Monday 18 February 2019

Bertie's class act in dealing with the Mayo difficulty

Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

'IT'S great to see you all working. I remember the last time I was out here for this debate, and you were all wondering if you would still have a job," he said as he swaggered into RTE's studios in Donnybrook.

It was just after 8pm on Thursday, May 17, and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had arrived at Montrose to deal with the small matter of a Mayo TD standing in the way of his third term in office.

But it wasn't Beverley Flynn and her €2.8m legal bill causing him difficulty at that point. With just one week to go before election day, Mr Ahern was caught up in a political dogfight with Enda Kenny. As the Taoiseach flailed around in the quagmire of his personal finances, Kenny looked set to become the first Mayo-born Taoiseach since the late Charles Haughey.

RTE's coverage of the election campaign in the run-up to that night's Prime Time leaders' debate wasn't helping Fianna Fail's cause, it was felt. The national broadcaster's seeming flirtation with the notion of the Mullingar Accord parties seizing power didn't help either.

And so RTE reporters may have taken Bertie Ahern's subtle reminder of the industrial unrest at the station in 2002 as a none-too-subtle threat, if they wanted to.

Bertie Ahern doesn't do threats. He doesn't have to. Rather, he expresses his views, and leaves it to others to decide whether or not they feel threatened by it. Which is why the accusation that he intervened to help Beverley Flynn strike the deal to settle her legal bill with RTE holds no currency.

Anyone looking for records of communication between the Taoiseach's office and RTE in relation to the settlement last week of Deputy Flynn's €2.8m legal bill can stop now. Because, rest assured, there are no such records, and there hasn't been anything remotely like them since the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was introduced in 1997. FOI legislation - for the most part - brought to an abrupt end most of our bureaucracy's embarrassing paper trails.

For those who want to decipher how the deal was done, a brief reminder of the Taoiseach's interview on RTE Radio 1's News at One on June 15 provides a useful starting point. In that conversation with Sean O'Rourke, Mr Ahern said that Deputy Flynn would have a "legitimate expectation" to hold junior ministerial office within the lifetime of the new Government.

The Taoiseach described Ms Flynn as a person of "enormous ability" who would have been a "very strong contender" for a promotion had it not been for the "difficulties" she had experienced.

Mr Ahern's decision to air his views on Beverley Flynn's potential in a live interview on national radio was a deft tactical manoeuvre on his part. The interview simultaneously allowed him to communicate his wish to see a resolution of the matter of Ms Flynn's legal bill with RTE to both parties, while avoiding the need to make any formal direct orindirect contacts with either of them.

The Taoiseach's public pronouncement on Deputy Flynn's ministerial potential, and his description of her massive €2.8m legal bill as a mere "difficulty" also set the stage nicely for him to deal with the political fallout which he knew would follow once the new Dail met onJune 26.

Getting his retaliation in first against the Opposition, he rejected as "contemptuous" and "sinister" any implication that he was involved in the settlement.

"I have no knowledge, no involvement and haven't been involved in anything to do with Deputy Beverley Cooper Flynn's deal or negotiations or settlement with RTE, nor do I know anything about them," he insisted.

He added that it was a "sinister" question from the two Opposition leaders that he or any of his ministerial colleagues "in some way had something to do with the settlement by the legal team of RTE directly through the authority, general secretary or director of RTE. It is 100 per cent untrue."

While Pat Rabbitte pointed out that nobody had made that accusation, Mr Ahern's denial had the desired effect, helping to promote the media's - and by extension the public's - view that the Opposition's principal purpose in the Dail is to complain for the sake of complaining.

In the same exchange, Ahern cleverly gave RTE's director general Cathal Goan the proverbial hospital pass when he said: "It is a matter for the director general of RTE to state whether there was any interference by me or anyone associated with me or with Fianna Fail. The answer to that is 'No', but it is a matter for RTE to say so, if they see fit to do so."

Thus the attendant opprobrium surrounding the Flynn settlement with RTE was neatly transferred to officials at Montrose. The suggestion of any political pressure being brought to bear on the national broadcaster by Government was quickly forgotten about as an impatient media decided to focus on RTE's handling of its negotiations with Deputy Flynn.

RTE's decision to settle for €1.25m from Ms Flynn rather than pursue her for the €2.8m saw any previous allegations of political interference quickly fade. Not even the national broadcaster's entirely reasonable logic for agreeing the settlement (as outlined in last week's Sunday Independent) was enough to satisfy the baying media hounds.

Last Monday night's edition of RTE's Questions & Answers saw its esteemed panellists fire pot shots at the national broadcaster for taking their lawyers' advice to make the settlement, at the lawyers themselves for allegedly charging exorbitant fees and at the High Court Taxing Master (another lawyer) for upholding them.

Such was the level of outrage against the legal profession on the night that RTE director general Cathal Goan issued a formal statement the following morning in the Irish Independent outlining the reasons for the national broadcaster's decision to settle the Flynn bill. In fairness to RTE, its counsel, Cian Ferriter, had attempted to do the same in the Bankruptcy Court on Monday when he stated that if Deputy Flynn was found to be a bankrupt, the state broadcaster would only have been able to realise her assets, which consisted of a house worth €300,000.

Mr Ferriter went on to note that the settlement secured by RTE was four times that amount. But Judge Elizabeth Dunne refused to let him go any further in attempting to justify RTE's settlement with Deputy Flynn, saying that it was not a legal point and "not to go down that road".

Taking his cue from the events in the Bankruptcy Court the previous day and that night's Questions & Answers, Mr Goan's earnest defence in Tuesday's Irish Independent ended with a call for libel reform; in other words, a call for the legal profession to be brought to book over the fees they charge.

Mr Goan said: "If there is a political issue from all this, it is about libel reform. On the one hand, when a person feels their name is damaged they risk potentially catastrophic expense to seek redress. And on the other, the publisher is often left withthe difficult choice of whether or not to run stories where a mistake could result in huge legal bills."

The comments virtually echoed Enterprise Minister Micheal Martin's contribution as a Questions & Answers panellist the night before. Showing just how much he had learned at the hands of the Taoiseach, Mr Martin agreed with his fellow panellists that the matter of fees for lawyers certainly needed to be looked at. And so yet another smooth deflection of the real controversy was achieved. Now nobody is asking why exactly the Taoiseach is so keen to get disgraced TD Beverley Flynn back into the Fianna Fail fold after expelling her from the party three years ago. After all, Mr Ahern himself claims he can choose his ministers from the swollen ranks of 50 to 60 talented Fianna Fail backbenchers.

So what exactly makes Beverley Flynn such a class act? That is the real question, and for many people, the real scandal in this unsavoury affair. With the Bankruptcy Court agreeing to the August 17 deadline proposed by RTE for Deputy Flynn to settle her €1.25m debt, no doubt there will be a further twist to the saga which began with her failed libel action in 2001. The nagging question of just how the Mayo TD will raise the massive sum when her own assets amount to just €300,000 will be an interesting one to answer.

While Ms Flynn herself has claimed she intends to raise the money through the sale of her house in Castlebar, and through a 20-year bank loan, speculation is rife thatthe solution will be more imaginative. One rumour which she refuses to comment on is the notion that she might marry her multimillionaire partner - and father of her two children - developer Tony Gaughan.

Once married, Mr Gaughan would be entitled to give Ms Flynn the entire amount of €1.25m without having to pay any gift tax on the donation. According to the Revenue Commissioners' regulations on gift tax, any couple married after 1990 is exempted from the levy, which stands at 20 per cent.

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