Foley's prompt decision to quit has helped ease political fallout

 

Mr Denis Foley's prompt resignation has deflated a political controversy, but there are still questions about how much the Taoiseach knew in advance.

So keen was Mr Ahern on having a positive glow surround the launch of his new-look Cabinet, he postponed the announcement for a day to allow the President, Mrs McAleese, to conduct the formalities in Aras an Uachtarain.

But as Mr Ahern, the Tanaiste, Ms Harney, and the Ministers gathered in the Phoenix Park to celebrate the new team, the latest bombshell in the running sleaze story was landing in Leinster House.

A Fianna Fail backbencher being revealed as an Ansbacher accountholder would be embarrassing enough. The fact that that backbencher had been part of the much-praised team who investigated tax evasion on behalf of the Oireachtas made it more so. Mr Foley's being an office-holder - he is vice-chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - meant Mr Ahern would immediately be asked whether he was going to seek his resignation from that post just as Mr John Ellis had resigned from a similar post.

If this wasn't enough to ruin the Government's week, the timing was. The recent positive opinion poll, the good coverage of the Cabinet trip to Cork and a certain sense of renewal created by the reshuffle were all about to be overshadowed by more news of offshore accounts and demands that Mr Ahern's much-vaunted tough ethical standards now be seen to be applied.

In the end, Mr Foley's quick decision to resign from his position as vice-chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and from the committee itself has prevented what could have been a repeat of the Ellis saga. Then, several days of pressure on Mr Ellis finally culminated in his resignation, but only after Mr Ahern appeared to be reluctant to take any stance on what was clearly a matter of ethics in politics.

Last night the initial Government response was that it wasn't going to respond at all. "These are matters for the tribunal" was the familiar response from a Government spokesman. The spokesman said Mr Ahern had become aware "recently" that Mr Foley was involved with the tribunal, but would not say how recently. He would not say whether Mr Ahern had spoken with Mr Foley about the matter, and did not know whether he had plans to speak to him.

Ultimately, Mr Ellis had to resign as chairman of the agriculture committee after it emerged he had been bailed out by money that came from the Fianna Fail leader's account. The additional difficulty faced by Mr Ellis was that he had pursued others for debts owed to him in a way he was not pursued himself.

Absolutely no wrongdoing was attributed to Mr Ellis. However, political realities dictate that the absence of legal proof of wrongdoing is not enough to ensure political survival. If it was, Michael Lowry and Ray Burke might still be ministers.

Mr Foley's decision to go will ensure there is not, at this stage, renewed scrutiny of the oft-stated Government position that these are matters for the tribunal, devoid of political impact until the tribunals have completed their business.

"People should be prepared to wait for his evidence," the spokesman said, warning against prejudging the issue. The Taoiseach and the Tanaiste had not discussed the issue, he said. "We should leave the tribunal to hear his evidence."

Despite Mr Foley's quick resignation, it is still possible that his holding of an Ansbacher account involved no wrongdoing and nothing with ethical implications. While Ansbacher accounts have been widely associated with tax evasion, it is possible to have held such an account for entirely legitimate reasons.

Mr Foley said in his statement to the tribunal that the money in his Ansbacher account included the proceeds of dances he organised in Co Kerry. This is substantially a cash business, and it is not known whether tax was paid on this money. While it is possible that nothing wrong has been done, the political reality yesterday was that Mr Foley would have to resign quickly unless he was able to come out and explain the situation fully very quickly. While no evidence of tax evasion has been produced, the fact that Mr Foley was involved in investigating tax evasion through the DIRT inquiry made it politically imperative for him to clarify his position or to go.

Mr Foley did not make himself available yesterday to explain the circumstances of his account. However, twice in recent months he denied to The Irish Times that he held an Ansbacher account.

In a speech last July, Mr Ahern warned that he did not want his Government's great work "overshadowed or sullied" in any way. "When at the end of our term we go to seek a renewed mandate from the people, I wish to be able to present a party and an administration that in terms of integrity and of giving public service is beyond reproach."

In this instance, Mr Foley's quick action can be seen as helping Mr Ahern reinforce this image of an administration beyond reproach. In the space of a few years, Irish politics has moved from a position in which nobody ever resigned over anything, to one where office-holders were forced out of office after weeks of revelations and sustained pressure to one in which a politician, against whom nothing has been proved, will resign quickly when confronted by damaging facts.

This substantial change has been brought about in the atmosphere created by the revelations from tribunals over the last four years or so.

Last night the Opposition continued to demand that Mr Ahern explain when he found out that Mr Foley held an Ansbacher account, and whether he was aware of it when the Public Accounts Committee's inquiry into the DIRT issue was proceeding.

However, the resignation of Mr Foley has removed most of the pressure from these demands, and what could have been a controversy lasting over many intense days has had its political impact considerably reduced.