True tale of the Teflon taoiseach

Sat, Oct 29, 2011, 01:00

BIOGRAPHY: Bertie: Power & Money,by Colm Keena, Gill & Macmillan, 304pp. €16.99

BERTIE AHERN was mean. According to Colm Keena’s book, his hungry canvassers had to ask him for money for chips – and even then he’d ask for the change back. Charlie Haughey knew that Bertie Ahern was mean. So, after a meeting with Bertie and his constituency organisation at which the party leader was thwarted in having his own man accepted as candidate in the 1983 byelection, Haughey ordered them all a round down in Kennedy’s pub. Then he said: “I don’t appear to have any money. Here, Bertie, look after that.” Small revenge, but sweet.

There was a pair of them in it when it came to power and money, but Haughey’s way was brazen: he lived conspicuously high and took lots of money from rich guys. Bertie’s way was secretive. Did he sleep on a camp bed upstairs in St Luke’s? Did he curl up in the back of the state car? Did he live on scrapings from Drumcondra dustbins? The benign view of Bertie as a sort of saintly tramp, eschewing material things, serving us all day and night and then bedding down in the nearest available doorway, was one he did not discourage.

And he might have got away with it had The Irish Times’s Colm Keena, backed by his editor Geraldine Kennedy, not published the fact in September 2006 that the Mahon tribunal was investigating payments to Bertie Ahern in 1993 when he was finance minister. This leaked information might never have become public otherwise, as it came from the private phase of the tribunal’s inquiries. It was a brave story to run with because, unlike Haughey, Ahern was generally popular, particularly after the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. But also, unlike the Haughey story, which leaped off the page with its big names, big money and Ben Dunne’s helpful big mouth, Bertie’s story was harder to tell. It was of substantial but less spectacular amounts, of minor characters and of a bewildering series of accounts.

Who controlled those accounts or who benefited from them was what took the tribunal a painfully long to time to establish. And took a long time because, as Keena describes, Bertie Ahern ensured that it would take a long time. Even now, sorting through the evidence is like wading through cold porridge. We don’t yet have the final report of the Mahon tribunal – it’s due very soon – so Keena, who covered so much of the tribunal’s crucial public sessions, is limited in the conclusions he can come to.

But he argues that what alerted Bertie to the trouble that might lie ahead was a Sunday Tribune editorial at the time of the Fianna Fáil leadership election in 1992 that raised what it called “worrying” questions about Ahern’s finances, particularly about the “house which supporters bought for him and which cost over £120,000. What hostages to fortune have been given in that transaction?”

The paper later accepted Ahern’s claim that he simply had use of an office and apartment there and that the house belonged to the local Fianna Fáil party. But the incident prompted Bertie Ahern to initiate the drawing up of documents explaining the purchase and ownership of St Luke’s, documents that, though they relied heavily on Ahern himself for their information, turned out later to have many inaccuracies.

Then there was the B/T account, which Ahern did not declare to the tribunal as one of the 22 accounts to which money to be used for his benefit had been lodged. Ahern said that B/T meant the Building Trust account for use in the upkeep of St Luke’s, and in the charge of a Fianna Fáil constituency committee. But the staff in the bank in which it was held, the Irish Permanent in Drumcondra, referred to it as the Bertie/Tim account – and it emerged at the tribunal that the account was under the sole control of Tim Collins, who was a supporter and associate of Bertie’s but not even a Fianna Fáil member. Neither is there any solid evidence that the money in the account was used for St Luke’s. Indeed, it was into this account that controversial lodgments were made, including a £5,000 cheque from Davy’s. It was also the account from which £30,000 was paid to Celia Larkin to buy the house in which her elderly aunts were living. This has since been described as a loan, but there was no mention of its being a loan at the time. Then there were the sterling lodgments to the B/T account and his own account in Drumcondra and to his AIB account in O’Connell Street, variously attributed to gifts given in Manchester and even to winnings on the horses.

But it was the dilemma that his unfortunate secretary, Gráinne Carruth, found herself in when being pressed about the sterling payments that spelled the end for Ahern with the public. “I just want to go home,” she moaned when continuing to deny that she had made sterling lodgments for Ahern. Warned by the tribunal to consider her position overnight, she came back next day and agreed that in all probability she may have lodged sterling. As Miriam Lord put it memorably, Ahern “might have stood up and shouted like a man: ‘Let the girl go. It’s me you want.’ But that only happens in the movies.”

Keena was the man who broke the story and who, with his editor, faced jail for protecting his source by destroying the leaked documents. His courage and his tenacity have served us all well. And though the detail of the tribunal evidence is at times bewildering and tedious, and the lack of Mahon’s final conclusions constricting, it is important that we follow the path that weaves between power and money.

All this Keena gives us. So why am I a little disappointed? Because we don’t hear enough overall of Keena’s own voice. Instead, near the beginning of the book he gives us 20 pages of a political diary written by Senan Molony, now political editor of the Irish Daily Mail, describing the weeks in which Keena’s bombshell of a story started to explode the reputation of one of Ireland’s most popular taoisigh ever. Molony writes with great verve, but why not hear more from Keena, the journalist at the centre of it all?

The chapters on the economy are solid, tracking Charlie McCreevy’s egomaniacal wrongheadedness and Brian Cowen’s insistence, even at the end of 2005, that nothing should be done that disrupted the building industry. And there are some sharp observations of Bertie. Ruairí Quinn makes the point that Bertie’s successful presentation of himself as someone who wasn’t interested in money meant you thought he wasn’t corrupt. Gerald Kenny, a party activist, saw Ahern as a man with inner conflict, and he remembers sitting on a platform behind him, watching Ahern’s hands behind his back wrestling angrily while, out front, he made a Happy Bertie speech.

He hid that anger well from journalists, but I remember realising early on, ever before he became taoiseach, that he had a visceral dislike of The Irish Times. In the hospitality room after a television interview, we were talking about newspapers. And suddenly the smile disappeared off his face and he said meaningfully: “There’s only three people buy The Irish Times in my constituency. We know who the first two are . . . and we’re working on the third.” Too late, Bertie. Too late.

Olivia O’Leary is a broadcaster and journalist. She does a weekly political column for Drivetimeon RTÉ Radio 1