As it was with the big blow-out that happened in the Mahon Tribunal between Bertie Ahern and the inquiry team. Yesterday, the storm had moved on, to newspapers, to the radio, and to television. Now it was the likes of Willie O’Dea and Dick Roche who were providing the furies. O’Dea stole a line from Michael McDowell to claim that Fine Gael’s senator Eugene Regan made Joseph Goebbels seem like an altar boy. Roche actually accused the tribunal of “bias” yesterday on Morning Ireland, which to my mind was a step too far.
A shower of Fianna Fáil ministers coming out to shield the Anorak isn’t a spontaneous event. Seven Fianna Fáil ministers didn’t suddenly wake up on Thursday and say to themselves: Enough is enough. This was a concerted and planned attack on the tribunal, designed to cash in on sympathy from members of the public who thought tribunal lawyers were going in too hard; and also to undermine the tribunal’s right to enquire into Ahern’s personal finance.
Never forget that it was Ahern who set up the tribunal. Ahern who said that the best modus operandi was to follow the money.
After the fireworks and the “stitch-up” allegations of Thursday, yesterday was a much calmer affair.
There was a couple of statements that cleared the air. Judge Alan Mahon said that it “would be a useless and meaningless exercise for a tribunal to merely put every witness into the witness box and simply record his or her evidence without question”.
Responding, Mr Ahern’s lawyer Conor Maguire SC accused the tribunal’s senior lawyer Des O’Neill SC of pursuing an agenda. He was quickly challenged by Judge Gerald Keyes who always cut to the chase.
“I also object to the word ‘agenda’ being used. I find that offensive and unacceptable,” he told Maguire.
It kind of settled down after that, as we again returned to the minutiae of the dig-out loans that Bertie Ahern got in 1993 and 1994. There may have been a money trail but there was no real paper trail because in Bertie’s bankless world, there are no footprints in the sand.
However, the underlying premise of the questioning remains the same. The tribunal continues to, as it puts it, probe and test the evidence of witnesses. Bertie Ahern looks at it from a different angle. His reasoning goes: He never received a red cent from Eoin O’Callaghan or Tom Gilmartin. He should not be here in the first place yet they are trawling through his finances, some of it to do with the most personal areas of his life.
And to add insult to injury, they don’t believe his version of events.
But that’s the nub. There are two juries here, if we can use that term.
The three tribunal judges will be the first. The public will be the second. The tribunal has simply to establish if any of the money that went through Ahern’s accounts were connected with Quarryvale. For the public — for most of them anyway — it’s also important that the account given by the Taoiseach stands up. Yep, it’s damn unlucky that he’s been hauled before the tribunal if he has nothing to do with Quarryvale. But politically his problem is that he really hasn’t explained all those huge gaps, all those lapses of memories (who changed the £30,000 into sterling for him) and all those inconsistencies.
A lot of yesterday’s evidence was dense and detailed. But in the late afternoon, it began to heat up again. And once again his version of the dig-out loans was challenged. When the Taoiseach gave his first explanation to RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson in September 2006, he described those who gave him the good-will loans as close friends.
Well, one of those, the then chairman of NCB Stockbrokers, Pádraig O’Connor challenged that, saying the money he gave to FF fundraiser Des Richardson was a political contribution and not personal. Moreover, he staunchly refused to describe himself as a friend of Mr Ahern’s. When giving evidence last month, Mr O’Connor also said that Mr Ahern had not personally thanked him.
That version, as Des O’Neill put it yesterday, was diametrically opposed to Ahern’s. Ahern agreed.
The significance of this could not be more crucial or serious. O’Neill spelled it out: “If the tribunal were to accept Mr O’Connor’s version as being accurate in all respects, it would mean there was no dig-out producing £22,500 in December 1993.”
In other words, that Bertie Ahern’s version of the dig-out wasn’t true. Ahern didn’t explode as he had done with the fanciful scenario of the previous day. But he went on to make a strong argument that the fact that the tribunal had established he had got £5,000 from O’Connor showed he had not got it from O’Callaghan or Gilmartin.
The only thing in dispute, he said, was if he got it under false pretences. His response to O’Connor’s evidence was breath-taking. There was a bit of brazen brass-neck there when he said that his counsel didn’t cross-examine O’Connor because he was a friend. For he then launched into a bitter attack on his former friend.
“I know Mr O’Connor. I know Mr O’Connor’s family. I know a lot Mr O’Connor’s friends. He was in my office endlessly when he was chairman of NCB. I went to meet fund managers of NCB. I went to the K Club for him. I went to Druid’s Glen for him.
“I know his brother, his brother-in-law, Justice Hennigan very well.
“I knew his wife’s family well. I was at functions in their licenced premises. I went to his own house.
“Now if years later, Mr O’Connor wants to disown me and he doesn’t know me well, well that’s his bloody business not mine.”
Because so much has been leaked you don’t expect too many surprises.
But there was one right at the end of the day, when O’Neill asked Ahern if he had received payments of £5,000 from any other stockbrokers in 1993 or 1994.
Ahern responded that Davy Stockbrokers had made a £5,000 payment to his constituency during the 1992 General Election.
But O’Neill said 1993 or 1994. And he then began to open a document from the Irish Permanent Building Society, which showed that a cheque for £5,000 had been presented on January 31, 1994 on behalf of Mr Ahern. It had then been split into two, £2,500 going into an existing account, the balance going into a new cash account.
This seems to be a new payment. O’Neill said that Mr Ahern’s accountant had been in correspondence with the Revenue Commissioners in relation to this. This might suggest that Mr Ahern is continuing to correspond with the Revenue.
But what about the mystery payment? The cheque itself has been lost. Was it from another stockbroker? Was it from somebody else? Is there a more mundane explanation? We’ll have to wait until February to find out.
Following the bitter row on Thursday when Bertie Ahern accused the tribunal of trying to stitch him up, Judge Alan Mahon made a statement yesterday morning.
Judge Mahon: It would be a useless and meaningless exercise for a tribunal to merely put every witness into the witness box and simply record his or her evidence without question or where appropriate without challenge.
While it is assumed witnesses coming before the tribunal do so with the intention to co-operate…. The tribunal must be mindful of the possibility this will not always be the case. It is the role and duty of counsel to the tribunal to prove and test the evidence of witnesses…
(Conor Maguire SC, for Mr Ahern later responded)
Conor Maguire: It causes us great concern as far as this witness is concerned… he is being treated as if he were a defendant. That essentially this is a prosecution without an indictment. … This witness is being pilloried….
(Later Des O’Neill began questioning Mr Ahern on the nature of his relationship and friendship with Pádraic O’Connor)
Mr O’Neill: Now in the case of Mr O’Connor who has no connection good, bad or indifferent with the tribunal, this is a witness who says he was not a personal friend of yours to the extent he could discuss your family affairs. That he was not a person to whom a request was made to make a dig out towards your legal costs, that he did not make any payment towards your legal costs. And he offers evidence in an entirely different stream, do you understand?
Mr Ahern: Yes, yes.
(Mr Ahern talks about his friendship with Mr O’Connor).
Mr Ahern: I know Mr O’Connor. I know Mr O’Connor’s family. I know a lot Mr O’Connor’s friends.
Now if years later, Mr O’Connor wants to disown me and he doesn’t know me well, well that’s his bloody business not mine.