end corruption,stroke politics, & incompetent administration

Low life in high places

A low life in high office

Friday, March 23, 2012

A witness to Bertie Ahern’s 14 days of squirming in the witness box of the Mahon corruption probe, political correspondent Shaun Connolly delivers his damning verdict.

IF Bertie Ahern’s tortuous testimony to the Mahon corruption probe had been live on TV, he would have been politically dead in the water within hours. 

Watching him squirming in the witness box day after day as he peddled ever more ridiculous "explanations" — now finally nailed as lies — for the sterling and dollar cash lodgements into his myriad of bank accounts was by turns embarrassing, grimly laughable, and ultimately nauseating. 

His contempt for the tribunal and the people he claimed to serve was obvious from the crass explanations he expected them to believe: 

"I won it on the gee gees." 

"These men I didn’t really know made me take it in Manchester." 

"It was from two spontaneous digouts a year apart from two separate sets of friends who had no knowledge of each other but wanted to give the finance minister enough for a deposit on a little house." 

Almost as nauseating was the way the likes of Micheál Martin and Willie O’Dea would then fan out across the radio and TV stations to defend his testimony and trash the tribunal. 

Sitting there, as I did, it became ever more depressingly clear that the then taoiseach was desperate to hide the truth about what was really happening in the 23 bank accounts he operated in the early 1990s. 

One soon became immune to the number of people supposedly turning up at his office with a briefcase full of grubby £20 notes. 

If friends weren’t pushing unsolicited "digouts" into his hands, then Manchester businessmen were having spontaneous whiparounds of stg£8,000 to thank the serving cabinet minister for enthralling them with news of growth rates across the Irish Sea. He didn’t want to take the cash, of course, but it would have been rude not to. That’s why all those lodgements started stacking up for a man who didn’t have a bank account for six years, yet claimed to have managed to save £50,000. 

Some moments stood out. 

During his last day of evidence, Ahern had just "explained" another lodgement into yet another account, when the more touchingly innocent of the tribunal’s senior counsels, Henry Murphy, said to him: "But that doesn’t seem to make sense." 

Oh, Henry. It’s Bertie and a bank account, of course it’s not going to make any sense — he’s a liar. 

Henry should really have known the rules of the game by then. 

First the tribunal would find a mystery sterling lodgement, then Ahern would try to brush it away with an extraordinary, often ludicrous explanation — "I won it on the horses, your honour…" — the inquiry would not be able to disprove his version there and then, and so we all move to the next mystery sterling lodgment — and on and on it continued. 

If the curious saga of Ahern’s purchase of his Drumcondra home had been dreamt up as a dark fairytale, it would have been called: The Liar, The Rich, And The Wardrobe. 

The probe heard it was Dec 3, 1994, and Michael Wall wanted to buy a Dublin house that Ahern could live in. The little Drumcondra palace is selected and an offer made. 

Then, without warning, Wall turns up at St Luke’s with a black briefcase full of stg£26,000 in £20 notes and "maybe" another IR£3,000 and plonks it open in Ahern’s constituency office in front of the finance minister, whose then partner Celia Larkin hovers close by. 

The money, we are told, was for a conservatory and refurbishments on the house, though no contracts had yet been exchanged and, Ahern was not aware the cash was coming. 

Despite the trifling matter that he (wrongly) expected to be elected taoiseach the following Tuesday, Ahern didn’t bother counting it, or even offer a receipt, we were told. 

Mr Wall insisted the cash spent the previous night dumped in his wardrobe at the Ashling Hotel. And that was the cast-iron explanation for why Ms Larkin deposited £28,772.90 into her account two days later. 

It was the punts equivalent of the (vague) amount given to the couple by Mr Wall. But, hang on, queried the tribunal; the original sum Ahern claimed he received from Wall, stg£30,000, could not translate into that amount of punts, but £28,772.90 does match $45,000 on that day’s exchange rates — to the penny. 

It was a variation on the theme when Bertie denied he was really the owner of Beresford Avenue and Manchester millionaire Wall was just a front name on the documents. 

Nobody could prove it wasn’t so, but things would make more sense if they could. Such as, why Wall would leave the house to his tenant Ahern in a will, and to Ahern’s daughters Georgina and Cecilia should their father predecease the official owner? 

The odds were always going to be long on Ahern coming up with a convincing explanation as to why he said only wages went into his Irish Permanent accounts when, in fact, a large wodge of sterling did, but few would have backed the tired old nag he tried to make a break for it on. 

It seems Bertie is the bookies’ worst nightmare; he just has to look at a filly for it to romp home and shower him in (British) cash, sometimes to the tune of £8,000. 

Which brings us to sorry tale of the £66-a-week secretary Gráinne Carruth which finally did for Ahern. 

She was crushed in the witness box as she tried to prop up Ahern’s testimony that sterling had never gone into his Irish Permanent accounts. 

It did, £15,500 worth of it, and Carruth had lodged it for him — despite initially saying she had not. 

The other woman who book-ended the tribunal was Larkin: "Henry," purred Celia, "Bertie dealt in cash. I think he felt more comfortable with it." The tribunal counsel kept a straight face, unlike the public gallery. 

With this came the only new fact of that day, that the then leader of the opposition had personally driven Celia to the AIB and waited outside while she collected 50 grand in cash — causing unkind members on the press benches to immediately refer to the vehicle as "the getaway car". 

But Ahern could always move fast. We all remember the suddenness of his dash across the park early one Sunday in May 2007 to shake down the President into dissolving the 29th Dáil just 13 minutes before she was due to leave for a transatlantic flight. 

That resulted in Judge Mahon postponing the beginning of the module due to start the next day, ensuring shock new sterling revelations did not appear until the polling stations shut — and Ahern was returned to power. 

So many other snippets: Paddy the Plasterer admonished for swearing in the witness box, Ahern forgetting to mention Wall was at the infamous Manchester gathering — not that he was being evasive; it was just Wall stayed in the bar and "didn’t eat the dinner"; the BT account for St Luke’s. 

Carruth’s evidence finally allowed Ahern’s critics to cut through the complexity of the taoiseach’s tangled finances and present one clear image to the public: He said only wages cheques went into his Irish Permanent accounts and Ms Carruth and the tribunal had proven that in fact £15,500 in sterling had done so. 

It was the moment the £66-a-week secretary set Mr Ahern’s delicate house of financial cards trembling — and with them his grip on power. 

The questions now remain: Who gave him the sterling and dollars? Why? And, most importantly, did they expect anything in return for it from the then finance minister? 

Money, often in cash and always large denominations, seemed to come easily to Mr Ahern in the mid-1990s, but convincing answers as to the source of that money has proved rather more difficult to locate since. 

How other democracies must have looked at Ireland in disgust as our then taoiseach squirmed in the witness box of a corruption probe — and after finally resigning, branded the judges "low lifes". 

Bertie may not know what truth is, but now we do — he’s a liar. 

It is Ahern who is revealed as the low life in high office.

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