Tuesday 21 May 2019

Now we are left with an appalling vista of cash and Bertie

The Taoiseach's former secretary endured tribunal torture because of her loyalty to him, writes Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Last month, at the Mahon tribunal, Bertie Ahern spoke of the sense of "intimidation" felt by his staff, like Grainne Carruth, who had joined Fianna Fail, he said, to get a few votes, not to be dealing with this stuff.

By "this stuff", he meant the tribunal: they did not sign up to Fianna Fail, to him, to be "down here", he said; to provide records, to recall events over a decade old, now pored over by forensic accountants and teams of lawyers, joining dots, searching for holes, wherein lies a truth, unpalatable and which, in a sense, at this remove, we may be better off not knowing, but which, in another sense, we must.

It is a truth we felt we were coming to terms with, the truth about Haughey, about Burke and about others too, not just of Fianna Fail.

It is an uncomfortable truth from which we thought we had escaped, finally, to bask in the aura of a relatively simple man, an aura he had created around himself: estranged husband and father, human in his foibles, simple in his tastes; the semi-d, the pint of Bass, the Dubs, Man U, all contrived now, it seems, or at least a front not entirely real.

Yet there is a great contradiction: Ahern is fundamentally a decent man, there is no denying that; he is still motivated, predominately I would say, certainly since he became Taoiseach, by a sense of public duty, of service, of politics in an honorable form.

When he talks these days of community, of volunteerism, of neighbourliness, he is, in his own way, espousing a wholesome political philosophy by which, generally, he has lived, which, as it goes, he would like to see restored to a continuously struggling., sometimes selfish. society.

Somewhere within all of that, though, is a depressing reality, looming large, a reality forged 15 years ago in the malign era of Haughey.

That reality, not speculation, the reality now -- for the first time undeniably so -- is that huge sums, punts, sterling, and maybe dollars, also found its way to Bertie Ahern in circumstances which seem more than a little sickening.

How did that happen?

We may get an easy answer to that, next month or the month after, when he returns to the witness box, although I would not bet on it: by an easy answer, I mean, the details, the nItty gritty.

We await that with a sense of foreboding.

For a generation now we have been living with this, a virus running through the body politic: lies, deceit and, yes, possibly corruption.

For me, though, the real question is why?

Not, that is, whether favours were asked and given, although we must, I suppose, know the answer to that too. But really why? Why did Bertie Ahern, a decent, if complicated man, feel the need to take these sums of money, cash which, manifestly, he did not need. Was it this: that he was just greedy?

To answer that, I fear, we need not just teams of lawyers and accountants, but psychologists too.

The intimidation Ahern spoke of was laid bare last week in the pitiful evidence of Grainne Carruth, a 40-something mother-of-three, whose children, like mine and yours, were on mid-term break last week, who are devouring their Easter eggs as you read this.

Grainne Carruth is no Tim Collins, no Des Richardson.

In my mind's eye, I see her, years ago, doing a secretarial course when her schooling days had ended, spending ages practising typing and shorthand.

She, genuinely, is an ordinary woman, unencumbered by the complications which so encapsulate her former boss.

For her life, she probably wished for no more, no less, than to meet a good man and to rear a happy family: and that she has done.

I suspect she has Fianna Fail connections: there is nothing wrong with that. Such connections probably led her to securing a secretarial job with Bertie. When that happened, she probably thought all of her Christmases had come together.

In the witness box last week she only referred to the Taoiseach as "Bertie", never Mr Ahern or the Taoiseach. Just Bertie. And she did so with a certain warmth and affection, if perhaps a tad strained, but still clearly loyal to her former boss, still in thrall to his easy charm, years of happy co-existence not easy to leave behind.

But she was not intimidated, not wilfully so, by the tribunal's lawyer, Des O'Neill.

I have been critical of O'Neill in the past. Last week, he displayed great decency, as a lawyer and a man. He could have kept Ms Carruth in the box for hours, he could have aggressively pursued her. If he had done so, she may have divulged more, she may have broken completely, she may have had an epiphany and, yes, finally recalled her conversion of the Taoiseach's sterling, £15,500 of it, into punts, and her lodging of those punts to his personal bank account, and those of his daughters.

When she broke down, the chairman asked if she wanted to go on. Yes, she said, she did, feeling, I suspect, that if she did she would be finished sooner, and would finally escape this torture.

It was not torture of the tribunal's making though.

Des O'Neill insisted on giving the witness a break. When she returned, he finished up quickly enough, not before, gently, but definitively, laying bare the incredibility of her evidence.

Ms Carruth's torture was of Bertie's making, if not directly, then in a roundabout way. She was there, in the witness box, to answer for what she did at his behest: she was there to answer for her loyalty to him, loyalty forged over the years, loyalty, notwithstanding her obvious pain, what she called her "hurt", that she just could not betray. I admire her for that.

The tribunal may take a different view.

Besides the trauma of a young mother who, eventually, will get over it, what are we left with?

We are left with an appaling vista.

We are left with the certainty that in 1993 and 1994 Bertie Ahern got £15,500 in sterling, from somebody somewhere, but not from his salary cheques, as he claims.

We are left with the certainty that Bertie Ahern also got £5,000 from a businessman he is unable to identify.

We are left to wonder if another £10,000 in his accounts was from his mother and brother, on the division of his father's meagre estate, or whether it really was from another businessman.

We are left with the certainty that Bertie Ahern's former partner got £30,000 from the B/T account to buy a house now worth almost £1 million.

We are left to wonder if B/T was a Building Trust account or whether it was really an account for the benefit of Bertie Ahern and his friend Tim Collins.

We are left with another unexplained £20,000 sterling in that B/T account.

We are left with £30,000 sterling in a black suitcase, which Micheal Wall says was his, but which may, just as easily, have been Bertie's all along, brought over to him by a bus driver from Manchester.

We are left to question what Micheal Wall did with £50,000 profit from the sale of his house to Bertie, which he withdrew in cash from a bank account in the West.

We are left to wonder whether Mr Wall drew up a will, in which he left his house to Bertie, because the house was actually bought with Bertie's ill-gotten money all along.

We are left, possibly, with another $45,000 and another £25,000 sterling, the accumulation of 'dig outs' collected by his friends on the breakdown of his marriage; "dig outs" which the Taoiseach has quietly admitted he did not need, because he had "savings", £50,000 in cash in safes, which, if we continue to accept his word, were also from his salary cheques.

On a personal level, I am left to wonder if I was foolish to believe, to want to believe, the Taoiseach's account of those "dig outs" because, at heart, I also know the pain of marriage breakdown.

Even now, though, I do not believe I was foolish to want to believe that. I believe it was human to want to believe, and am glad I did.

Next month, or the month after, Bertie will return to the witness box to face some of these questions. He may say it all ain't so, but, if so, this time he is going to have to show why it ain't.

If he fails to do that, he will be gone, possibly even before summer, a sad end to a fine career.

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