A blonde bombshell and an exploding judge - top that!
THERE was a most startling outbreak of bespoke and daggers at Dublin Castle yesterday -- in fact, it was a day of surprises all around.
The morning session of the Mahon Tribunal began peacefully enough, as Judge Alan Mahon read through his lengthy ruling on issues which had arisen the day before, when the Taoiseach's legal team had objected to certain lines of questioning.
But the Taoiseach's senior counsel, Conor Maguire, wasn't a bit happy with Judge Mahon's decision, which found for the tribunal's team.
"Are tribunal counsel in any way involved in the assessment of the situation?" he demanded. "I know that you have said before that there have been occasions in which you have sided against tribunal counsel. I can't recollect any one in which I was involved in..." he began.
But the chairman began to bristle. Having experienced several months of Big Tribunal vs Little Bertie coverage in some of the media, he was having visions of the next day's front pages.
He reckoned that Conor Maguire had taken this tack "for a purpose so that tomorrow there will be headlines on the newspapers, 'Mr Ahern's counsel attacks the tribunal and accuses them of avoiding the responsibilities'", he remarked severely.
The sniping of the past few months had finally hit home, and suddenly there were wigs on the green.
"That was a disgraceful comment to make. And I absolutely reject it," he snapped. "You are making an allegation and you've said it before. That we are pursuing some kind of agenda. You are saying in effect that we are corrupt ... "
"I didn't say that, chairman," said a clearly taken-aback Conor Maguire. But it was too late. A volcanic Judge Mahon had erupted and there was legal lava pouring out of him.
"You are saying we are crooks! And that we ignore our oaths! That we are conducting a witch-hunt!" he thundered.
The atmosphere in the courtroom was electric -- the air crackled with eminent judicial displeasure, and every eye was riveted on the apoplectic judge, except for Bertie, who stared stony-faced into his files.
But Bertie had a surprise of his very own, and unwrapped it just before lunch. The day before, he had answered questions about an IR£30,000 withdrawal from the BT, or Building Trust Account, explaining that it was a loan to a member of his staff who had "a private family difficulty" involving "three elderly relatives".
The tribunal's senior counsel, Des O'Neill, wanted Bertie to name names. "Who was the member of staff?" he asked politely.
"Celia Larkin," said Bertie quietly.
This was a blonde bombshell indeed, and the large room fell instantly silent. This was dramatic stuff -- we'd already had the shoot-out, and now a (former) love interest had entered the picture.
But Bertie was adamant that "the relationship had nothing to do with it". So much so it transpired, that he stated that he had no prior knowledge of the House Committee's decision to lend Celia the money so she could contribute to the purchase of the house on behalf of her elderly aunts. "As I recall it, the matter had finished when I knew about it," he stated flatly, which is most surprising given that at the time Celia was his steady girlfriend.
And there was one more surprise in store during the afternoon. Having received the loan in 1993, Celia decided to pay it back with interest "since Christmas", the Taoiseach revealed. This decision was made after sole surviving elderly aunt found a reporter on her doorstep recently and became distressed by the encounter, according to a letter handed into the tribunal by Celia Larkin's legal counsel yesterday morning.
As soon as the hearing ended, Bertie didn't hang about. En rapid route to the sanctuary of his car, he was asked about the ethics of his former mot getting a dig-out from a Fianna Fail party account. "It was a decision for the trust and they're perfectly entitled to make it," he said grimly, sensing another round of cherchez la femme looming.
And it seems Judge Mahon will require the Taoiseach's presence again very soon. No surprise there. Shortly afterwards, Des O'Neill emerged, and was greeted with a hearty round of applause from the small crowd in the courtyard. A popular lawyer -- now that is a surprise.