Murky pool of pixie piddle in Bertieworld
HERE'S the God's Honest Truth - a pixie flew in from Neverland and piddled in my back garden. And the ground was fertilised by the enchanted pixie-piddle. And a tree grew. It was a magic tree. A money tree. Within minutes, the tree was 30 foot tall and covered in freshly-grown banknotes.
No, this is not a verbatim report of Bertie Ahern's latest explanation of how he came into possession of a sizeable lump of cash - but it's close enough.
Along came a big wind and it blew the money off the tree and the money landed in a briefcase. And Celia Larkin took it to a bank and put it in an account in her name, in case Bertie's landlord wanted to buy a new sofa.
And that's the God's Honest Truth.
First, a cautionary note:
Nothing said in this column should be taken to imply that Bertie Ahern or anyone else corruptly gave or accepted payments from anyone. And this is not a note inserted by lawyers in order to cover this newspaper's ass against a libel claim. This column isn't offering any explanation for Mr Ahern's peculiar financial adventures, because I don't have one and I don't intend to speculate. I'm mystified. And I'm even more mystified by those people who claim to see nothing odd in Mr Ahern's peculiar financial adventures.
This column isn't even about those peculiar financial adventures (though it must mention them in considerable detail). It's about the cynicism of Ahern's Fianna Fail colleagues, grinning inanely as he gives his patently absurd explanations. And the desperation of Michael McDowell's determination to see nothing wrong (until Liz O'Donnell insisted on giving him a loan of her backbone). And the cowardice of the opposition leaders, terrified of losing second preferences if they upset Ahern's fans.
And, if the opposition leaders are right, and a large section of the public doesn't care where the money came from, because Bertie is such a cuddly wee chap, well, it's about that kind of cynicism, too.
Welcome to Bertieworld, a world unlike that of ordinary mortals. A world where the usual rules of business don't apply, where cash is king, no one draws up contracts, and landlords pay stamp duty to tenants.
We're talking about six big lumps of cash. Forget everything else - all the supposed detail about houses and dinners and dig-outs and the terrible dark days of Bertie's marital break-up. This is about six big lumps of cash.
These six big lumps of cash turned up in bank accounts examined by the planning tribunal. Explain this money, they said - and Mr Ahern did.
Up to now, we heard of just four big lumps of cash. These were £22,500, £16,500, £8,000 and £50,000. The first two, Mr Ahern explained, came from "dig-outs" organised by close friends. The £8,000 came from Manchester businessmen he couldn't identify. And he personally saved the £50,000 in cash, in a safe, over seven years.
Recently, the planning tribunal brought Mr Ahern in again and asked him to explain two further lumps of cash - £30,000 and £50,000, both lodged in December 1994, in accounts opened by Celia Larkin.
No problem, said Mr Ahern. The £30,000 was given to me by Michael Wall, Manchester businessman. It was for refurbishment of a house he was about to buy, and which I was going to rent from him. And what about the £50,000?
Well, said Mr Ahern, that was my money, and I'd agreed to spend it on the refurbishment of the house Michael Wall was about to buy.
And, he explained, we gave these two big lumps of cash to Celia Larkin, and she opened bank accounts in her own name, and lodged the money.
To accept this account of Bertie's Peculiar Financial Adventures, here's what we have to believe - and what Brian Cowen and Michael McDowell and Seamus Brennan and Willie O'Dea and all the rest of the crew refused to question.
In Bertieworld, one man stumps up £30,000 to refurbish a four-year-old house, before he buys it. And he will get £450 a month in rent from this house. So, he's refurbishing it to the tune of five-and-a-half year's rent.
And the guy who will rent the house, with a vague option to buy, stumps up £50,000 (or nine year's rent) in advance for additional refurbishment. The £80,000 refurbishment is 57 per cent of the value of the house, which was around £140,000.
In my world, a big job like that is costed, builders give quotes. There's a deposit paid, by cheque. And, as the job proceeds, staged payments are made, by cheque, with a significant amount held back for a final cheque when the job is done.
In Bertieworld, Michael Wall comes over from Manchester, before he's bought the house, with £30,000 cash in a briefcase, which he hands over to the leader of Fianna Fail, who gives it to Celia Larkin to bank in her name.
A proposed £80,000 refurbishment of a £140,000 house, just four years old, is peculiar enough. Why did the project need Celia Larkin to "administer" it? This is a decade before Ms Larkin went into business - her expertise in such major projects was surely unproven. Didn't Mr Ahern know any experienced builders?
We now have six big lumps of money, almost all in cash, all banked within a short period, amounting to £177,000. Here are three words that scream through the fog that clouds Bertieworld. Cash. cf,mili Cash! CASH! Bertieworld is a paperless place, people deal in big lumps of cash.
Now, the £50,000 that Mr Ahern contributed to the alleged refurbishment fund - was that the same £50,000 in cash he tearfully told Brian Dobson about last September? The £50,000 he saved in cash over seven years (and spent on legal fees and a fund for his children's education)? No, this new £50,000 was cash made up of £22,000 in "dig-out" money and a separate £28,000 he saved in what seems to have been a period of months.
Why, in circumstances where he was getting dig-outs from friends and strangers, scraping together money for his kids' future, did he set aside £50,000 to refurbish someone else's house? A house he didn't buy for another three years?
Well, "I'm entitled to do that. I earned the money. I got some of it from friends. It was my money". It was his money. He could buy lollipops with it if he liked. Or offer to refurbish someone else's house.
The £80,000 refurbishment didn't happen. The money went into and out of the accounts within a month or two. And some of Mr Wall's £30,000 was used to pay stamp duty when he purchased the house.
Mr Ahern got the bulk of that total of £177,000 over a short period of time, in December 1994, in cash. His explanation for any one of the six big lumps of cash is questionable. All six explanations together askus to make an enormous leap of faith.
Other issues arise - questions about foreign exchange, and why Michael Wall later willed the house to Mr Ahern. Then there's the question about his claim that his "dig-outs" came from close friends. One of the diggers has said he was not a close friend - that the money was a corporate political donation, not intended for Mr Ahern's personal use. And that he received an invoice in return, for work never done, from a firm he never employed.
If there's a credible explanation for all this, we're not getting it.
This is what we pay politicians to sort out. But Fianna Fail grins inanely and blames the media. McDowell flounders. The opposition cowers.
Cynicism, desperation and cowardice. We're up to our necks in pixie piddle.