handy sum, it was quite a handsome amount back in the early ’90s, whatever Joe contributed to it.

Unlike most of us who would have had to go to a bank or credit union for that sort of money, the Taoiseach said the payments were loans, not gifts, but he had never paid them back.

He did, of course, repay the money, with interest, last year but only when the fan was spinning and the sordid affair became public knowledge. Before then, he said, he had tried to pay them back, but they just would not let him.

When Bertie did eventually repay the money, the “debt of honour”, as he described it, most of it was donated to charity by his wealthy friends. After 12 years or so, they probably had written if off anyway.

I don’t know if Joe Burke donated his dosh to charity, but if he did Monday’s events in the High Court might have made him regret being so altruistic.

In what can only be described as a withering attack on Bertie Ahern last Sunday, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds unleashed the unvarnished truth as he saw it in another reminder of that traumatic period. What he said was not by accident because he chose an interview with Marian Finucane on RTÉ radio to let rip about what he considered unacceptable, although it happened during his term of office.

The two men are not now the best of buddies, but that does not explain the world of difference between them on such a fundamental issue — should a minister accept money from businessmen for his own private use? The answer was glaringly obvious to Albert Reynolds, as it would be to most normal people: absolutely not.

What’s more, Bertie Ahern’s judgment in the matter has damaged Irish public life, as far as Reynolds is concerned.

He also admitted that, as Taoiseach of the day, he should have been aware Bertie took the money, but he was not.

Had he known, he said, he would have forbidden his finance minister from taking the loans.

“I always strongly believed there was no way any member of a government should finance anything he was doing in that manner. Now, I know the circumstances there with his marriage breaking up, but you still don’t take anything that is bad for politics and bad for everything,” said Mr Reynolds.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny put it very simply when he said, “It’s not simply a matter of ethics or morality or codes or legislation, it’s a fundamental principle: the simple issue of right and wrong. It’s what we try to teach our children, the difference between right and wrong.”

Mr Ahern, a verbal Houdini on the subject, delivered a homily on it a few short years after accepting the money, but he saw no reason to explain, as is his fashion, to the people of Ireland. It was none of their business that he had had hands-on experience, he reasoned, or he may even have forgotten the matter of the €62,000.

On September 10, 1977, he declared in the Dáil, when a debate on the McCracken tribunal took place: “It is quite unacceptable that a member of Dáil Éireann, and in particular a cabinet minister and Taoiseach, should be supported in his personal lifestyle by gifts made to him personally.”

Exactly.

Despite the fact he did not contravene any ethical provision or breach any law, by the standards he expected of others, Mr Ahern was wrong to take the money.

WE probably wouldn’t have been any the wiser about the loans had the subject not entered the public domain by way of a leak to the Irish Times about information Bertie Ahern had given to the Mahon tribunal.

Subsequently, we might not have been any wiser about what happened in Manchester but for his cringing television interview, during the course of which he admitted the gig which brought in £8,000, or another €12,000 in today’s values.

Mr Ahern, obviously believing confession was good for the soul, or maybe it was a case of in for a penny, in for a pound, coughed up to that, although it had not been public knowledge.

That revelation almost toppled the coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats but Michael McDowell, after sulking for a few days, was more than happy to stay in Government with the Taoiseach.

What, of course, was revealing throughout this entire charade was Mr Ahern’s repeated denial that he had done anything wrong — and he was trying to convince everybody else that he hadn’t.

“I’ve broken absolutely no codes, ethical, tax, legal or otherwise,” he whined, as he introduced the marriage break-up with his wife as an excuse for the loaned money, to look after bills that arose from the separation.

That was also the reason he gave for the Manchester money, for which businessmen “insisted” he took the €12,000. Despite the fact that the vast majority of people, including Fianna Fáil supporters, knew it was morally wrong for Mr Ahern, as a member of the Government, to have pocketed money, ministers, Dáil deputies and senators — with possibly one exception — were like the brass monkeys who saw no evil, heard no evil or did no evil as far as Bertie Ahern was concerned.

None of them saw it as a matter for his resignation, or that the Government could be threatened.

None of them could see that a fundamental principle had been breached, or possibly they did not want to see because their future in Government was at stake. They just didn’t remain silent through embarrassment; they publicly supported the Taoiseach and, in their blind determination to cling to power, parroted his line that he had done nothing wrong.

Perversely, Bertie Ahern’s popularity increased, as public sympathy was manipulated by his perceived trauma at the marriage break-up which he introduced into the public domain.

Some in Fianna Fáil tried to blame the media for that disclosure too, although it was totally Ahern’s own doing. That, plus the “sinister plot” to destroy him and the claim that he was a victim of “political smear”, which were pushed at the public, were focused on winning public sympathy.

Which it did, and somehow the uneasy feeling and knowledge that he was very wrong to have pocketed money was quietly smothered.

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