Gospel according to St Luke’s

The infamous house once served as Bertie Ahern’s political power base, but now as the keys are handed over to Fianna Fáil, it stands as a lasting reminder of a period of dishonesty and corruption, writes Michael Clifford

The absence of any documentation on the St Luke’s Club is extraordinary in an organisation like Mr Ahern’s which was so professional in every other way

THE birth of the legend of St Luke’s was yet another glorious mystery to grace the Mahon Tribunal. Like much else about Bertie Ahern and his finances, there are traces of smoke and mirrors in the acquisition of the premises.

St Luke’s had been a residential house owned by a doctor in the heart of Drumcondra. It went on sale in 1987. By then, Fianna Fáil had sold off the long-standing HQ for Dublin Central in Amiens Street, as it had endured years of disrepair.

Mr Ahern moved to build his own, exclusive base and St Luke’s looked like just the job.

A contract to buy the premises was signed in Nov 1987 by Mr Ahern’s close friends Des Richardson, Tim Collins and Joe Burke.

The tribunal report released last week didn’t believe much of the evidence proffered by these three men in relation to other aspects of Mr Ahern’s defence. Mr Richardson and Mr Burke claimed to have been involved in dig-outs, which the inquiry didn’t accept. Mr Collins was believed to have been the ‘T’ to Bertie’s ‘B’ in the B/T account which the tribunal ruled was for Mr Ahern’s beneficial interest and not that of the party.

Mr Burke was the only one of the three who actually was a member of Fianna Fáil. The other two were senior figures in the Drumcondra mafia, but had no connection to the party.

Once the contract to purchase had been signed, the next issue was raising the finance. To that end, a meeting was allegedly held in the Gresham Hotel on Dec 3, 1987. At least 20 supporters of Mr Ahern were reported to be present, but none were identified when the tribunal made inquiries into the purchase.

There is no record in the hotel of a room being provided or rented for the alleged meeting. The group came to be known as the “St Luke’s Club” and their existence received further credence in 1997, when lawyer David Byrne compiled a report on the premises.

Mr Byrne, who was subsequently appointed EU commissioner by Mr Ahern, was asked to compile the report because rumours had been circulating about the purchase of St Luke’s.

In the report, Mr Byrne noted: “To raise the funds necessary to purchase and renovate the premises, the St Luke’s Club was informally established at a meeting held in the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd of December 1987. The meeting was attended by over 20 people, most of them from the constituency who resolved, having regard to the funds required, that this sum could be raised over a period of four to five years by 25 people giving a commitment to provide £1,000 each per annum.”

The report effectively legitimised the existence of the club. After all, it was compiled by a lawyer whose probity was of the highest standard.

During the tribunal hearings, it emerged this information was sourced directly from Mr Ahern. Mr Byrne had no reason to disbelieve his friend, but neither had he independent evidence of the club’s existence. He couldn’t because none exists.

The alleged commitment to pay £1,000 a year by up to 25 individuals echoed Mr Ahern’s narratives at the tribunal about large cash sums which he acquired. It involved a considerable number of people contributing small amounts, rather than one individual making the full payment.

The absence of any documentation on the St Luke’s Club is extraordinary in an organisation like Mr Ahern’s which was so professional in every other way. In St Luke’s there were records of thousands of constituents, and the issues that individually affected them. Yet not one scrap of paper about a group which came together to put a roof over the head of the local TD.

The purchase price was £56,000 and up to another £75,000 was invested over the years to renovate the premises. The three amigos who signed the contact to buy were joined as trustees by two other friends of Mr Ahern, Jimmy Keane and Paddy Reilly, the latter being the butcher rather than the plasterer. Both men are deceased.

In 1990, local priest Hugh Daly said Mass at the official opening. Thereafter, St Luke’s would enjoy a period of grace that lasted over 20 years until the Mahon Tribunal began to make enquiries.

For a few years prior to buying his own home — the purchase of which the tribunal deemed Mr Ahern to be untruthful about — he used the upstairs of St Luke’s as his principal residence. The living quarters were tastefully furnished by his then partner Celia Larkin. The bedroom in particular became the subject of comment at the tribunal when Mr Ahern introduced it to his evidence and then accused tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill of prying into his private life.

When Mr Ahern was taoiseach, much of his business was conducted downstairs, behind the gilded walls of the red brick building, rather than the designated seat of government in Kildare Street. If only those walls could talk… Now the property is to be handed over to Fianna Fáil. Relinquishing the keys truly signals the end of the fabled Drumcondra mafia, around which Mr Ahern built his power base.

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