Bertie fails to restore confidence in politics

 

In February 1997, when leader of the Opposition, Bertie Ahern, commenting on the McCracken report into payments to Charles Haughey and Michael Lowry, told the Dail "what matters most is how a political party reacts to knowledge when it becomes available". Later that year, speaking as Taoiseach on the motion to establish the Moriarty tribunal, he seemed both to acknowledge that Fianna Fail's reaction to knowledge of corruption in the past had been inadequate and to promise it would be better in the future.

"It is our job," he told the Dail, "to do everything in our power to restore public confidence in the political system."

It is now increasingly clear that he has shirked that job almost completely. Every time knowledge has "become available", he has responded in two ways: (a) ignore it for as long as possible and (b) when it can no longer be ignored, do as little as possible. The pattern is now so consistent that what might once have been regarded as mere carelessness can now only be regarded as deliberate evasion.

In that speech in September 1997, Bertie Ahern tried to explain the failure of himself and some of his senior colleagues to do anything about Charles Haughey's flagrant self-enrichment while they served under him. "Why were we not more aware that something was untoward? . . . Perhaps we were at fault for not asking more questions, though that is never an easy thing to do given our instinctive respect for each other's privacy."

It was an ominous explanation. The welcome acknowledgement that he had been "at fault for not asking more questions" was immediately undermined by that nonsense about privacy, as if the flagrant abuse of public office could ever be a private matter.

Even in that very speech, the apparently contrite Taoiseach was in fact propagating a serious untruth. Dick Spring had raised the issue of the abuse of the party leader's allowance during Fianna Fail's period in opposition under Haughey.

Bertie Ahern told the Dail: "In so far as I could with little available records I am satisfied, having spoken to the person who administered the account, that it was used for bonafide party purposes, that the cheques were prepared by that person and countersigned by another senior party member. There was no surplus and no misappropriation."

This subsequently turned out to be completely untrue. The deliberate lack of frankness was underlined by the fact that the Taoiseach did not think it worthwhile to mention that the other "senior party member" who countersigned the cheques was himself.

Around the same time, the Taoiseach was dealing with the revelations that led to the fall of Ray Burke and the establishment of the Flood tribunal. Again, he offered reassurances on the basis of an apparently detailed investigation of the allegations, which he claimed to have looked at "inside out and upside down" on three occasions in 1996 and 1997. He suggested that he had personal knowledge which confirmed that Ray Burke had, as he claimed, passed £10,000 from the engineering firm JMSE on to party headquarters.

In fact, the £10,000 passed on by Ray Burke did not come from JMSE but from Tony O'Reilly's company, Rennicks. This was a very significant fact, since it pointed to the existence of a separate huge donation to Burke.

And Bertie Ahern had a specific reason to discover this. Dick Spring had given him an anonymous note which claimed: "Rennicks paid over £30,000 to Ray Burke TD". At the very least, Bertie Ahern should have asked his party officials, who had issued a receipt to Rennicks, whether or not this was true.

This time last year, Bertie Ahern again discovered evidence of outrageous behaviour within his own party. On his own account, the Government press secretary told him in early December 1999 of "a report circulating among journalists" that Denis Foley was to be called before the Moriarty tribunal because he held an Ansbacher account. Some time after this, the Taoiseach "checked the Ansbacher list that had been furnished to me, but found that Deputy Foley's name was not on it". So he did nothing. A short while later, however, the Attorney General, Michael McDowell, told the Taoiseach again about Foley's situation. His information had come from Gerard Ryan, the civil servant investigating the Ansbacher scam.

So how did the Taoiseach respond to this evidence of dodgy behaviour coming from an impeccable source? He had "a fairly short meeting" with the TD, at which Mr Foley told him how "he was putting money into an investment account with [Mr Haughey's bagman Des] Traynor". ail. Only when the information emerged in the media did he speak about it.

All of this is perfectly consistent with Bertie Ahern's laughable decision to appoint Liam Lawlor to the Dail's ethics committee. And with the fact that Fianna Fail continues to claim allowances for Mr Lawlor as one of its deputies. As the revelations unfold and the scandals get worse, there is one aspect of the political system in which the public can have complete trust: Bertie will say nothing until it is already known and do nothing until it has become inevitable.

fotoole@irish-times