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Oh, what a tangled web foreign currency weaves

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Time was when Bertie, altar boy turned Finance Minister, appeared with smudged brow when delivering an Ash Wednesday Budget.

It looked as if he'd been down a pit with a Davy lamp, rather than up to his religious observance.

Holier than thou? Well it couldn't be "holier" than Mr Ahern's financial recordkeeping in the same period and aftermath. As Judge Mahon pointed out last week, there are "holes in the trail" -- and the suspicion exists of money pits somewhere.

How else to explain all this sterling? The tribunal has been poking its lamp through the buried shafts of AIB branch transactions from 12 and 13 years ago, but its jurisdiction does not extend to Manchester, a short ferry-chug across the Irish Sea.

Getting to the bottom of a large US dollar look-alike lodgement therefore looks a bit like lighting a candle in a labyrinth of murk. Except that we can see the exact lodgement, and a conversion rate of the day, and the similarity of a scale-up to $45,000.

Mr Ahern denies he ever held a foreign bank account. His most ardent defenders suggest the tribunal will have failed if it is unable to identify any person or corporate identity that might have channelled money to the Taoiseach.

That's simply not true. If the tribunal establishes foreign exchange lodgements to Bertie's accounts (or beneficially to Celia's) which the Taoiseach cannot convincingly explain, then Mr Ahern will be in a great deal of political trouble.

Mr Ahern last weekend sought to suggest that all his bewildering transactions related to his marital separation. There is certainly some separation -- a disconnect between the fact that the High Court settled the split in November 1993, as against foreign exchange lodgements a year and two years later, ending in December 1995.

There is sterling lodged in October 1994, which Bertie says is mixed-up Manchester whip-round money (but which equates to a straight stg£25,000 conversion).

There is more British currency the following month, said to be the stg£30,000 Michael Wall table-toppers (but which looks like a direct US $45,000 conversion). And there are sterling lodgements which Mr Ahern now accepts, stg£10,000 in June 1995 and stg£20,000in December 1995.

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The latter two, the Taoiseach explains, are re-lodgements of stg£30,000 of his own money -- not fresh money from any other source. He claims he bought such a sum to "repay" Mick Wall between January and March 1995. Except he can't actually remember buying it.

It is lucky for Mr Ahern that the tribunal is not being televised, because yesterday's explanation for this memory failure would not have impressed Judge Judy, queen of daytime litigation. Never mind that the sums involved here would leave the waspish Judy in the ha'penny place.

"Apparently it was your intention to give the money over [to Mick Wall] in one refund?" tribunal counsel Des O'Neill probed.

"What I believe I must have done is given it to somebody to change for me, because I believe I would have remembered if I had done it myself," said Bertie, in an answer that might be worth re-reading, since it sums up the strains upon credulity his evidence exerts.

Mr Ahern no longer thinks, as he did last week, that he might have bought this sterling in a series of instalments. Thus it was bought in one sum -- although Bertie's AIB branches in Drumcondra and O'Connell Street have no record of such a transaction, despite their being the only branches he personally dealt with.

But the Taoiseach clings to another suggestion made last week -- that he asked someone else to get this enormous sterling sum for him. He merely provided the buying power through some of the £50,000 in Irish cash that Celia had withdrawn from her deposit account, handing it back to Bertie in the "car around the corner" in January 1995.

He didn't thereafter commission Celia for any major sterling-purchase mission, although he relied on her for other transactions. Yet if he didn't buy it himself . . .

'There are very few people one would trust to go off with £30,000 cash?" Mr O'Neill pressed. "You have checked with those people?" -- "The people I have checked with are the people within my office and the answer is that none of them did," lamely offered Bertie.

"There is effectively no support, or individual, or documentation which can be relied upon as to when this transaction took place or where it took place? -- "I did change it. I had no other money, so I know I did change it."

"It was changed at your behest, somewhere by somebody?" -- "Yes."

"You cannot recall any of the detail at this point in time?" -- "I do believe that I gave it to somebody to change."

Perhaps the Irish Independent can be of assistance: Would the person who took thousands in cash from Bertie Ahern in 1995 to buy sterling now please come forward?

Mr Ahern cannot remember who you are. Do you remember buying Stg£30,000 for the leader of Fianna Fail at any time? Might it have happened between January and March 1995? Please get in contact with Dublin Castle, and be assured that the Taoiseach would be very glad if you did.

Perhaps the person is dead now. But if alive they have a national duty, if only to put us out of our misery as to whether the Taoiseach could have been the person paying himself large lumps of sterling while forgetting all the details.

Keeping your head down (sayin' nuttin') is not acceptable. Bertie may one day remember who you are.

Giving a spot of evidence now will be the easier thing in the long run.

And he's bound to remember, you know -- he remembers the eight who gave him £22,500 as a dig-out, and the five who gave him £16,500 in a second goodwill loan.

It's only a matter of time before the penny drops . . . Or the stg £30,000, as the case may be.


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