Ahern 'No' as partners urge him to come clean
TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern last night set himself on a collision course with his government partners, when he refused to bow to demands for a public statement on his personal finances.
He did so despite unprecedented pressure from the PDs and Greens to clarify several issues and dispel "growing disquiet".
The growing unease at the heart of government was highlighted after PDs leader Mary Harney, traditionally a stern supporter of her former FF colleague, called on Mr Ahern to make a statement.
The extent of disquiet within the coalition was underlined soon afterwards, when Green leader John Gormley said Mr Ahern should clarify matters currently being scrutinised by the Mahon Tribunal.
But the first public signs of potentially damaging splits in government failed to budge the Taoiseach. He insisted last night he will "deal with tribunal matters at the tribunal".
The calls for Mr Ahern to explain his finances stung Fianna Fail into an angry and swift reaction. Senior figures moved to dampen the impact of what could become a highly damaging and possibly fatal split in government.
Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern bluntly said: "Fianna Fail will deal with its own business."
Ms Harney started a turbulent day of political toing and froing when she followed up calls by PD Senator Fiona O'Malley for the Taoiseach to clarify his Mahon Tribunal evidence.
She said only the Taoiseach could dispel the "public disquiet" -- a phrase she repeated several times -- heightened by evidence given by his former secretary Grainne Carruth.
Choosing her words carefully, but deliberately, she said: "What I am saying is the public disquiet has to be dispelled, and that is a matter for the Taoiseach."
Significantly, neither Ms Harney nor Mr Gormley set out any timeframe or specific demands on the clarification they require.
Nor did they say what the consequences would be if Mr Ahern did not explain his position.
PD sources said the idea of waiting six to eight weeks for Mr Ahern's next appearance at the tribunal would not be satisfactory for Ms Harney.
Green Party Senator Dan Boyle said Mr Ahern should make the statement "as soon as possible".
While the PDs and the Greens want clarification, there is little sign of concern within Fianna Fail.
Three ministers -- Dermot Ahern, Willie O'Dea and Brian Lenihan -- stood firmly by Mr Ahern yesterday and an Irish Independent survey shows that many -- though not all -- FF backbenchers are staying largely silent on the growing controversy.
Only one Fianna Fail backbench TD says he has any reservations about Mr Ahern's testimony, while just six accept the Taoiseach has been politically damaged.
However, only 12 Fianna Fail TDs gave the Taoiseach a resounding vote of confidence and insisted they have no reservations about his evidence.
And many Fianna Fail TDs refused to publicly express their views on Mr Ahern's testimony.
Mr Gormley said yesterday that a "clarifying statement" would be in the best interests of Mr Ahern, his party and the country at large.
If Mr Ahern chooses not to make a statement over the coming weekend, the opposition parties are expected to bring up the tribunal contradictions when the Dail returns from its Easter break on Wednesday.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said Mr Ahern should now announce an early date for his departure, while Fine Gael's Phil Hogan claimed Ms Harney and Mr Gormley's emergence from their "self imposed tribunal hibernation" was a significant new development.
Mr Ahern was expected to meet with Tanaiste Brian Cowen yesterday, following the Finance Minister's return from his St Patrick's Day visit to Vietnam, but it was not clear last night if the meeting actually took place.