Damaging to Fianna Fáil, fatal to the PDs
Michael McDowell has dealt what may transpire to be a death blow to the Progressive Democrats by his conduct over the Bertie Ahern payments saga. On Wednesday 27 September, he gave Ahern a clean bill of rectitude. He said: "I think it fair to say in the light of what the Taoiseach has stated that accepting such help was an honest error of judgment and was neither dishonest nor corrupt."
On the following day he said his statement of the previous day did not deal with the issue of the Manchester payments "because at that time we didn't have the facts". But as is obvious from the media comment on Ahern's contributions of the previous day, all the relevant facts on the Manchester monies were available then, it is just that the PDs did not wish to trouble itself with them until the media highlighted the issue. He went on to say on the Thursday: "I have to say that there are very significant matters of concern which are not completely put at rest by the facts now in the public domain."
But then, before any more facts were in the public domain, on the following day, Friday 29 September, he gave an interview to the Irish Times in which he said: "If the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, can give the Dáil a credible and convincing account of how he came to accept payments from businessmen while he was Minister for Finance, the Progressive Democrats would be prepared to continue in government under his leadership."
And then, when, manifestly, Ahern failed to give a credible account to the Dáil on the Manchester payments, McDowell and the PDs issued a further declaration of support for him, declaring he was "not unfit for office".
In his Dáil account of the Manchester function, Ahern acknowledged he made an informal speech and then engaged in an informal questions-and-answers session but that this was purely a personal occasion. If he had not been Minister for Finance, would he have been invited to give an informal speech or engage in a questions-and-answers session?
Aside from that, what credible answers did Ahern give for the lump sum "savings" of £50,000 which turned up in his accounts not as a lump sum of £50,000 but in dispersed lodgments? And as for the Manchester strangers and the Drumcondra friends contributing almost £25,000 to him in or around October 1994, a year after his marriage separation was out of the way, what prompted these donations? It could not have been the spectacle of him being in financial distress for, clearly, he was not.
And yet the PDs find all this is fine.
One thing is certain. No more can the PDs claim to be the "watchdogs" of Fianna Fáil. What difference would there be had Fianna Fáil obtained an overall majority in the last election, the frightening prospect of which caused McDowell to leap up lampposts in Ranelagh warning, "Overall majority – no thanks"?
As this crisis has gone on, the more serious are the questions that arise. For instance, is it credible, given his prevarications, obfuscations and evasions, that Bertie Ahern did not behave in the same way with the planning tribunal when they first started asking him about lodgments to his accounts?
Indeed, how swift was he in the first instance in responding to tribunal queries at all?
Did he immediately explain the £50,000 lodgment, or series of lodgments, as being the proceeds of savings over a period during which he had no bank account?
How did he explain having no bank account from 1987 to 1993 – what was to prevent him opening and operating an account in his own name?
This will do damage to Fianna Fáil in the coming election and do damage to the PDs, perhaps fatal and final damage (remember the party trustees were warning a few months ago that private polling was showing only two of the eight PD seats were safe – how many are safe now?).