Sunday, September 30, 2007


Late on Wednesday night right as the confidence debate on Bertie Ahern drew to a close we learned a lot about the leader of Fianna Fail.

He rose to his feet and spoke for a little over five minutes. But that's all we needed, nothing more. For in the course of a magnificent, spontaneous, and from-the-heart contribution we witnessed an immense force, an outburst of deeply impressive moral authority that is rare in an age like this.

The leader of Fianna Fail we are talking about is of course the next one, the anointed one, and not the current one.

Brian Cowen was magnificent on Wednesday and once again - as he has done all year - he recovered the situation when Bertie Ahern found himself in crisis. With Cowen, to quote Beethoven, what comes from the heart goes to the heart.

The recipe for Ahern's own speech earlier was a little less ambitious. It contained a couple of tablespoons of lemon zest. For its clear bitterness lingered in his mouth for that hours that he sat silently fuming as as the opposition branded him as a liar.

Cowen sat beside Ahern for the duration of the broadside against him, giving an air of a man who was weary of listening to all the platitude and cliché. For FFers, that was a big thing, a demonstration of Cowen's loyalty to the organisation, and, by extension, to its leader.

But when his turn came, he quickly departed from the script to give a sermon on political values and on morality. Cowen quickly branded the opposition as hypocrites and opportunists. In doing so, he made the credible argument that they had only discovered high standards and morality after the election. Before polling day, he argued, they back-pedalled from BertieGate more quickly than a professional cyclist on dope, because they knew that by taking him on on this issue was like walking straigt into a haymaker in the first round.

The general point of Cowen's was the default position of all the Government parties that day. To wit: "The Tribunal will be the arbiter. If we are to avoid arbitrary justice let the Tribunal proceed with its deliberations," he said.

Green leader John Gormley also used this argument. But you have to understand that he had no choice. When the Greens agreed to Government, they understood that it entailed a Mephistophelean deal. They knew, they just knew, that their condemnation of Fianna Fail's dubious moral compass in the run-up to the election would be rendered hollow. Gormley may have quibbled with the nuances of the Fianna Fail countermotion to Enda Kenny's motion of no confidence. But that was sophistry. The Green Party - for not the first time and not the last time - had to swallow hard and back the Government, even though they knew it meant a demeaning compromise.

The most potent moment of Cowen's speech came when he lectured his adversaries the following thought: "I know right from wrong".

It was utterly believable, utterly compelling. And it made his case as a natural leader for his party. What we witnessed was a person who was the personification of the heart and soul of his party and what it represents and stands for. The problem, from a Fianna Fail perspective, is that the jury is out on whether or not his boss stands for that, and if he can distinguish between those relative values of right and wrong.

Later on Wednesday night, I spoke to a couple of TDs who would consider themselves Cowen's most ardent supporters. And they spoke about his speech that night in much the same way as Kerry supporters spoke about Colm Cooper's magic in the All Ireland final. The other pretenders - Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan (Micheal Martin was playing an away fixture in the US this week) - all made perfunctory and pedestrian speeches during the debate. But Cowen in an unscripted and spontaneous way rose to the occasion, found the perfect pitch and tone, as he had done during Fianna Fail's darkest moments of the election campaign.

There's been a lot of old guff about the disconnect between us anoraks and Joe Public on this issue. I'm sorry but it's my belief that Bertie Ahern, the most successful Irish politician since the utterly unique Eamon de Valera, is now damaged goods, with serious questions surrounding his credibility.

A very senior Green politician to whom I spoke on Wednesday night offered the opinion that Ahern will step down during the Christmas recess. I don't believe it will happen that early, just as I don't belive that Ahern will stay on until he is 60.

Cowen loyalists at a senior level want Ahern to step down prior to the European elections in less than two years time. Like Gordon Brown, they believe the Tánaiste will need time to impose his imprint upon FF before the next General Election in 2012. Unlike Gordon Brown though, Cowen's loyalists do not necessarily speak on his behalf. For them, there is an element of proxy wish fulfilment. Sometimes you feel he is prepared to play the bridesmaid role forever!

Whatever, when he imposed himself on the debate this week, we witnessed a force, a force that's potentially strong enough to win a fourth General Election for Fianna Fail. It's time for him to get off the fence, to identify a date for a painless and seamless succession.

