By Eoghan Harris
Sunday independent May 06 2007
FOR the first time in my life I am going to vote Fianna Fail. And if you care about the future of Irish democracy you will do the same. Because I believe the anti-Ahern campaign to be the most sinister, sustained and successful manipulation of the Irish media that I have seen in my lifetime.
My moment of truth came last Friday when listening to Morning Ireland. Almost as an aside, Charlie Bird revealed that Frank Connolly of the Mail on Sunday, was the brain behind the political campaign to parlay Celia Larkin's affairs into a media stampede which looks like trampling a Taoiseach to dust. As a bonus, Bird also inadvertently showed us why a gullible Irish media went along with it.
"Politicians are complaining about leaking, but Michael McDowell, as Minister for Justice, leaked a document in relation to the journalist involved in breaking this story, Frank Connolly, and nobody in Government criticised Michael McDowell for leaking that. So sometimes the dog comes back to bite you in relation to leaking." In sum, Bird tells us two things. First, he correctly identifies one of the hands behind the anti-Ahern campaign. Second, he tells us he can't tell the difference between what Frank Connolly does and what the Minister for Justice does. Bird is not the only one in the Irish media not able make this crucial distinction.
But, first, let me show you the big picture.
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The big picture is that Sinn Fein has both a strategic and a tactical objective in the coming General Election. The strategic objective is to finish off Fianna Fail in the Republic, the way it did the SDLP in Northern Ireland. The tactical objective is to create chaos in Fianna Fail.
In my view, Sinn Fein aims to replace Ahern either with a greener and more biddable Fianna Fail leader, or with a weak Fine Gael-led Rainbow, open to attack on the "national" question. To achieve their twin objectives, I believe the Sinn Fein dirty-tricks department provided leaks to certain prominent journalists which helped create what I call a "consensus stampede" in the media.
There are two reasons why this brazen manipulation met with such little scepticism. First, most of the media feel they gave Fianna Fail a soft ride in 2002, and are guiltily ready to go to the other extreme by being extra hard on Ahern in 2007.
Second, journalists are herd animals who have a horror of being caught outside the crowd. A singular view such as mine has no standing. This herd habit means that if you can start a stampede you can run the whole herd over a cliff.
Which is what happened last week.
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For the past three weeks, the Irish Times and the Irish Mailhave been firing shots - the blanks of Bertiegate Mark 2 - in the hope of frightening the herd. Last Sunday, Frank Connolly in the British owned Irish Mail finally succeeded in spooking the herd leaders.
In the past few days, Fianna Fail figured out that the Taoiseach is being targeted. Last Friday it claimed that the Taoiseach was the object of an orchestrated campaign. Actually, the Taoiseach is the object of two orchestrated campaigns.
The first, and least important campaign - although the Taoiseach might not think so, is the Irish Times campaign. This is the leaking of Mahon documents to the Irish Times, most likely by someone with Fine Gael sentiments. Although deplorable, this does not constitute a threat to Irish democracy.
The second campaign, the Sinn Fein/IRA campaign, has more opaque objectives. But there is no doubting its astounding success.
Starting last Sunday, they leveraged the low-circulation British-owned Irish Mail into a pole position whereby it persuaded RTE and the big circulation dailies to create a political crisis over the non-story of Celia Larkin's renovations. If it succeeds, they can claim to have helped take down the most brilliant Taoiseach of modern times.
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Last Sunday, Frank Connolly fired the first loud shots of Bertiegate Mark Two, in a huge front page exclusive in the Mail on Sunday, with the headline: "Bertie: The Money Trail". The following day the Irish Mail laid down supporting fire with the headline: "No questions no answers."
Monday's papers ignored the non-story. After all, Bertiegate Mark Two was just a more anaemic version of Bertiegate Mark One. But on Tuesday the Irish Independent cracked and followed the Connolly lead with a front page photo and caption, "Taoiseach says stg£30,000 for Celia was a stamp duty issue". RTE News followed suit. By Wednesday the Irish Mail gloated (correctly) that it had succeeded in stampeding the Irish media.
"If anyone imagined the Taoiseach could dodge the revelations of our sister paper, the Irish Mail on Sunday for three weeks, we now know he cannot. Three days in, the Taoiseach is now under even more intense pressure, as RTE and others rush to catch up with a story setting the entire campaign agenda."
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Last Thursday, at the FF launch, Vincent Browne, who is Frank Connolly's occasional employer in the Village magazine, took the Celia Larkin non-story to new lows. Browne appeals mostly to two extremes - menopausal male hacks who want to look macho, and impressionable junior journalists from DCU. But I find him hammy.
At the risk of offending Sean O'Rourke (who showed risible reverence to the old trouper) and Harry McGee of the Irish Examiner (who used the word "forensic" twice), I thought Browne's histrionics were as bogus as the import of his questions was queasily intrusive.
Browne accepted that the Taoiseach did not get money from Owen O'Callaghan. That meant there was nothing left in the non-story for him to paw through, except Celia Larkin's private affairs. Which he did. And I found it sick-making.
