Tuesday 17 September 2019

The eight-month affair that ended a marriage

Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

IN the first week of last October, Bertie Ahern strolled into the chamber of Dail Eireann and was greeted warmly, if not effusively, by Michael McDowell.

In his hand Mr Ahern carried a folder and a single copy of a speech designed to draw a line under the controversy over his personal finances.

Mr McDowell already knew the contents of the speech and had approved the content and the tone of the address to the Oireachtas in which Mr Ahern explained how he had come into possession of stg£8,000 at a function at the Four Seasons hotel in Manchester in 1984 and at which Mr Ahern had made a speech to a gathering of businessmen at the Cheshire hotel complex - then a favoured haunt of Manchester United and Manchester City players.

"At the end of the dinner, unsolicited by me, I was presented with cash of the order of stg£8,000, made up by individual contributions from an attendance of approximately 25 people," Ahern said.

Tim Kilroe - the Co Roscommon-born multi-millionaire who has since died - handed over the "sterling cash" which was lodged into Ahern's bank account back in Dublin.

In last October's speech, Mr Ahern also explained about two other payments totalling £39,000 in 1993 and 1994 when he was Minister for Finance at this time.

He said that taking the money was an error and a misjudgement, adding: "I now regret the choices I made in those difficult and dark times.

"The bewilderment caused to the public about recent revelations has been deeply upsetting for me and others near and dear to me. To them, to the Irish people, and to this House, I offer my apologies."

There was sustained applause from his own side of the house, including from his Tanaiste, Mr McDowell.

In the opposition benches they quietly seethed. Over an hour-and-a-half they had failed to put a dent in Bertie's story. Mr Ahern had put in a bravura performance.

They also knew that after three weeks of Progressive Democrat hand-wringing, about whether they should do "the right thing" and walk out of coalition, the crisis was over.

Trust had broken out between the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste.

But less than 24 hours later the relationship was on the rocks again when it emerged (through a further tribunal leak) that Mr Ahern had bought his home in Drumcondra from Michael Wall of Cong, Co Mayo .

Mr Wall was one of the wealthy individuals who had attended the famous function in Manchester, though not as a guest. He had a mini-bus business and was working at the Four Seasons that night.

Surely that fact should have been mentioned by Mr Ahern in his discussions with Mr McDowell?

That was what the PDs believed. Mr McDowell was fuming and the two men had a row.

In McDowell's view he had asked Ahern directly if there was anything else he should know about - and the Taoiseach had lied by omission by not telling him about the convoluted house purchase from Mr Wall.

Mr Ahern was wheeled into Dail Eireann again on Thursday, October 5, to explain about Beresford.

In what turned out to be an unusually prescient comment, Mr Ahern told the Dail he would rather have the Public Accounts Committee or the Comptroller and Auditor General examine the issue of his personal finances - because "it seems as if everything I gave in [to the tribunal] is out".

The Taoiseach said he had paid full market price for the house.

"Did I tell the Progressive Democrats whether I was dealing with the tribunal on these issues? Yes I did.

"Did I tell the Progressive Democrats that I got loans from friends, yes I did.

"Did I inform them about Michael Wall? No I did not.

"That is the truthful position. I didn't tell the present Tanaiste about Michael Wall and I didn't see what . . . he didn't want to know that either, who I bought my house from."

Earlier, he said he rented the house on Beresford Avenue from Mr Wall for about two years, that he paid full market rent and he subsequently bought the house in October 1997 after he became Taoiseach.

"Mr Wall would have had a gain of about 30 per cent in a period of about two-and-a-half years and I paid full market value.

"I funded it with an Irish Permanent Building Society loan and I paid for the stamp duty and all the relevant taxes from my own current account."

He added that "the deposit I paid wasn't a large deposit and I paid it from my building society deposit book," he said.

This explanation was accepted, and Mr Ahern and Mr McDowell went on to share a convivial chat at Gonzaga College the following night (Friday, October 6), where both men were attending a function at the Tanaiste's alma mater.

Now, seven months on, Mr McDowell is preparing to pull the plug on Bertie.

When the controversy over the Taoiseach's finances first emerged in September last year, Mr McDowell gave Mr Ahern a ringing personal endorsement.

"I think it would be fair to say in the light of what he has stated, that accepting such help was an honest error of judgement and was neither dishonest nor corrupt."

But on Friday, Mr McDowell signalled the beginning of the end by saying: "There is material now coming into the public domain that changes the position."

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