This is my column from Saturday's Irish Examiner

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Nobody actually openly accused Bertie Ahern of lying yesterday. But if you were to look up a thesaurus, you’d find that just about every possible alternative word for ‘lie’ was used by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore when describing the Taoiseach’s evidence to the Mahon Tribunal.

There is a basic rule in the Dáil. The ‘L’ word may never be uttered. In the past, we have seen some creative words and phrases being employed: dissembling; misleading the Dail; untruth; ‘being economical with the truth’.

But yesterday was of a different order. The L word was never uttered. But during the motion of confidence – and let’s make no mistake about – it was clearly meant. There was to be no softening of the blows. To all intents and purposes – but without every actually saying so – Kenny and Gilmore accused the Taoiseach of lying and lying and lying again.

During a heated, angry and self-evidently bitter debate on the motion of confidence in the Taoiseach – the first motion brought since one against Albert Reynolds in November 1994 – Ahern found himself being accused of giving incredible accounts, of fabricating, of not being credible, of creating smoke screens, of gelling bizarre and shifting tales. And all of this was said under oath, during his 18 hours of evidence to the Tribunal.

The charges that Kenny and Gilmore laid were far more serious, far graver than most of us had anticipated. Not alone did they accuse him of the L word. They claimed that most of the events that he has based his entire defence on never took place. They contended that events recalled by Ahern in interviews and under oath to the Tribunal – the famous Manchester dinner, the dig-out from friends, the Michael Wall payment, the purchase of £30,000 sterling – never took place.

This was the core of Kenny’s argument in one of the best speeches he has made since he becoming leder: “Most of the events we were discussing never happened. In my view, in my opinion, they’re fictitious. Complicated stories, part of a web of complicated stories designed to mask hard facts. Constructed stories to fit known facts.”
Phew! That was strong stuff and potentially as corrosive as sulphuric acid. And though he didn’t say it either, what Kenny also suggested that Ahern was on the take when he lodged amounts between 1993 and 1995 that equated to €300,000 in today’s terms.

“We have heard no credible explanation from the Taoiseach for these lodgements. In the absence of such an explanation the deep suspicion must remain that these lodgements were a result of personal contributions made to the Taoiseach.”
And in a speech designed to – and which probably did – get under Ahern’s craw, Kenny quoted lines from Des O’Malley (“I stand by the Republic”) and Jack Lynch (“we cannot stand idly by”) to make unfavourable comparisons to Ahern. He also quoted from Charlie Haughey to make even more unfavourable comparisons.

Gilmore, making his maiden speech as the new Labour leader, went over the same ground. He recalled the Taoiseach recalling next to nothing about the dinner in Manchester and then pointed out that Ahern claimed on the Late Late Show in 1998 that one of his best attributes was a good memory.”

His recurring theme – in a speech that was serious and under-stated - was that he did not believe Ahern, that the Taoiseach was making up cock and bull stories.

“I don’t believe him. Most of his own deputies don’t believe him and the public clearly doesn’t’ believe him either,” was a phrase that was uttered more than once.
And this is Taoiseach’s big quandary. There’s a serious credibility problem there that can’t be explained by unusual circumstances or his marriage break-down or by what he described as his ‘unorthodox affairs’ during his marital separation in the 1990s.

Yesterday he again urged people to read the 18 hours of transcript. But anyone who reads it will be no clearer about all those information and credibility gaps. If anything they will be bewildered and more confused.

He – and all his Ministers who spoke – also argued that there was not a scintilla of proof to back up the central allegation made by Tom Gilmartin that he took payments from Owen O’Callaghan.

Joe Higgins was spot-on last week when describing the use of this particular blatant diversionary tactic. Higgins gloriously employed a famous Bertie-ism to describe Bertie dragging Owen O'Callaghan and Tom Gilmartin in:

“It’s throwing red herrings at white elephants.”

But it’s not about Tom Gilmartin any more. It’s about all these odd transactions, all these unremembered and half-remembered sterling and Irish sums passing through accounts controlled by him. And why his explanation of them is of the ‘the dog has eaten my homework’ type.

He was effective in pointing out the belated courage of both Fine Gael and Labour in going for his political jugular. “One day they blow hot and the next day they blow cold. Last May to them due process was an excuse not to comment but today, political accountability is the pretext for their questioning.”

