Thursday 22 March 2018

How Bertie rose to power with the Drumcondra Mafia

Bertie Ahern pictured recently at his Drumcondra home
Bertie Ahern pictured recently at his Drumcondra home

IT'S impossible to look at the story of Bertie Ahern's political career without reference to the small cabal that was by his side throughout. You see, it was never just Bertie Ahern. It was always Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra Mafia.

The Drumcondra Mafia was not a political party -- incredibly many of them weren't even members of Fianna Fail -- but it succeeded in putting its man in the most powerful office in the land.

Money is of central importance to their story. The formidable constituency machine it built was the best funded in the history of the State -- helped by an annual dinner that assumed almost mythical status. And money, of course, was central to Mr Ahern's downfall. It took the best part of two years for it to happen, but the discovery that large sums had flown either through his own bank accounts or those of his associates, and the less than convincing explanations he subsequently gave, led directly to his resignation as Taoiseach.

St Luke's, the routine two-storey red-brick former doctor's surgery across the road from Fagan's pub, was the nerve centre of the Drumcondra Mafia operation. With the ministerial Merc parked outside on the footpath, it became the physical manifestation of Mr Ahern's power base. For a decade, it was effectively the alternative seat of government. And the building was to feature heavily in the investigation into Mr Ahern's finances.

The Mahon Tribunal has examined, in no little detail, how St Luke's was acquired and that purchase funded; its status as Mr Ahern's residence; and, famously, the safe in a downstairs office where Mr Ahern stored large quantities of cash.

It is important to stress that many of those regarded as key members of the Drumcondra Mafia had little or nothing to do with the narrative of Ahern's finances. The likes of Chris Wall and Paul Kiely, on whom Mr Ahern leaned heavily for political advice and strategising, had no involvement whatsoever in Mr Ahern's complex financial dealings. But other central figures, notably Des Richardson, Tim Collins and Joe Burke, loom large in the tribunal's investigations.

Only Mr Burke was a member of Fianna Fail -- and hardly an enthusiastic one -- yet it was these three who entered into a contract in November 1987 to buy St Luke's. And when it was decided that the building be held in trust for the party organisation, it was the trio -- along with two other close confidants of Mr Ahern -- who were the signatures on the trust declaration. It was proof, if proof were needed, that St Luke's was going to be an Ahern base rather than a Fianna Fail one.

Despite his close friendship with Mr Ahern, Des Richardson didn't wear out any shoe leather canvassing for him but he had a flair for political fundraising. Mr Ahern, in his role as party treasurer, made him Fianna Fail's full-time fundraiser in the early 1990s with a brief to pay off the party's enormous £3m debt.

But that wasn't Mr Richardson's sole fundraising activity. He was also one of the main organisers of Mr Ahern's annual constituency dinner -- which featured in the tribunal's investigations. And, according to Mr Ahern, Mr Richardson was the person who organised the first of the alleged "dig-outs" in late 1993, which raised £22,500 for Mr Ahern when he was Finance Minister.

Mr Burke was part of the second dig-out -- apparently conceived the following September -- giving £3,500 out of the £16,500 raised for the future Taoiseach. Perhaps surprisingly, given his strong friendship with Mr Ahern, Tim Collins didn't feature in either of the dig-outs but he was the sole signatory on an account examined by the tribunal -- the B/T account in the Irish Permanent in Drumcondra.

Both he and Mr Ahern were adamant that B/T didn't stand for their respective initials but stood for Building Trust, relating to St Luke's. They stressed the account was purely for political donations associated with running the constituency operation.

Money poured into the B/T account and it was from this alleged Fianna Fail account that money was loaned to Mr Ahern's life partner, Celia Larkin, to buy the house on Dublin's North Circular Road lived in by two of her aunts.

Another large sum, £20,000, was withdrawn from the account by Mr Collins, apparently to pay for building work on St Luke's to be organised by Mr Burke. The work never happened and the money was later returned by Mr Burke to St Luke's for collection by Mr Collins -- except the cash was returned in sterling rather than punts.

It was by no means the only time in the narrative surrounding Mr Ahern's finances that an account got a large sum of sterling because money was being recycled, having been earlier converted into sterling. The alternative explanation -- that there was no foreign exchange and these lodgments were fresh entries -- was strongly denied by Mr Ahern and Mr Burke.

Other figures in the Drumcondra Mafia featured in the tribunal's investigations.

The late Senator Tony Kett was present at the 1994 "whip around" in the Four Seasons in Manchester when around £8,000 was raised for Mr Ahern. Also present was another old friend of Mr Ahern's, Michael Wall. The businessman didn't contribute that night but he was a regular at the constituency annual fundraising dinner and he was to play a central role in Mr Ahern's purchase of his house in Beresford, another issue dealt with in the report.

The Mahon Report may now finally be out, but to some extent events have passed it by.

The Drumcondra Mafia has been disbanded for some time. St Luke's is still there, but the days of the plush Jaguar and Merc of Des Richardson and Joe Burke parked alongside the ministerial Merc are long gone. The bricks and mortar still exist but St Luke's, as we knew it, is no more.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk and the co-author with Michael Clifford of 'Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra Mafia'

Irish Independent

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