THE FIRST cracks in Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s version of events appeared yesterday after he sensationally changed his story on the infamous IR£25,000 dig-outs. Heightening the controversy over his personal finances, Mr Ahern faces another day, possibly two, in the Mahon Tribunal witness box.
This follows a dramatic afternoon yesterday when he was forced to alter his account about the loan from friends in Dublin and the gift from Manchester businessmen.
Mr Ahern will possibly be back giving testimony next Thursday, following yesterday’s bruising encounter where several inconsistencies in his account emerged.
As the tribunal finally homed in on the four key lodgement involving foreign currency, Mr Ahern appeared to struggle under sustained and forensic questioning.
The significance of yesterday’s development is there is now substantial doubt over Mr Ahern’s version of the first of four key lodgements being scrutinised.
Tribunal lawyers are expected to pick away at Mr Ahern’s explanations of the payments involving foreign currency.
Three Cabinet ministers, Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin and Willie O’Dea, publicly backed the Taoiseach as the pressure on him intensified.
Mr Ahern now says he can’t remember lodging IR£25,000 cash, which the tribunal pointed out “equated to half his salary”.
The Taoiseach says the IR£24,838.49 lodgement was made up of IR£16,500 from the second so-called goodwill loan and around stg£8,000 he received as a donation from a group of Manchester businessmen.
According to the tribunal, exchange rates on the day show the figure equated to exactly stg£25,000.
The lodgement was made on the same day, October 11, 1994, that his former partner Celia Larkin lodged money into her own account at the same bank branch.
The tribunal said “it would be most unusual if somebody had made a lodgement of IR£25,000”, a substantial sum even in today’s money, yet not recall doing it.
“You are asking me would Irecall going in [to the bank]?
You know, it wasn’t some huge day of my life that I was walking in and I was going to remember forever more,” Mr Ahern replied.
The Taoiseach was forced toadmit he had been “sent back to the drawing board” by the tribunal claiming his figures wereimpossible to verify.
Mr Ahern also said he was not certain on the exact amount of the second goodwill loan he gotof IR£16,500. “I can’t be certain that it’s not £16,400 or £16,600, or whetherI put in or took out a few hundred,” he said.
Yet last year he said the IR£16,500 was broken down from £3,500 from Paddy ‘the Plasterer’ Reilly, Joe Burke £3,500, Barry English £5,000, Dermot Carew £4,500 and he wrote repayment cheques for these amounts.
Mr Ahern’s bank branch, AIB on O’Connell Street, took in over 10 times the amount of sterling it normally received on the day the Taoiseach made the substantial lodgement to his account.
The Mahon Tribunal heard the bank took in over stg£27,000 on October 11, 1994 – but the branch usually averaged between stg£2,000 to stg£2,500.
Mr Ahern denied giving inconsistent versions relating to this particular lodgement to the tribunal, both in public and during his private interview on April 5 last.
But tribunal counsel DesO’Neill said the explanation was not consistent, and that the two versions “should be identical”.
Mr Ahern said that he could not be absolutely certain that he had lodged every penny of the IR£16,500, and had indicated the lodgement may have been made weeks or months after the Manchester event. He also seemed to waver on the date of the dinner in Manchester when he was given around stg£8,000 in £50 notes in an envelope. After indicating last year that it was in late September or early October, Mr Ahern now says it was either in May or September.
Yesterday's hearing was marred by heated exchanges between Des O'Neill, leader of the tribunal legal team and Conor Maguire, Mr Ahern's lawyer.
On numerous occasions chairman Mr Justice Alan Mahon was required to intervene to settle verbal disputes between the two eminent senior counsels as Mr Ahern came under sustained andforensic interrogation by the tribunal about his financial affairs. At one point during the four-and-a-half hour proceedings, Mr Maguire called upon Judge Mahon to compel Mr O'Neill to withdraw a “facetious remark” about an AIB bank official after Mr O'Neill suggested in an angry exchange that the official’s expertise lay in “mistakes”.
Mr Maguire also intervened to ask the tribunal whether Mr O'Neill had a problem with him (Mr Maguire).
Much of the wrangling between the two lawyers revolved around queries over whether Mr Ahern had fully complied with the tribunal's order of discovery.
Tempers also flared between the two law library colleagues when the Taoiseach was questioned over exchange rates on lodgements.
Ministers Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin backed Mr Ahern’s explanation of his personal finances and expressed hope everyone can now move on from the issue.
Willie O’Dea also supported the Taoiseach, but did concede under questioning that it would be strange if somebody walked into his office with the equivalent of €300,000 in today’s terms.
“I suppose jealousy will get me nowhere and unfortunately I’m not one of those politicians.
Naturally if I was sitting in my office and some individual walked in with €300,000 that would be strange,” he said.