Bertie and the Planning Tribunal inquiries
Bertie Ahern has done this country some service. He was crucial to the national wage agreements that have underpinned the country's economic success since 1987. He has been crucial to the dramatic progress there has been in the Northern Ireland peace process since he became Taoiseach in 1997. He did the country and himself proud as president of the European Council when Ireland had the EU presidency. He has been a highly competent Taoiseach; he deserves a lot of the credit for the economic success Ireland has enjoyed, aside from his part in the wages negotiations: he has adroitly led a coalition partnership which others might have found fraught.
He is also a decent man and a nice man. Few fail to warm to him personally. There is a niceness about him which is hugely appealing in personal and political terms.
But these qualities and achievements do not immunise him from the accountability that properly applies to holders of public office.
The Planning Tribunal has been inquiring into the circumstances that led to the extraordinary – and in many ways, outrageous – development of what is now the Liffey Valley shopping centre, alias Quarryvale. Among the allegations that have arisen in that connection is that Bertie Ahern facilitated in a questionable way the development of that site by personally giving, or directing others in the Department of Finance at the time (1994), an assurance that a rival site at Blanchardstown would be denied tax designation. And that in that connection he was given a substantial sum of money by the developer, Owen O'Callaghan.
We find this allegation that Bertie Ahern received monies in return for a favour implausible, given the nature of the man, his lifestyle and his general disposition. But it is right that the tribunal should examine that allegation and the hope is that the efforts to persuade the courts to prevent such inquiries will fail.
In the course of its initial investigation into these allegations, the tribunal, quite properly, asked Bertie Ahern to furnish it with details of his bank accounts and other financial records. And it seems evident from what has emerged recently that it saw at least three large lodgements in his accounts which required explanation. One of them, Bertie Ahern says, is a £50,000 lodgement which was monies he saved between 1987 and 1993 at a time when he had no bank account – apparently he lodged these monies into the account he opened in late 1993 or early 1994 after his marriage separation agreement was concluded in November 1993.
The claim that he managed to save £50,000 (€63,500) at a time when he was under considerable financial pressure after the collapse of his marriage in 1987 is deserving of investigation.
The next is the lodgement of a total of £38,000 (€48,260) which, apparently, represents loans received from friends and with which he paid off a bank loan he had taken out to finance the legal expenses arising in connection with his marriage separation.
And the third is a sum or sums totalling £8,000 (it is not clear whether this is sterling, punts or euros) from speaking engagements in Manchester.
These revelations, made by himself in the course of his riveting television interview of Tuesday 26 September, all raise questions which need to be resolved.
Unfortunately, the normal reticence that would apply to matters to do with a marital separation must now be partly set aside, for these matters are entwined with the inquiry into the allegations concerning him which the tribunal has been investigating.
There is the stark fact that Owen O'Callaghan gave a huge amount of money to Fianna Fáil in 1993/94 – £100,000 (€127,000). And there is evidence that the government of the day facilitated him in ways which raise questions about what was going on.
Whether this is inquired into by the Planning Tribunal before the election or not, we must be given answers before the election on the background to these apparent favours at a time when such monies were passed over.