Ahern defends having no bank account

 

There was "nothing in the law or the Constitution" that required a person to have a bank account, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Mahon tribunal yesterday.

Mr Ahern was quizzed yesterday about why he did not open a bank account after he was separated from his wife in 1987. The tribunal heard that Mr Ahern did not operate any bank accounts between 1987 and 1993, when his marital separation was legally finalised.

When he did open accounts, in 1993, lodgements representing three times Mr Ahern's net annual income were made, counsel for the tribunal, Des O'Neill, said.

Mr Ahern had said he had saved the money in two safes - at St Luke's constituency office and at his ministerial office - over the seven-year period.

Mr O'Neill said that in 1987, Mr Ahern had income from his position as minister for labour, as well as a TD's salary, an allowance as lord mayor of Dublin and council expenses.

His wages were paid by cheques, and members of his staff at both offices went to the bank and changed the cheques for him.

Mr O'Neill asked Mr Ahern if it was not an "unusual approach to one's finances".

"I didn't consider it unusual, quite frankly, then or now," Mr Ahern said. "Ordinary people, Mr O'Neill, go into pubs and cash their wages cheques . . . it's not extraordinary."

"But . . . you were the minister for finance at the time," Mr O'Neill said.

Mr Ahern said there was nothing in the law or the Constitution that prevented him from operating his finances in that way.

"Some people put their hair yellow, some people put rings in their noses . . . I decided to cash my cheques, full stop," he said.

Mr O'Neill said the arrangement painted a picture of "a hand-to-mouth existence", and there had to be an underlying reason for his decision.

"I thought it was a good idea," Mr Ahern said. "I'm sorry if it doesn't suit you . . . "

He said that when he began cashing his cheques, he was not sure if he was going to go back home again.

The tribunal heard that the cheques were occasionally allowed to accumulate and a bundle would be brought to the bank by a staff member. They then returned with the cash and either gave it to him, or left it on his desk.

Mr O'Neill said that in 1993, Mr Ahern's net salary was £35,000, which was £3,000 on a monthly basis. This would be split into two cheques, cashed at two locations, and could amount to thousands at a time, he said.

"So a member of staff . . . would leave £1,500 in cash on your desk?" Mr O'Neill asked.

"Yes, or give it to me if I was there," Mr Ahern replied.

He said that in all that time, nothing ever went missing.

Mr O'Neill asked if he had kept an account of how much money passed through the two offices.

He said he counted it "every now and then".

"A few times a year I would just check if I had a bill to pay, or if it was Christmas time and I needed to buy presents," he said.

He said when he was given the cash, he took out the money he owed his wife for maintenance, took out any bills, kept some pocket money for himself and then put the rest into his safe or into a drawer. "I'd hold on to the higher denominations, obviously," he said.

Mr O'Neill said the amount he had saved over the seven years was the equivalent of €125,000 today.

"I know precisely what you are doing, you are looking for a headline," Mr Ahern said.

He said that between 1987 and 1994, he saved 20 per cent of his income.