Major political crisis looming for Bertie Ahern
Once the Opposition, the public and Fianna Fáil (in that order) begin to appreciate the seriousness of the revelations concerning Bertie Ahern's finances, there will be a political convulsion By Vincent Browne
It is of no surprise that the public has not yet appreciated the revelations about Bertie Ahern's finances in 1994-1995, since the leaders of the Opposition parties in Dáil Éireann have not begun to understand the significance of what emerged at the Planning Tribunal in September when the Taoiseach gave evidence.
In the Dáil debate on a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach on Wednesday, 26 September, neither Enda Kenny nor Eamon Gilmore showed any grasp of what had happened at the Tribunal, indeed hardly any grasp of what had been published in the newspapers concerning that. Instead they focussed on what is essentially a side issue – whether Bertie Ahern co-operated fully with the Tribunal (manifestly he did not).
Neither is there any evidence that Bertie Ahern's colleagues either in government or within Fianna Fail generally have begun to appreciate the significance of what has been disclosed. For that significance means that Bertie Ahern will be unable to survive as Taoiseach and as leader of Fianna Fail, however unfair a resignation in disgrace may be, given his other considerable accomplishments.
Two major problems emerged at the Tribunal.
Purchase of sterling
The first of them was the discovery that he had acquired Stg£30,000 in 1995 and offered no reasonable or credible explanation to the Tribunal how he acquired that or why he did not tell the Tribunal about this for several years.
He came up with the following two explanations, which, clearly, are contradictory.
First a bit of background, or at least the background that Bertie Ahern has offered. In early December 1994, when it seemed he was about to become Taoiseach on 6 December of that year, he had agreed with his Manchester friend, Michael Wall, to rent, with an option to buy, a property at 44 Beresford Avenue, Drumcondra, which Michael Wall was about to purchase (by this stage Michael Wall had never viewed the property, and, incidentally, neither had Bertie Ahern).
They agreed on Saturday 3 December to spend £80,000 on the refurbishment of this property which was virtually new, and which neither had ever seen. And for this purpose Michael Wall had brought from Manchester £30,000 in sterling in a briefcase, which he gave to Bertie and Bertie agreed to put up IR£50,000.
Celia Larkin agreed to handle the arrangements for refurbishment and she opened two accounts in her own name, into one of which she put Michael Wall's Stg£30,000 and into the other of which she lodged Bertie's IR£50,000.
Bertie has always claimed he never got Stg£30,000 from Michael Wall, it was always the latter's money and Celia Larkin was managing it for him (Michael Wall).
That is the background, now to the two contradictory explanations for coming by the previously undisclosed Stg£30,000.
A few weeks after Bertie's expectations of become Taoiseach had been disappointed, he decided to withdraw the IR£50,000 from Celia Larkin's account (this was on 19 January 1995). His first story was that he did this so that she would have it “handy” to make purchases of materials for the house, even though it would have been far “handier” for her had she the money in an account in her own name, instead of having it locked in a safe in Bertie's constituency office in Drumcondra, to which she did not have a key.
But then he said he had a change of mind and decided Michael Wall should handle the entire refurbishment of the house so he decided to change IR£30,000 of this IR£50,000 into sterling.
This was/is an extraordinary claim that in order to enable Michael Wall to pay for the refurbishment of a house in Dublin, he (Bertie) would change Irish currency into British currency, even though, clearly, Michael Wall would have been dealing in Irish currency in paying for the refurbishment to the house.
In any event, why would it have been more convenient for Michael Wall to handle the entire refurbishment, especially given that it was decided previously that Celia Larkin would handle the refurbishment and she was on hand in Dublin. And, by the way, it was apparent from Celia Larkin's evidence that she was unaware of any decision to by-pass her and leave the refurbishment arrangements entirely to Michael Wall.
But then Bertie Ahern offered an entirely different explanation which is even more curious. It was that he had decided not to proceed with the renting of the house with an option to buy and had decided to pay Michael Wall back his Stg£30,000.
His first explanation hinged on the decision to continue with the renting of the house. The second explanation contradicted that.
Curiously, if it was true that he had decided to opt out of the arrangement to rent the house with an option to buy, he failed to tell his good friend Michael Wall that. This was the person who would have been directly affected by the decision.
Even more curious, he failed to tell his then “life partner” (as he described Celia Larkin) that he was abandoning the arrangement to rent the home in which they were planning to live.
But the story is even more intriguing. Why, if he had planned paying “back” Michael Wall his Stg£30,000, did he not ask Celia Larkin to take the money from the account she had set up specifically for the purpose to holding that money? And what was this paying “back”? He had always asserted he never got money from Michael Wall, so why the pay “back”. After all, Michael Wall might have wanted to continue with his part of the refurbishment anyway.
So his story was/is that he purchased Stg£30,000 out of the IR£50,000 he had withdrawn from the bank on 19 January 1995, either because he wanted to continue with the arrangement to rent the house with an option to purchase and enable Michael Wall to undertake all the refurbishment himself, or that he did so because he did not want to continue with the purchase and wanted to pay “back” Michael Wall.
The killer punch in regard to all this is that there is no evidence at all he ever bought Stg£30,000. He first said he purchased the Stg£30,000 from his own bank at AIB Upper O'Connell St, Dublin. But when it became obvious this could not be so, for there was no purchase of sterling to that amount ever around those times, he said he may have bought the sterling in dribs and drabs either from this bank or elsewhere but says he cannot recall how he might have done this or arranged this or why he would have done this in dribs and drabs.
The story or stories are not remotely credible and it was evident from the response of Tribunal members (ie the three judges) that they too found the stories unbelievable. The only possible explanation is that Bertie Ahern got Stg£30,000 from a source he has so far refused to disclose. And this issue on his own will destroy him.
THE MANCHESTER DINNER
The other truly and literally incredible story concerns the famous Manchester dinner, at which Bertie Ahern allegedly got Stg£8,000. Although he was able to be quite specific about who the people who were at this dinner – very wealthy Irish ex-pats, who had made fortunes in Manchester and who had invested heavily in Ireland – he could not or would not proffer a single name to the Tribunal or otherwise to identify who these people were. Several of the details he gave concerned this alleged payment – it was all in Stg£50 notes (how plausible is it that several people at a dinner, asked to contribute to an impromptu whip-around (as is claimed) all would have large bank notes on them?).
The suspicion is that this Stg£8,000 came from some other source, a source so far undisclosed.
Bertie Ahern will be back at the Tribunal for a sub-module dealing with the non-sterling monies that emerged in his accounts – the IR£50,000 “savings” (which itself is quite implausible), the second “dig-out from friends” which raised IR£16,000, and of course the curious transactions with his bank – the Stg£30,000 cash with which Michael Wall allegedly arrived. He will also be back for a further sub-module dealing with the house in Beresford Avenue, involving the quite extraordinary decision by Michael Wall to bequeath the house in his will to Bertie Ahern before Bertie had purchased the house.
This is going to escalate into a major political crisis, perhaps endangering the survival of this government.