Government in trouble as trust breaks down

 

The breach of trust between the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste is potentially more damaging to the stability of the Government than Mr Ray Burke's involvement in the passports affair.

But, besieged by the day-to-day pressure which the Burke controversies are placing on the Government, the signs were last night that Mr Bertie Ahern and Ms Mary Harney will attempt to gloss over that point at their meeting today. Senior sources in both Government parties believe that Mr Burke's future in Government will be the main focus of their discussions. It is now widely accepted that it is not a case of `if', but `when' will Mr Burke go. Things were working up to that point, anyway, before the revelation, in Saturday's Irish Times, that statutory procedures were breached by Mr Burke in the processing of 11 passports for Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, his family and some associates in late 1990. A significant, new factor has since come into the equation which could have serious consequences for the trust between the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste, the political pillars on which this Coalition is founded.

Besides questioning Mr Burke three times before the formation of the Government, about the £30,000 donation from Mr James Gogarty, and sending his then chief whip, Mr Dermot Ahern, to London to check out the allegations, it is now known that Mr Ahern also made three different inquiries into Mr Burke's involvement in the passports affair. Mr Ahern spoke to the then Minister for Justice, Ms Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, about the issue in late 1994 at a time when he was poised to become Taoiseach. He sought a verbal report from officials in the Department of Justice on the matter before forming this Government. And he sought a written report on the outcome of the Department's investigation into Mr Burke's involvement after he had appointed him Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The startling thing is that he did not inform the Tanaiste, Ms Harney, either before or after the formation of the Government, about these passport inquiries. In the context of the allegations circulating about Mr Charles Haughey and Mr Michael Lowry in June, sources say that Mr Ahern did not think they had any significance.

These revelations raise further questions about the political judgment of Mr Ahern and Ms Harney

From the start of the negotiations to form this ail/PD Coalition, Ms Harney has espoused that coalitions can only work on trust. There was no need for a Tanaiste's Office and for programme managers for each Minister. She constantly stated that the pillar on which this Coalition was founded was the good relationship of trust which she enjoyed with Mr Ahern.

She spoke to Mr Ahern before and after the Cabinet was appointed about the £30,000 payment to Mr Burke. She also spoke to Mr Burke. After Mr Burke's Dail statement on September 10th, it was she, through her spokesman, who said she was satisfied with the assurances given. Mr Ahern, at this point, was repeating that "insofar as I can be satisfied, I am satisfied".

Ms Harney took a decision, as she entered Government, that there would be no demands for "a head on a plate" in this administration. There would be no "Michael McDowells shouting from the sidelines". Yet, party insiders say she is being barraged by PD members calling on the party to assert its separate identity. The breach of trust between Mr Ahern and Ms Harney, therefore, could store up some problems for the future.

There are already some senior PD people saying that the passports affair is more serious than the £30,000 donation because the Department of Justice's inquiry has proven breaches of statutory procedures.