That a media commentator should be so publicly rewarded for this abandonment of the media's critical function in holding a Taoiseach to account is itself a corruption.Had Eoghan Harris been preferred for the illumination he often brings to public debate (however wrong-headed), the humour, the erudition (however contrived), the frenzied vigour and exhilarating eccentricity, his nomination to the Senate could be seen simply as a confident exercise of the Taoiseach's discretionary power in bringing to the upper house an alternative voice, an accretion to the gaiety of the nation.
But the reality is, as Harris himself implicitly acknowledged on radio on 3 August, the day of his nomination, the nomination was payback time. Payback for the uncritical support Harris gave Bertie Ahern in his hours of need last autumn when the controversy over his personal finances first arose and again when the controversy resurfaced in the course of the recent election campaign.
And perhaps also payback for the support the Sunday Independent gave Bertie Ahern in that campaign following the secret meeting between the controlling shareholder in Independent News and Media, Tony O'Reilly and Bertie Ahern at the outset of the campaign (see separate story on page 21).
At the very least this was a reward for damping down the media's entirely legitimate enquiries into the finances of the person who had been Taoiseach of the country for the previous 10 years and who was then campaigning for a third five year term.
Eoghan Harris stated in his columns in the Sunday Independent and on a Late Late Show appearance on the Friday before the election that the media enquiries into Bertie Ahern's personal financial affairs were part of a conspiracy to ‘drag down' the Taoiseach (he spoke of the media, collectively, having ‘decided' the campaign was going to be a nasty one, that it would decide who would lead the country, that Bertie Ahern was manifestly honest as was ‘evident' from his modest lifestyle).
One of the journalists who were prominent in enquiring into Bertie Ahern's personal finances was Eoghan Harris's colleague at the Sunday Independent, Jody Corcoran, who, according to himself was the one who briefed Michael McDowell on this issue on the weekend that the Progressive Democrats threatened to withdraw from government during the campaign.
Curiously, the outcome of Jody Corcoran's enquiries was not published in the Sunday Independent in the run up to the election.
Those media enquiries into Bertie Ahern's finances do not concern mere trifling issues to do with financial difficulties arising from his marriage separation and ‘dig out' from friends as Eoghan Harris claimed on the Late Late Show. That dismissal of the issue was a willful distortion of the facts and the serious questions that arise in the context of allegations that he received substantial sums while Minister for Finance from a property developer.
The following are the issues that arise: * That Bertie Ahern managed to ‘save' £50,000 in cash from 1987 to 1993, when his annual salary would have been considerably less than that per year, at a time when, presumably, he was paying maintenance and a mortgage and financing his own outgoings.
* That this £50,000 was kept in a safe at his office/apartment at St Luke's, Dromcondra, because, for reasons never explained, he did not have a bank account at the time, during this time he was negotiating the terms of a judicial separation agreement and it is not clear why this would have precluded him from opening a personal bank account, unless, by doing so, he ran a risk of disclosing details about his finances which he might have wished to conceal from his wife and from the family courts, in which case further important and relevant questions arise (and no, these are not private family law matters, for the issue of perjury would arise, which is a criminal offence and therefore is not a private matter).
* That he accepted £22,000 from friends in December 1993 to pay his legal expenses in the judicial separation proceedings, even though, according to himself, he had arranged a bank loan for that amount (according to him the loan from the friends was a commercial loan to be repaid with interest so there would have been no advantage in accepting the loan from friends). * That he accepted a further loan of £16,000 in October/November 1994 from friends who wanted to help him with the difficulties he had with his marriage separation arrangement but this was a year after his marriage separation was formalised.
* That he accepted a further £16,000 in October 1994 from associates in Manchester, none of whom he has been willing to name, aside from one who is now deceased. * That he accepted a further £30,000 from the Manchester friend, Micheal Wall, in December 1994, allegedly for the purpose of refurbishing a four year old house that Micheal Wall was prepared to purchase and then rent to Bertie Ahern and that Bertie Ahern was then committed to spending a further £50,000 on the refurbishment of this virtually new house, which he was planning merely to rent.
* That in the period 1994 and 1995 there were an extraordinary series of transactions through the bank in which he opened an account in 1994, some of these transactions apparently in dollar denominations. And there were further questions to press on Bertie Ahern, which, again, the media failed to do. These included: * Charles Haughey diverted well over £1m of monies intended for Fianna Fail to himself. We have known about this for several years now. As leader of Fianna Fail with a duty to look after the interests of the party, why did Bertie Ahern not insist on the return of those monies to the party (is there an apprehension if such matters were pursued it would lead to yet further revelations)? * We know that Tom Gilmartin gave £40,000 to Padraig Flynn in 1989 and intended that to be given to Fianna Fail. Why did Bertie Ahern, as bearer of a fiduciary to the party, not insist on these monies being forwarded to the party?
* We know from Ray Burke himself that he retained up to £100,000 monies intended for Fianna Fail. Why did Bertie Ahern not insist on that money being paid to the party? * He was told that Mark Kavanagh, the property developer, gave monies to Charles Haughey in June 1989, intending those monies to be lodged with Fianna Fail and that Mark Kavanagh never got a receipt in connection with that donation. How is it that when he heard of this, Bertie Ahern made no enquiries about the amount involved, the circumstances in which the money was paid and the reasons a receipt was not sent to him?
* Even when he discussed the issue with Mark Kavanagh we are asked to believe that in the course of that discussion no mention was made of the amount or of the circumstances in which they monies were paid? * Why did the government secretly support the bid by Tony O'Reilly's Valentia for the purchase of Eircom in 2000, knowing that an inevitable consequence of the manner in which he (O'Reilly) was proposing to finance that bid would be a failure to invest in broadband (the government gave a secret undertaking to Valentia ESOP, the employees' trust, that tax legislation would be amended to protect them in the event of they accepting the O'Reilly offer, an undertaking not disclosed to the other bidders).
Given what we discovered through Tribunal enquiries and otherwise about the finances of a previous Fianna Fail leader, it was entirely legitimate (indeed surely entirely incumbent) on the media to pursue questions about the Taoiseach's finances, even through, clearly, the scale of any impropriety could not have matched that of his predecessor. Nevertheless, the receipt of sums far in excess of his annual salary at a time when he was Minister for Finance remain a proper issue for investigation both by the Planning Tribunal and by journalists. These curious financial transactions coincided with alleged payments to Bertie Ahern by the Cork developer, Owen O'Callaghan, in 1993 and 1994, when Bertie Ahern was Minister for Finance. They also coincide with a time when a group of Manchester business people were seeking a license from the Department of Finance to open a casino in the Phoenix Park (on the site of the old racecourse there).
While there is evidence that Bertie Ahern ultimately opposed the casino project, there is also evidence that he was partial to the idea originally. This is not to suggest that Bertie Ahern ever received improper payments but certainly questions arise about his financial dealings at this time and it was entirely appropriate for the media to seek answers to legitimate questions arising in the run-up to an election. It was also entirely legitimate for the media to pursue issues to do with the strange failures of Bertie Ahern to meet his fiduciary obligations as leader and trustee of Fianna Fail and that extraordinary facilitation of the Valentia bid for Eircom. That the media failed to pursue these issues during the course of the campaign is cause for criticism. But that a media commentator should be so publicly rewarded for this abandonment of the media's critical function is itself a corruption.