Wednesday 18 September 2019

Bertie, clear up the 'Money for Poor Oul Me' scandal in Dail

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

CHARLIE was on the take; Ray Burke too; and Liam Lawlor was so bent he had to screw himself into his trousers. But, as one scandal tumbled after another, some of us were confident that Bertie Ahern was straight. And we're not going to start hanging him now. We may think his record in governance has been mostly appalling, but Ahern deserves every benefit of every doubt - and we

CHARLIE was on the take; Ray Burke too; and Liam Lawlor was so bent he had to screw himself into his trousers. But, as one scandal tumbled after another, some of us were confident that Bertie Ahern was straight. And we're not going to start hanging him now. We may think his record in governance has been mostly appalling, but Ahern deserves every benefit of every doubt - and we await hard evidence that he did anything wrong in accepting money from businessmen while he was Minister for Finance.

The 'Money For Poor Oul Bertie' scandal has the potential to ruin Ahern, and perhaps justifiably so. He has been at least foolish. And since the scandal broke last Thursday his behaviour has deservedly stoked suspicion.

Why were we confident that Bertie is straight? 1) There was no evidence otherwise. 2) His lifestyle is one of comfort without flamboyance, always appropriate to his income.

He feverishly strokes wealthy people, mostly builders and speculators - looking for donations to the party, not for himself. Of course, he was Mr Blind Eye, who stood idly by while Haughey rifled the public exchequer. He even signed blank cheques that enabled Haughey's thievery. He described Ray Burke as "an honourable man hounded out of office". He appointed Liam Lawlor to the committee supervising Oireachtas ethics.

But these were perhaps the actions of the cute and ambitious politician. There was no evidence that Ahern was personally bent - and some of us were confident he wasn't.

Ages ago, Ahern was accused of involvement in matters being investigated by the planning tribunal. In order to answer certain allegations, he turned over his financial records. Among those records was evidence that he had received significant sums of money in 1993. In order to rule out that money as being anything to do with planning matters, the tribunal had to inquire where it came from.

It came, apparently, from a number of businessmen, who clubbed together to bung Bertie. Nothing to do with the matters being investigated by the planning tribunal. They just gave him thousands of pounds because they like him and he needed the money - because he was going through a legal separation.

If the planning tribunal is convinced that's true, it has no other function in the matter. The legal and ethical implications of Ahern accepting such money are not within the tribunal's terms of reference.

Unfortunately for Ahern, evidence of the 1993 bungs got out. And the legal and ethical implications of his accepting such money are certainly of interest to us - to the media, the citizenry and even (when it eventually comes back from its summer holidays) the Oireachtas.

As always when such scandals break, the public arena has over the past few days been subjected to a blizzard of bullshit. Some of it came directly from Ahern. From atop his exceedingly high horse, he announced that he was "not answering what I got for my Holy Communion money, my Confirmation money, what I got for my birthday". The insinuation that the media was improperly poking into his personal life was ludicrous.

This theme was emphasised when the usual knowledgeable sources leaked the information that the planning tribunal was trying to get "details of his marital separation".

Now, if the planning tribunal wants personal details about Bertie and Miriam's marriage they should be told to bugger off. However, it's more likely that the tribunal wants to see if there is anything there that would help them clarify matters.

Ahern, in the grand tradition of evasive politicians, also tried to change the issue from that of questionable payments to one of an improper leak. And Dick Roche, his would-be Sancho Panza, rushed forth to threaten an official investigation into the leak.

Sorry, lads, leaks are okay these days - in 2005 Mr Ahern stood over the leaking, by his Minister for Justice, of information contained in a file that was still the subject of a garda investigation. Yes, the 'cash for Bertie' leak was improper. But no member of this government has any moral authority in condemning improper leaks.

In yesterday's papers, details were leaked from the usual sources close to people who matter. There were, it seems, 10 donors, organised by solicitor Gerry Brennan - in somewhat the same way that Des Traynor organised a whip-around for Charlie Haughey.

And, a source revealed that the 1993 monies weren't gifts but "repayable loans".

Oh dear. This is worrying.

Bertie "offered repeatedly to repay the money", a source told the Irish Times. "It's a debt of honour to him." (Oddly enough, the phrase "debt of honour" is the phrase used to describe the £110,000 that Charlie Haughey promised to repay AIB, and then forgot. We old tribunal hands can't help noticing such little coincidences.)

The source said: "He wants to repay them but the boys won't take it back at the moment."

I love it. "The boys." A bunch of silly chaps, splashing their money around, paying for round after round - put that back in your pocket, Bertie, your money's no good here. Ha, ha ha, chuckle, snicker and chortle.

Some of the "loans" remain unpaid. Thirteen years later.

On Friday, it was pointed out that if the money was a gift it was liable to tax. On Saturday, anonymous sources insisted the money came in repayable loans, not liable for tax.

The image of honest Bertie being under "unfair" and "sinister" attack is risible. Opposition politicians held back. The media works under legal restraint. Mary Harney - who had commented on other scandals, most recently when Ivor Callely had to resign after accepting a free paint job - refused to respond for the PDs. She said Michael McDowell, the new Tanaiste, had commented. He hadn't.

Everyone's tip-toeing around this one. The Taoiseach, whatever one thinks of his politics, deserves a fair hearing for his explanations. Bertie Ahern can easily retain his reputation as a politician who (whatever his failings in dealing with the corruption of others) has nothing to hide about the financing of his own life.

He can tell the Dail, on the record:

* How much he got and from whom.

* The circumstances in which the money was given - who organised it, what form did the money take etc.

* If the money was a gift, did he pay tax?

* If these were repayable loans, he can tell the Dail about the loan arrangements - interest rates, repayment schedules. He can assure the Dail he produced the contemporaneous paperwork to the Revenue, proving these were loans.

* He can also explain why some (how many?) of the loans remain unpaid after 13 years.

That's a start. Ahern has had a steady, well-paying job for 29 years. Are we really to take it that persons on good incomes cannot finance a marital separation from their own resources? Or, even, given Ahern's excellent credit rating, from a credit union or bank loan?

We all meet extra financial demands from time to time. How many other occasions, if any, has Ahern had to accept the beneficence of "the boys"?

Ahern, if he is as straight as he always seemed, can clear this up quickly. The place to do it is the Dail. The day to do it is next Wednesday.

And on Thursday, we can all go back to considering Mr Ahern's Government's poxy record on health, education, transport and crime.

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