Monday, May 14, 2007


It was – to borrow somebody else’s phrase – the last sting of a dying wasp.

There was no emotional TV interview. There were no catch in the voice. There were no tears. This wasn’t a politician tugging at the heart strings – this was a Taoiseach tugging impatiently at the exit door to leave BertieGate behind once and for all.

And in the end Bertie Ahern got it over with. The comprehensive statement came in a staggered way – the gist of it in a written response to questions in the Sunday Independent; and the whole shebang in a statement delivered at 2pm yesterday – about the only time in the week where the news cycle takes a siesta and gives way to sport. There are no talk shows and consequently the first real parsing of it was on the Week in Politics, late last night.

There were a couple of strange references in the statement that suggest it had been originally written for Ahern to read out.
“I hope you will bear with me as I give you a detailed account of these matters,” is the syntax of talk and not of prose.

But no matter if the strategy chopped and changed. No matter that it was released on the day the latest opinion poll spelt further bad news for Fianna Fail. “You know us, always going against the wind,” said one of its backroom people.

What mattered for Fianna Fail was two things. That it was comprehensive and complete enough for the PDs. The last thing FF wanted was for Michael McDowell to be so scunnered (a nice Scottish word that means very annoyed or devastated) to bring the edifice down. And it was comprehensive and complete enough to draw a line under it, as far as this election cycle was over.

Sure, they’d get another sting off the wasps – the swarm of journalists that is, not the opposition. For the leaders of the main opposition parties have reacted to questions about BertieGate in the way an elderly nun might react to a flasher. Recoil verging on speechlessness has been the standard response. It’s been a textbook example of standing up for your focus group findings.

And it was, in the end, a comprehensive account of the convoluted dealings surrounding his house near Griffith Avenue. It wasn’t just a lawyer putting words into Bertie Ahern’s mouths – there was a human element to it that explained things in a manner that will go down very well with ordinary people.

“I know that some people will fell that some aspects of my life are unusual. I am sorry if that has caused any confusion or worry in people’s minds All of these issues arose in a period when my family, personal and professional situations were rapidly changing.”

Some cynics will say that he has brought the soap opera that is his personal life and family into it, to again elicit a sympathy vote. But there wasn’t overkill. And he confronted the substantial questions relatively head-on, though “unusual” would only be the beginning of some of the aspects and transactions.

But like all Bertie Ahern’s public utterances, this one had its loose threads and its ambiguities. New questions keep cropping up – when one door closes, another opens.

The one thing that he does nails head is the alleged dollar lodgement. The Tribunal lawyers said that the £28,772.90 that Celia Larkin lodged (this was the £30,000 sterling that he says Michael Wall gave him for renovation and for stamp duty) represented the exact sum he would have received that day if he tendered $45,000.

But in his statement yesterday, he said it actually equated to $44,277.68 at the appropriate AIB rate. Either he’s wrong or the Tribunal is wrong. And if the Tribunal is wrong, it’s a fundamental error, especially as it knew that this allegation would be made public before the hearing began. That one has been knocked on the head.

But there are others that remain hanging. Why was that lodgement a mixture of sterling and punts. And that lodgement went through two accounts before going back into his safe in St Luke’s a month or so later. And then it was converted back into sterling for the purposes of paying back Mr Wall but then that didn’t happen and then may or not have been kept in his safe as sterling.

But the longest loose thread is a new one that he brought up yesterday in the interview. Last October, he was asked in the Dail about his tax liability arising out of the Dublin and Manchester dig-outs in 1993.

“I have been separately advised by two eminent tax advisers that I have no tax liability in respect of the Manchester moneys. The funds were from persons based in the Manchester area who are not based in Ireland and, therefore, the sums were not chargeable to gift tax,” he said.

But yesterday, he revealed that he has – on the foot of subsequent advice – made a provisional payment to cover any liability which could arise.

In his doorstep interview, he gave a few more details. He said the issue had arisen as to whether or not Michael Wall had paid UK tax. On that basis, he made a declaration.
“If I owe at the end it will be very little,” he said.

But that’s not the point. He may be opening himself to the charge of misleading – if inadvertently – the Dáil last October when he gave the impression that no tax liability arose. This may come back to haunt him. He was also Minister for Finance at the time – a person whose propriety in all things is supposed to be beyond question.

Privately, the main opposition parties were expected a full-blooded attack yesterday. In the end, it was a tempered statement. There is some ‘Empire Strikes Back’ sallies. He ridicules the allegations of Tom Gilmartin.

There is also dark talk about “malicious leaks” and the agenda to damage him and FF. He lists off the four leaks – including the alleged claims of a Garda driver that came from Fine Gael MEP. Yesterday he made an opaque comment about secret meetings in hotels in west Galway – almost reminiscent of the Famous Five and mysterious midnight activities at ‘smuggler’s cove’. From all that, it’s as plain as a pikestaff that FF believe there’s a vast conspiracy against them and that it’s FG that is behind it.

This whole episode has left a deep well of bitterness in FF. Everybody has had it in for them. The Mahon Tribunal. The alleged clandestine operations of their political opponents. An aggressive media - Ahern yesterday chafed at what he called its “lurid news headlines and copious details of my private life distorted, misrepresented and sensationalised.”

But, even if all that is true – and even if all the details were leaked with malicious intent – the problem for Ahern is that the dig-outs and the arrangements surrounding his house did raise very grave questions that went to his credibility. And in modern democracies, the credibility, honesty and trustworthiness of our politicians – especially our leaders – are paramount. Resent it as they do, it would have been a dereliction for the media to avoid it.

And Ahern has been lucky. In a bigger less personal country like Britain he may not have found understanding or forgiveness. Lucky though that his dig-out was venial compared to the ‘mortallers’ of Charlie Haughey. Lucky too that the people judged that against his undoubted achievements and said that the latter tipped the scales in his favour.

And by tomorrow, when he makes another historic address in Westminster, my guess is that this controversy will have died down and the election agenda will have finally moved on.

However, the last time we heard about the sting of a dying wasp in Ireland (over gangland crime), it turned out to be a singularly unfortunate phrase. This controversy has not gone away, has merely been postponed until polling day. The poison has gone into the bloodstream but there's a long incubation.

This is my piece from today's Irish Examiner.

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