Thursday 20 June 2019

Ahern cash trail: judges home in on the 'gaps'

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern yesterday came under severe criticism from the three Planning Tribunal judges over evidence on his personal finances.

During his third day of testimony to the Mahon Tribunal, Mr Ahern again changed his story and said he couldn't remember key events at the centre of the current controversy.

But tribunal chairman Judge Alan Mahon said there were "significant gaps" in the money trail provided by Mr Ahern which "would have made it impossible for the tribunal to follow the trail".

Judge Mary Faherty accused Mr Ahern of giving "polar opposite" accounts of why he withdrew IR£50,000 from AIB O'Connell St in January 1995.

Judge Gerald Keyes accused Mr Ahern of having "no recollection" of buying stg£30,000 in the early 1990s.

Mr Ahern put up a robust display and got support from members of the public gallery in Dublin Castle as his epic evidence now heads for a fourth day.

The Taoiseach will be in Paris today to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy and attend the crunch Ireland-France World Cup rugby match.

He will be back in the witness box on either Monday or Friday, depending upon his schedule.

To intensify the spotlight on Mr Ahern's version of events in the transactions he conducted in the mid-1990s, the Dail also returns on Wednesday.

The Taoiseach now says he can't remember why he took the IR£50,000 out of the bank account of his "life partner" Celia Larkin.

And he says he can't remember buying stg£30,000, saying it might have been done by somebody else or "in instalments".

Despite giving three different explanations for withdrawing IR£50,000 from Ms Larkin's bank account in January 1995, Mr Ahern says he doesn't really know why he did it.

Mr Ahern first said it was because he preferred to deal in cash. He then said it was to pay for the refurbishment of the Beresford house, before going on to claim he withdrew the money because he was considering buying sterling to pay back Michael Wall and buy another house.

Mr Ahern said it would be more convenient to have the £50,000 in cash because he had "a safe safe".

But tribunal lawyers said it would be more inconvenient to Ms Larkin to administer the fund to refurbish the house because she didn't have access to the safe and Mr Ahern was frequently down the country on FF business.

Mr Ahern recently suggested the £50,000 was not taken out to refurbish his home in Beresford, Drumcondra.

But in the last week he said he was contemplating repaying Mr Wall by buying sterling to pay back the money famously piled in bundles of cash on the desk of St Luke's table by the Manchester businessman in December 1994.

Judge Mary Faherty appeared to be unimpressed by Mr Ahern's changing explanation.

She said his contrasting versions "are like polar opposites" as he was now intimating he was "walking away" from the house purchase, renovation and refurbishment project.

The judge added: "This explanation that you gave last week is an entirely different explanation."

Mr Ahern said he bought stg£30,000 between January and March 1995, but yesterday he was unable to remember the exact circumstances, saying he had not data and no receipt.

He also suggested for the first time that money may not have been bought in a single amount, but could have been acquired "in instalments", perhaps by people working for him.

Tribunal Judge Gerald Keyes suggested Mr Ahern would have "to notify the bank in advance if you are going to purchase such a large sum of sterling".

Mr Ahern agreed prompting Judge Keyes to ask: "You have no recollection of that?"

The Taoiseach replied: "No, I don't."

The stg£30,000 also drew a telling intervention from the tribunal chairman Judge Alan Mahon.

Mr Ahern was being asked by tribunal counsel Des O'Neill why it took him until last April to mention there was a Sterling element to key lodgments, despite first being asked to account for them nearly three years ago when Judge Mahon queried.

"But the point, Mr Ahern, that Mr O'Neill is making is that there are significant gaps in the trail which would make it impossible for the tribunal based on that information to have followed the money from day one to the ends of that trail," the judge asked.

"But there was a lot of information in-between which would have been vital for the inquiry. Were you not aware that by leaving out that information it would effectively leave a hole in the trail?" he added.

The probing of Mr Ahern's evidence by the three judges is viewed as significant, given that they are the ones who will ultimately make the determination on his testimony.

Mr Ahern did get a number of rounds of applause from the public gallery, the most significant prompted by his comment: "I hope Mr Gilmartin gets the same grilling on these things as I am."

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