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Let me finish with the question Browne should have asked, if he was as good as O'Rourke and McGee and most of the gullible media groupies think he is. Cui Bono? Who benefits from Bertiegate?
Apart from the atrocity of degrading a Taoiseach who has brought prosperity and peace, Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte realise that in 4/5 constituencies, damage to Fianna Fail in Dublin will benefit no party except Sinn Fein. Hence their hands-off on the Larkin issue.
Securing seats for Sinn Fein is the objective aim of the anti-Ahern campaign. Flushing out that fact is real journalism. Just as obsessing about Celia Larkin is junk journalism.
The answer to all that, given Michael McDowell's wobbling, is to vote for a Fianna Fail-Labour coalition. I hope you agree with this singular view.
- Eoghan Harris
ON the contrary, Taoiseach, it is plenty of our damn business. We need to know whether the office of An Taoiseach translates, with depressing regularity, into: "On Take Shock".
The Mahon Tribunal uncovered a series of monster lodgements into Bertie Ahern's accounts, or accounts administered for his benefit, between December 1993 and the end of 1995.
The total involved appears to be more than €300,000 at current values.
The Taoiseach has yet to explain them, despite bleating, or alternatively snapping, about his marriage separation in 1987.
None of the dig-out stories convincingly hold any water -- and there are no bank withdrawals to back up any of them. Evidentially, they might as well never have happened, for if they happened (a huge 'If'), they did so without a trace.
Which is why it is absolutely noteworthy, as the tribunal patiently established yesterday, that these "close personal friends" of the Taoiseach were exceptionally tardy in riding to his financial rescue.
Mr Ahern told the tribunal yesterday he had separated in the months preceding his appointment as Minister for Labour in March 1987.
His immediate circle of friends knew of his separation, which appears to have happened just before the beginning of 1987, the Taoiseach agreed.
Thus two groups of his friends waited nearly another seven years (December 1993) in one case, and nearly another eight years (September 1994) in another, before being separately and independently seized on the idea that they should do something to help him financially. The same thought occurred to a group of Manchester men, miraculously.
And all three groups, in the space of a year, concluded independently that they should all shower the Minister for Finance with cash -- recordless, untraceable, wonderful cash. The knowledge that he had separated spread outwards from his close friends in 1987, Mr Ahern agreed. He did not receive any financial dig-out or contribution at that particular time. "No," confirmed Bertie shortly.
Nobody offered in 1987 any money to provide him with another dwelling house, even though they knew that he had nowhere to live at the time.
Yet these were the same friends, with two or three exceptions (David McKenna and Barry English) who allegedly made donations to the Taoiseach in 1993 and 1994.
Yet in 1987 he was already friends with Des Richardson, Gerry Brennan, Fintan Gunne, Mick Collins (now living in Australia; has not given evidence to the tribunal), Charlie Chawke, Paddy Reilly the Butcher -- all members of the first alleged "dig-out" band of December 1993.
None of them proposed at the time that they would make any financial contribution to our poor bedraggled Bertie. And of course three of the four Beaumont House "friends" are in the same boat -- Dermot Carew, Paddy 'The Plasterer' Reilly and Joe Burke all knowing Mr Ahern for many years prior to 1987.
Yesterday the tribunal, having previously suggested that no friendly dig-outs may ever have happened, went a step further.
For the first time it made suggestions, infuriating to the Taoiseach, which could give rise to a belief the Taoiseach did not have huge personal savings of £50,000-plus at the end of 1993.
If this "fanciful, elaborate hypothesis", in the words of Mr Ahern's senior counsel, were true, it would mean that more of the huge lodgements could not be saved as they could not be funded from savings -- and necessarily must have come from elsewhere.
Remember Mr Ahern's version is that he saved more than £50,000 while separated. The Taoiseach, we know, operated no bank accounts at all between 1987 and 1993, but at the latter end of that year began to lodge three times his net income at the time, including more than IR£50,000.
The two "goodwill loans" raised thereafter -- by the account of Bertie and pals -- came to IR£39,000, in addition to around Stg£8,000 allegedly collected at a Manchester dinner at an obscure date in 1994. Lots of money, and long after he really needed it.
Since he was saving cash, Mr Ahern had to agree that it could be the case that one of the first IR£50 notes he kept in 1987 could have been finally lodged seven years later. But the banknotes themselves changed during this period.
Bertie had no memory of there being notes in different forms. As Minister for Finance, he launched the new notes, and it "could have" prompted him to update his savings, although the old notes remained legal tender. "I could well have done."
He knew he was foregoing any interest that could be had in a bank.
"As I am sure you know, interest rates were particularly high when you first took ministerial office in 1987 and later on, in 1992 and 1993," purred tribunal counsel Des O'Neill, referring latterly to the currency crisis.
During the crisis one could get 19.5pc interest rates on overnight deposits, Ahern agreed, or "even higher." The Minister for Finance did not avail of them -- or give any consideration to any form of a savings plan which could maximise his legitimate returns.
Yet his later banking history shows considerable signs of bank transfers for optimum returns. The mystery deepens ...