He repeated his defence against allegations made in the Tribunal, rebutting allegations that he had delayed or not cooperated or dissembled. But it’s all a bit conditional. He said he waived confidentiality on bank documents and consented to the Tribunal obtaining discovery against AIB. But he forgot to mention yesterday that he only did so when forced to by the opposition.

And as for changing his evidence he asserted: “The fundamental of my evidence have remained the same. I have added some detail and elaborated in some areas for reasons which I shall explain…. It is a matter of reality that one’s recollection can be helped as new information comes to light.”

And in a day where little love was lost, where both sides strongly signalled that the 30th Dail will be a tenser, colder House, he accused his political foes of “stretching the available evidence with malign invention.”

The thrust of the Government defence, put most passionately by Tánaiste Brian Cowen in the closing speech (and boy does he sound like leader-designate) the opposition were hypocrites in that they had only discovered high standards and morality after the election, where before polling day they back-pedalled from BertieGate more quickly than a professional cyclist on dope.

“I know right from wrong. And the Tribunal will be the arbitrer. If we are to avoid arbitrary justice let the Tribunal proceed with its deliberations.”
Ahern sat through it all, uncomfortably. It’s clear he finds it all, as he said in his speech, unseemly and intrusive. For him once no evidence is adduced of payments from Owen O’Callaghan, the rest is nobody’s business. The payments were, as he put it, being “assisted by friends”. In his moral compass, he did nothing wrong. He made a big deal of paying back €100,000 but he only did that when he had to (in 2006), when the outing of the payments last year forced him to do that.

And if he was uncomfortable, the Greens seemed to be squirming in their seats. Trevor Sargent, Eamon Ryan, Ciaran Cuffe and Mareey White didn’t clap at the end of Ahern’s speech as the loyal FFers did, but we were later told that nothing turned on that. The opposition reminded the party of how quickly it had rolled down from the high moral ground into the swamp. Trevor Sargents excoriations of FF in the run-up to the election campaign were recalled. And when John Gormley finally made an appearance in the chamber shortly after 8pm, he said little more than he would wait until the Tribunal reported. He then resorted to the magician’s trick of misdirection by reciting Green policy objectives in Government. There are times to talk about climate change but last nights was not one of them.

The L word was never used. They didn’t have to. This was the most serious attack Ahern faced in 30 years of politics. Strategically, the Government banked completely on the Tribunal report. When it does report (will it be next year or 2009?) if it criticises him to any serious extent, he will be a goner. One senior Green Party person thought privately that it might be as soon as the Christmas break.

We have all gone through the disconnect between the media and Joe Schmo out there. But no matter how you look at this one, Bertie Ahern has been damaged.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Bertie Ahern will survive but for how long? Nets, tridents, spears and those funny clubs with the spikes in them are being readied for tomorrow. It will be gladiatorial. That's a posh way of describing the schemozzle that will take place. Taoiseach will survive but not without shipping some very very heavy blows. His credibility, in not in tatters, has been severely dented by his appearance at the Tribunal.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


On Politics
Harry McGee
The best quote of the week about the Tribunal came from a woman who did a vox-pop for radio on Thursday.

“If Bertie Ahern fell into the Liffey,” she said, “he would come out of the water dry.”

There was a sense that Bertie Ahern performed much better on his third day in the witness box. The reason for that was that he stood his ground. He conceded no inch of territory without putting up a fight. He also jostled for position with Des O’Neill, not allowing the Tribunal lawyer all his own way in dictating what questions would be put and how Ahern’s answers would be framed.

And the answers? Every time he spoke a thick fog descended on the armoury room in Dublin castle. Once you began wading into it you were hopelessly lost. Ahern gave a masterful display of incoherence, using all the tricks in his bag including sentences without subjects or objects, often without verbs and sometimes with six or seven different clauses, none of which were related to each other. And in all that fog you couldn’t see your hand in front of you… or in Bertiespeak, you wouldn’t be seeing if you weren’t looking at all for your hand, or the other way around. (Miriam Lord captured this wonderfully in her column in the Irish Times yesterday)

There’s a theory that’s doing the rounds that it doesn’t really matter how Bertie fares in the Tribunal. Even if they rip him apart, there’s a big disconnect between what smart lawyers and smartass journalists think and what Joe public out there thinks.

