By the standard he set for others, Bertie has questions to answer

After it was disclosed that Ben Dunne had paid for renovations to Michael Lowry’s house, Bertie said the “first duty of any minister is to the public whom he has been appointed to serve.

The public are entitled to an explanation for the unusual character of these arrangements”

IT WAS wrong to suggest that Michael McDowell leaked information in relation to the latest controversy about payments to Bertie Ahern, but he certainly intensified the spotlight on the issue by disclosing that he had called a meeting of PD leaders to discuss the party’s possible withdrawal from government over new disclosures.

Over the years Bertie Ahern has been the victim of some smear campaigns in which unfounded allegations were made against him. Some of those were demonstrably untrue, so extra care should be taken about any allegation. Yet by the standard Bertie has already set, he has some questions to answer.

Who leaked the latest tribunal information is anybody’s guess. A recipient of the leak was journalist Frank Connolly, who was himself a victim of a Michael McDowell leak in 2005. The Justice Minister gave documents to Sam Smyth of the Irish Independent alleging that Connolly had applied for a false passport and went to Colombia, where his brother was jailed as one of the notorious Colombia Three.

The Justice Minister had a right to declassify and release material. He claimed he was putting the information into the public domain and justified this in the national interest. This may well have been true, but the manner he used was judicially cavalier and smacked of political self-interest.

Usually a minister releases information to the media as a whole, rather than giving it secretly to a single journalist, which really qualified as a legal leak.

Around the same time, McDowell was calling for the jailing of gardaí who leak information. He was annoyed over information that was given to a newspaper about an assault on his son. His anxiety about the privacy of his family was understandable, but he behaved as if there was a different standard for himself. If Frank Connolly has been deriving vicarious pleasure from the Tánaiste’s current squealing about leaking, who could blame him?

The PDs have long been vocal on moral probity. They forced Charlie Haughey to sack Brian Lenihan as Tánaiste and Minister for Defence over a conflicting account that he gave to a student about phone calls that President Paddy Hillery essentially ignored over eight years earlier.

The PDs also compelled the withdrawal of Jim McDaid’s nomination as Lenihan’s successor as Minister for Defence shortly afterwards because he had been photographed with some Provos outside the Four Courts. Ultimately, the PDs delivered the coup de grace in 1992 by forcing Charlie Haughey to step down as Taoiseach when the late Seán Doherty stated that Haughey was behind the telephone tapping of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold almost 10 years earlier. Doherty had previously stated that Haughey had nothing to do with the taps, so his credibility was hardly the highest, but the PDs insisted that Charlie had to go.

During that period Michael McDowell exerted real power outside the Dáil as chairman of the PDs. While in opposition, upon his return to the Dáil, he savaged Dick Spring as a “morally brain-dead Tánaiste” in 1994, after the Labour leader said he had examined departmental files and found nothing improper in relation to £1 million loaned to Albert Reynolds’ pet food company by an Arab businessman seeking Irish passports for his family.

As Tánaiste himself, McDowell found nothing wrong last year when Bertie Ahern admitted he had received payments from friends during 1993 and 1994.

The Taoiseach described the payments as personal loans. Eight people gave him £22,500. Each gave £2,500, with the exception of Pádraic O’Connor, then chief executive of NCB, who contributed £5,000.

If they wished to give him money that was their business, but it became everybody’s business when some of them were subsequently given plumb Government appointments.

David McKenna was appointed a director of Enterprise Ireland; Des Richardson was appointed to the board of Aer Lingus; Jim Nugent to the boards of the Central Bank and CERT; and Pádraic O’Connor was appointed chairman of the State-owned ACC bank.

“I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me”, Bertie declared. But O’Connor has since stated that he was never a friend of Bertie. He says he gave the Taoiseach £5,000 on behalf of NCB because Des Richardson asked him for a contribution towards the funding of Bertie’s constituency offices. Even more ominously, O’Connor stated that he received, in return, an invoice for the money as having supposedly been paid to a consultancy firm for health and safety advice.

Was this just extremely sloppy accounting on the part of the political staff of the man who was then Minister for Finance, or is there some other explanation? We should not jump to conclusions, but we should demand answers. Another payment of £16,500 was whipped up by a different group of friends that included Joe Burke, who was later appointed chairman of the Dublin Port Company. The Taoiseach said he considered the two payments mere loans, and when the political rumpus erupted more than a decade later he repaid that money with 5% compound interest. The whole thing came to a total of around €90,000.

Bertie also admitted that he had received a further contribution of almost £8,000 as a result of a whip-around during a visit to Manchester. This was organised by the late Tim Kilroe, with the result that Bertie did not know who contributed what. As it was strictly a gift, it had no tax implications.

HE DEPICTED his voluntary disclosure as part of coming clean. It was he who disclosed the Manchester money, but when Enda Kenny asked him in the Dáil last October about the purchase of his house, the Taoiseach made no mention of the £30,000 given to him by Michael Wall, who had been one of the organisers of the Manchester trip. Bertie said the money was for renovations to a house he was to rent, even though Wall had not yet purchased it.

Ivor Callely was ousted last year over a paint job. He had to go because he left himself wide open to allegations of impropriety.

Mary Harney met with the Taoiseach on the eve of Callely’s forced resignation. No doubt she had some poignant words about the propriety of Ivor’s conduct. If the PDs wished to conserve any credibility as the paragons of political probity, or the coalition’s conscience, they had no option.

But curiously, Tom Parlon, the PD minister of state, suggested the whole thing was just a conspiracy against the Government. Did he think Harney, McDowell, Bertie and the cabinet were all were involved in this so-called conspiracy? Ivor’s paint job was reminiscent of what happened to Transport Minister Michael Lowry in 1996 when he was forced to quit the cabinet after it was disclosed Ben Dunne had paid for renovations to his home.

“The first duty of any minister is to the public whom he has been appointed to serve”, Bertie said. “The public are entitled to an explanation for the unusual character of these arrangements.”

By the same standard, the Irish people are entitled to the full details about the funding of the renovations to the house that Bertie bought.

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