The dog, six seconds of silence and the Browne inquisition
Opposition parties could not have hoped for a better start to the election campaign. An Irish Times opinion poll published two days before the election was called by Bertie Ahern last Sunday showed a dramatic increase in Fine Gael's approval rating to 31 per cent from 26 per cent in January. The increase came largely at the expense of Fianna Fail who slid three points to 34 per cent, bringing the Fine Gael-Labour alternative four points ahead of the incumbent coalition.
A second and more substantial setback for Fianna Fail would come the very morning of Bertie's visit to Áras An Uachtarán with the publishing of a Mail on Sunday story relating to a payment in 1994 of stg£30,000 in cash to Bertie's then partner, Celia Larkin, by the Manchester businessman, Micheal Wall, who would later become Bertie's landlord. Wall made the headlines late last year in connection with a conference held in Manchester in 1993 at which Bertie received stg£8,000. The revelation seemed sure to dominate the first week of the campaign.
While the press led with the payments scandal, Bertie was defiantly intent on getting on with the election campaign, and deflected questions about Wall's payment for most of the week. A photo opportunity at Paddy Power Bookmakers on Baggot Street on Monday provided some light-hearted respite for Bertie where awkwardly fumbled a distressed Labrador pup, prompting one pundit to quip ‘the dog must smell a rat'. On Tuesday came the famous ‘six seconds of silence' following a question relating to Bertie's personal relationship with Padraig O'Connor, one member of a group of eight ‘friends' who collectively gave Bertie a gift of several tens of thousands of pounds in Christmas 1993. Asked immediately following this question to disclose further information about Michael Wall's cash, the Taoiseach flatly replied ‘No'.
However, the payment controversy took a different twist at the Fianna Fail press conference on Thursday with Bertie engaging in a vigorous debate with Vincent Browne about the payment. Browne introduced the topic as being unrelated to the Mahon Tribunal and proceeded to press Bertie about having not previously disclosed the payment. Browne asked:
‘When you were making full disclosure of your financial dealings last September in your interview with Brian Dobson on RTE and in your subsequent Dail statements, why did you not disclose then that you received £30,000 in sterling in cash from Micheal Wall in your office at St. Luke's on the 2 December 1994, that was three days before you were expected to be elected Taoiseach for the first time… Why didn't you tell us last September about this?”
Bertie: “…that money was not money for me. It was his money for his affairs in his house. I hope that answers the question.”
Browne: “No it doesn't because first of all, you took the money and put it in your own bank safe, and secondly it was lodged in an account of your then partner. So this was money that either you or your partner then received. Now, why didn't you tell us about this last September when you were purportedly revealing all?”
“I revealed last year all of the issues that were relevant to me. The money you're talking about and the money that's been in the public domain was his money administered by Celia Larkin on his behalf. … My view is there's a place to do this, a place to discuss it, that's in the tribunal”
Browne then addressed the credibility that a sum of stg£30,000 (in addition to £50,000 of Bertie's own money) would be used to refurbish a four year old house that at the time was worth £140,000.
“Apparently, you are alleging, or you are claiming, that that £30,000 was for the renovation of a house, and that you were putting £50,000 towards that, a total of £80,000 for the renovation of a house, that was worth no more that £140,000 or £150,000 at the time, and the house was only three or four years old at the time… Your credibility comes into question in that regard.”
“And also in that regard, the question arises, what were you doing putting £50,000 into the renovation of a house you were purporting merely to rent, albeit with a purchase option.. a lot of people don't find it credible that £80,000 was for purpose of the renovation of a house worth £140,000, a four year old house.”
Bertie replied that he had given all of the details to the tribunal and reiterated that the money was not his, and that what Bertie revealed in 2006 about his financial affairs was solely about his own money.
Bertie continued to skirt the credibility of investing that sum of money in a house that he was going to rent.
In a final question, Browne turned to the disclosure of this money in the context of Bertie's separation at the time:
“In the affidavit of means that you swore in connection with your marriage separation, did you disclose the fact that you had £50,000 savings? If you did disclose it, why were you concealing the money in a safe, why didn't you put it in a bank account? If you didn't disclose it, were you deceiving the court?”
Bertie replied: “I was deceiving nobody in my personal finances both with Miriam Ahern and in my dealings everybody knew exactly where I was. The courts ruled that that was something that wasn't even available to the tribunal so I think it's unreasonable to ask me [about] that at a press conference.”
The exchange prompted a tsunami of media coverage and comments from political parties. Later on Thursday evening, party spokespeople stuck firmly to party lines when asked about the payments. Noel Dempsey asked people to move on from the payment issue, that Bertie clearly answered the questions put to him and that it was time to ‘focus on the real issues'.
Asked about his judgement on the payment debate and Bertie's and the Labour Party spokesperson Eamon Gilmore stuck firmly to the Labour line that they are seeking a change in government and of Taoiseach, but fell short of ruling out a Fianna Fail–Labour coalition following the election.
Asked if there is any way the Green Party would join a Bertie-led Fianna Fail in government, John Gormley said that it is up to the party membership, but that would be ‘very difficult' because the issue ‘simply doesn't add up'.
On Friday, uncertainty loomed over the possibility of a Fianna Fail-PD coalition in the next government should both parties' secure sufficient seats. Liz O'Donnell said that it is an ‘issue of public concern'. Having indicated earlier in the week that he would be content to return to office with Bertie Ahern, Michael McDowell said on Friday that “there are a number of things upon which [he] would want to reflect” in relation to the payment to Celia Larkin before negotiation a new coalition agreement with Fianna Fail.
Asked about Mc Dowell's comments, Bertie said that he thinks that ‘this government can get the numbers, that this government can continue for the next five years.'