Ahern's money trail mirrored political rise

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Most of the financial dealings that Ahern failed to explain adequately came at political crisis points, writes GERALDINE KENNEDY

BERTIE AHERN, former taoiseach, was different from the rest of them in the Mahon tribunal report. An analysis of the report shows that “corrupt” and “improper” payments were systemic in the planning process at government, official and local councillor levels but the tribunal made no corrupt finding against Ahern in relation to the planning process.

Ahern was different because his motivation all along was to do with the political requirements of the day, as an analysis of events, matching political developments with the money movements, demonstrates. Most of the financial dealings which he failed to explain adequately to the tribunal came at political crisis points as he positioned himself to become leader of Fianna Fáil and/or taoiseach.

His unorthodox – at the time – personal relationships meant he had to be able to respond to whispering campaigns within the party and the political world about where he slept at night and whether he had a house which could be called his home and where the Garda could place a security hut if he were to realise his ambition of becoming taoiseach.

When Ahern was seen as a leading candidate for the party leadership in 1992, following the resignation of Charles Haughey, Michael Smith, former minister and North Tipperary TD, spread the word that “you need to know where your taoiseach is sleeping at night”. In the event, Ahern ruled himself out of the contest and threw his votes in behind Albert Reynolds.

That leadership contest was a defining experience in Ahern’s political life. He had separated from his wife, Miriam Kelly, some years earlier and it was, by all accounts, an acrimonious separation. It is worth pointing out that marriage separation was something of a handicap or a stigma 20 or 25 years ago, all the more so for a politician who aspired to lead Fianna Fáil.

So from 1992 onwards, Bertie Ahern and his friends were determined that he would need to have a home that he could call his own if he were to succeed Albert Reynolds. They would have had reason to believe that they would have had four to five years, the normal term of a government, to sort out the problem.

But they didn’t.

Bertie Ahern’s marriage separation was reportedly finalised in December 1993. He was then minister for finance. The Mahon tribunal accepted that Ahern’s usual practice in the years 1987-1993 was to cash salary and expenses cheques and to generally pay bills, living expenses and other disbursements with cash, rather than using a bank account, but it rejected his evidence that he accumulated approximately £54,000 in cash savings in that time.

It also found that there was a lodgement of £22,500 to Ahern’s special savings account on December 30th, 1993.

The payments to Ahern, or the dig-outs as he called them, become really interesting from here on. Most of them were made in the year 1994 as it became increasingly clear that the Reynolds-Dick Spring coalition might not run its course. It is intriguing to look at the dates of the receipt of the payments against the backdrop of the stability or instability of the coalition at different times.

The first lodgements in this period were made on April 25th, 1994, totalling £30,000. The tribunal rejected Ahern’s evidence and was satisfied that most, if not all, of £30,000 in cash came into his possession between December 29th, 1993, and April 25th, 1994.

Mahon rejected Ahern’s evidence as to the source of the £20,000 cash which funded the lodgment to his account on August 8th, 1994. Contrary to what he had said, the tribunal was satisfied that a significant portion, if not the entire fund, came into Ahern’s possession between April 25th and August 8th, 1994.

That lodgement was just a week after the publication of the Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef Processing Industry. Less than five hours after the late Mr Justice Liam Hamilton handed over the first copy of the report to the government on July 30th, 1994, the coalition partners were at loggerheads.

Reynolds claimed that he was vindicated. Spring said that the government spokesman, Seán Duignan, did not represent his views. Spring’s adviser, Fergus Finlay, was not permitted entry to the taoiseach’s office to see the report that night.

The dogs in the political street knew that there was a grave breach of trust between the taoiseach and the tánaiste.

Ahern would have known likewise. The coalition was under threat.

Things got worse in September 1994, with the stalemate reached between the taoiseach and the tánaiste about the proposed appointment of attorney general Harry Whelehan as president of the High Court to succeed Mr Justice Liam Hamilton, who had been appointed chief justice. Reynolds was in Australia when this row flared up.

The threat of an imminent general election was lifted on October 11th, 1994, when the government postponed a decision on the naming of the next president of the High Court until legislation on a new procedure for judicial appointment was made by the cabinet. The tribunal found there was a lodgment of £24,838.49 to Ahern’s bank account on October 11th, 1994, that had been funded by stg£25,000 cash. It rejected the Manchester dinner story.

Things went from bad to worse in the coalition when the controversy broke about the seven-month delay in the attorney general’s office in processing extradition warrants for paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

The death knell of the coalition was struck on November 11th, 1994 when the tánaiste, Dick Spring, led his six Labour ministers out of cabinet when the taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, insisted on Whelehan’s immediate nomination as president of the High Court.

He was appointed by the then president, Mary Robinson, within an hour of the withdrawal of the Labour ministers.

Ahern, then tánaiste and minister for finance, was elected leader of Fianna Fáil on November 19th, 1994. He became involved in negotiations with Spring on the formation of a government shortly thereafter.

As a negotiations drew to a successful close, The Irish Times published a story on Monday, December 5th, 1994, revealing that the taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, sought the resignation of the president of the High Court, Mr Whelehan, on the evening of Monday, November 14th, while he went on to assure the Dáil of Whelehan’s “suitability for high office” the following day.

Spring broke off the negotiations on the formation of a new Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition on December 6th.

By extraordinary coincidence, the tribunal found that Ahern lodged £28,772.90 to Celia Larkin’s bank account on December 5th, 1994. It rejected Ahern’s claim that this lodgement was approximately £30,000 provided to him by his friend Mícheál Wall as a fund for use in connection with 44 Beresford Avenue, Drumcondra. The tribunal concluded that the money lodged was in fact $45,000 dollars.

Finally, the Mahon tribunal was satisfied that 44 Beresford Avenue was never beneficially owned by Wall. It found that the property was beneficially owned by Ahern between 1995 and 1997 and was legally and beneficially owned by Ahern from 1997 onwards. Ahern was elected taoiseach in June 1997.

Thus, there appears to be a correlation between many of the lodgements revealed by the Mahon tribunal and the political events of the day, which may go some way to explaining Ahern’s motivation.

He has chosen, however, not to explain them truthfully to the tribunal and, as a result, has probably become tarred with the same brush as those found to have received corrupt payments by the tribunal.