Ahern to face Dail questions over €50,000 loan not repaid

Wed, Sep 27, 2006, 01:00

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will face a Dáil onslaught today from the Opposition, after he acknowledged last night that he has not repaid any of a €50,000 loan given to him by businessmen in 1993 and 1994.

The money from the 12-strong group, who he described as long-time friends, was used to pay costs surrounding his marital separation, including legal bills.

While the Tánaiste and Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell stayed silent following the Taoiseach's 20-minute interview, the Opposition said Mr Ahern must now clarify that all tax has been paid.

They said he must explain his declaration that he had appointed some of the group to State boards "because they were friends". At least four of the group, including Des Richardson, David McKenna, Jim Nugent and Joe Burke, have served on State boards.

A spokesman for the Tánaiste said he was "making no comment on the matter tonight".

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said Mr Ahern should not have accepted the money in the first place, given that he was then minister for finance. He said the situation is now "very grave" and Mr Ahern now had serious questions to answer with respect to tax issues and ethics legislation.

Mr Kenny is to attempt to question the Taoiseach today during Leaders' Questions in the Dáil, and his party is also considering making a complaint to the Standards in Public Office Commission.

The party is focusing on the appointment of at least four of the donors by the Government to State boards since 1997, and senior party figures believe Mr Ahern may have been required to make a declaration of a potential conflict of interest when they were being appointed.

While the Opposition will now demand a full debate when the Dáil resumes at 2.30pm today, it is understood the Government is determined to limit questions to just 23 minutes involving all party leaders.

While there was no comment from the Tánaiste, the early signals from senior PD figures is that the crisis will not threaten the Government's existence, though most are seriously worried about the damage it will cause, particularly to themselves.

The issue will dominate today's meeting of the Progressive Democrats' 13-strong parliamentary party, the first to be held under the new party leader.

Last night, politicians of all party hues were struggling to read how the public would greet Mr Ahern's interview, though some Fianna Fáil TDs insisted that voters would be more forgiving of Mr Ahern.

In his interview, Mr Ahern said the money had been raised without his knowledge, though he had accepted it as "a debt of honour" to help him with costs surrounding his separation from his wife.

However, Mr Ahern conceded that while he had said that he would repay the money, no repayments had ever been made and no interest had ever been paid on it, though the donors still accept it is a loan, not a gift.

In all, Mr Ahern received more than £39,000 (€50,000) in two payments: one of £22,500 in December 1993 and £16,500 in 1994. A separate third contribution of £8,000 was given to him after he attended a business dinner in Manchester.

Eight people - Paddy Reilly, Des Richardson, Padraic O'Connor, Jim Nugent, David McKenna, Fintan Gunne, Mick Collins and Charlie Chawke - had given the £22,500. One payment of £5,000 was made, with the rest contributing £2,500.

The second payment, in 1994, was for £16,500, and was from a separate group of friends - Joe Burke, who now serves as Dublin Port and Docks Board chairman, Dermot Carew, Barry English and Paddy "The Plasterer" Reilly, who is a different man to the Paddy Reilly who helped him the previous year.

Insisting that no favours had been offered, or received, Mr Ahern said: "I might have appointed somebody but I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me."

Under the Standards in Public Office Commission's rules, State appointments "should be made on the basis of merit, taking into account the skills, qualifications and experience of the person to be appointed", the ethics watchdog's website makes clear.

Regarding the acceptance of gifts or free services, the commission has told office-holders they should "be particularly sensitive of acceptance of gifts or hospitality from friends, or connected persons where such persons have, or are likely to obtain, a benefit or suffer a loss arising from a decision made, or to be made, by an office-holder or by the government, of which the office holder is aware."