So stamp duty disappeared completely at the Fianna Fail manifesto launch at the Mansion House yesterday. Not just for first time buyers. It vanished from Bertie Ahern’s explanation of 30 grand and Celia Larkin and house refurbishment and a Manchester businessmen.
It’s been such a bad week for Fianna Fail that its slogan – Now, the Next Steps – should have been renamed: Now, the Next Stumble.
But yesterday gave the party its first opportunity to reseize the initiative after a faltering start to its election campaign.
And after four days of Bertie Ahern being chased around from pillar to post by pesky reporters asking about why Michael Wall made a payment of £30,000 sterling to Celia Larkin, FF was confident it was able to finally produce a trump hand.
And as carrots go this was one of the Camberwell variety (this metaphor will be lost on those who didn’t see the film Withnail and I – but you can take it that a Camberwell Carrot is a biggie).
At last Fianna Fail had entered the stamp duty auction. If re-elected the party would abolish it completely for first-time buyers and also bring in generous increases in mortgage interest relief.
If ever there was a ‘come hither’ gesture to attract coy voters this was it. It didn’t matter that it was a complete u-turn, contradicting the vow of Brian Cowen that there was no way that Fianna Fáil was going to engage in that stamp duty auction. People vote with their pockets, strategists reckoned. It’s high time to roll the final credit on BertieGate, the Sequel.
But they hadn’t reckoned on a cameo appearances from Vincent Browne, the Horace Rumpole of Irish journalism. (And see the take of his magazine The Village on it here) After the standard questions on the manifesto, Browne stood up and began a dogged, unrelenting and dramatic cross-examination if the Taoiseach that didn’t abate for 10 minutes. It was electrifying stuff.
Browne wasn’t going to be deterred by anybody. Not by the FF handler who feebly tried to regain control of the roving microphone. Not by the hostile crowd of FF faithful who barracked him. Not even by Fianna Fail’s director of elections PJ Mara who tried to intervene. Boy, was he stopped in his tracks by Browne unmercifully.
“Might I remind PJ that 20 years ago at Fianna Fáil press conferences we attempted to press the then leader of FF on his financial affairs and we were obstructed in doing so.”
PJ was of course Charles Haughey’s press officer in the dark days of the 1980s. This was a complete shut out. All PJ could do was grin and bear it.
The gist of Browne’s case was this. Ahern was renting a house from the Manchester businessman Michael Wall in 1994. In December 1994, Ahern received £30,000st in cash from Wall in St Luke’s, money which was then lodged in Celia Larkin’s account.
And then in his interview with RTE last October, he said he had put £50,000 aside in 1994 for the renovation of the house. That was £80,000 in all for refurbishment and renovation.
But the house was only worth £140,000 tops at the time, Browne argued. Even with the £30,000, he contended, “it ain’t credible that it was for the purposes of the renovation of a house.”
Ahern stood on a raised state, at a podium, pooled in light. The spotlight in every conceivable meaning of the word was now on him. Under Browne’s relentless questioning, he spent a lot of time looking down at the lectern in front of him, and shifted position a lot – he looked more like a witness under pressure in a witness box than a political leader taking questions after the launch of a manifesto.
His explanation was – unsurprisingly - confusing and opaque in parts. At least after dodging the bullets all week he was now badgered into replying to the specific questions. The line of questioning was brilliant - specific and forensic; they gave him no wriggle room for venturing cross country in his answers.
There were inconsistencies and some big ones. On Monday, the Taoiseach described the payment as simply a “stamp duty issue”. By yesterday, stamp duty had disappeared completely from his explanation.
He said the £30,000st had at all times remained the money of Michael Wall, that it had been administered by Celia Larkin on his behalf, and that bills and invoices backing that had been furnished to the Tribunal. As for the other £50,000 he himself had set aside for ‘renovation”, he said he allocated it for renovation but that it was never spent on renovation. (The Irish Times has a new line on this story this morning)
“When I allocate money for uses, I’m entitled to do that. I earned the money. I got some of it from friends. It was my money.”
And suddenly all the demons were out. The one question that Ahern has avoided all week was no longer avoidable. On Wednesday, the Taoiseach had blanked a reporter for six seconds who had asked him about former NCB stockbroker Padraic O’Connor. O’Connor was apparently one of the friends who gave the Taoiseach a dig-out in 1994. But the Mail on Sunday reported that in a Tribunal statement O’Connor did not describe himself as a friend and stated the money he gave was not a loan but a contribution to Ahern’s constituency expenses. If that was true, it would lead to credibility problems for the Taoiseach.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach was asked about in by Sean O’Rourke on RTE and insisted O’Connor was a friend but accepted there might be confusion about the basis of the payment.
There was a strange paradox to the exchange with Browne. It completely overshadowed the manifesto launch.
To the horror of FF handlers, it also diverted attention away from stamp duty to Bertie payments. Their hope was the opposite - to divert attention away from Bertie payments to stamp duty.
But, oddly, by being confronted directly by Browne, Ahern may have swung things back in his favour. The media will parse and analyse and point out the many holes and inconsistencies. But the wider public out there may come to a radically different conclusion. Ahern was robust. In the bits shown on TV came across comparatively strongly. The public aren’t as forensic or exacting, and are also more forgiving – as events of last October proved.
He may have done just enough to draw a line under it for good – unless of course something else crops up this weekend.
Postscript: The story is still a live one today, and was given a bit of extra impetus by the Irish Times off-lead this morning. At its conference this morning the Progressive Democrats leapt into the fray for the first time, making a stronger condemnation of their coalition partners than the opposition combined.
Following the opinion poll humbling of last October, the two main oppositon parties have stood back from the latest episode.
Are the PDs electioneering. Is it another Ceacescue line - that is mainly for electioneering purposes?
This is an opinion piece from this morning's Irish Examiner