There are several pieces of evidence to back it up. Exhibit A is the opinion poll from last autumn that showed Ahern’s popularity went up after the story about his finances first broke. Exhibit B is the General Election which Fianna Fail won (and handily) despite the first two weeks being dominated by Ahern’s finances.

This week Charlie Bird mused that all of the detail might be going over the heads of ordinary people. And on Thursday morning the political commentator and former Fianna Fail candidate Noel Whelan suggested on RTE radio that the only real political implication it would have for Ahern is that it was taking, and would take up, a considerable chunk of his time.

That was extraordinary by any standards. It’s an inconvenience and nothing more. It doesn’t matter about him being economical with the verité. It does’t matter either that there’s a whiff of sulphur surrounding his personal finances. Because the counter-argument goes: It’s Bertie we’re talking about here. The anorak man. As honest as the day as long. Into his beers and matches.

And no matter how incontrovertible the evidence, his adoring public won’t allow him to be knocked from that pedestal.

Personally, I’ve had mixed feelings as I’ve watched the action slowly unfold. For the first two days of evidence, Des O’Neill presented a laboriously slow but effective case that Ahern hadn’t been as co-operative with the Tribunal as he had suggested. It’s now clear he produced some of the evidence only when he had to.

For example, as late as April this year he accepted for the very first time that there were two big sterling transactions. His acceptance came after the Tribunal presented conclusive evidence to him that he’s lodged £30,000 in sterling into two accounts in 1995.

It was only then – in April this year – that he began to tell the story about him using money out of £50,000 he withdraw in January of 1995 to buy the £30,000 in sterling he later lodged into the accounts.

Last week, I thought certain media people made a rush to judgment saying it was death by a thousand cuts etc. I was inclined to agree with Judge Feargus Flood’s view that the Tribunal will ultimately make no major adverse finding of wrongdoing against Ahern. I think though that he won’t be spared from criticism, and maybe very severe criticism.

But this week was different. When the consensus was he was doing better, to me Thursday afternoon was his nadir. And the reason? I just can’t buy his story about the £30,000 sterling, Not in April when he came up with it and not now – especially not now when he’s chopping and changing his story so often. And his telling of it has been shabby.

That was a massive sum back then. And there are no records in AIB of any such transaction. On Thursday he offered a brand new explanation. It could have been exchanged in another bank, or maybe in no bank at all. Or he could have got somebody to do it for him. And as he was travelling all over the country, it could have happened anywhere. Or it could have been done by instalments.

It was breath-taking stuff and covered all bases and eventualities. Does it matter? Of course it does if you care about integrity, credibility and honesty. But will it matter? Apparently not. No matter how much of a soaking they give him, Anorak Man will always emerge dry.

Friday, September 21, 2007


There’s a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Fifty Grand. It’s about a boxer on the decline who bets against himself and then takes a tumble in the ring. At the end of, the hero checks out of the story with a killer line: "It's funny how fast you can think when it means that much money”.
If you’ve ever read Hemingway, you will know that his writing was so disciplined that his fiction appears as fact. He applied a strict rule that if it didn’t read like real life, it just didn’t go on,
With Bertie Ahern his ‘fact’ often appears as fiction, not so much real life as unreal life. Take his own not-so-very-short short story also called Fifty Grand. This is the £50,000 that Ahern lodged into Celia Larkin’s account in December 1994. And boy what a saga surrounds it. Did he withdraw it the following month simply because he preferred to deal with cash? Or wanted Celia Larkin and Micheal Wall to get on with it? Or because he was thinking of not buying the famous Beresford Avenue house after all?
And what did he do with it? Did he save it? Did he spend it? Not at all. This is Bertie Ahern we are taking about. Around the house and mind the dresser! The fifty grand went on a merry wander being lodged, withdrawn, stashed into a safe, withdrawn, partly converted to sterling, lodged in dribs and drabs to two different accounts over 12 months. In fact, it was recycled with a totality usually only found in Green Party manifestos.
In the afternoon of the third day of the Taoiseach’s appearance at the Planning Tribunal, the cross-examination finally got to the heart of the matter. To say that the tortuously slow pace of Tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill has been snail-like would be to do an injustice to small shelled insects everywhere. As an audience experience, it has sometimes felt a little like Open University quantum mechanics… in slow motion.
But exhaustively slow as it has been, it has been cleverly designed. Yesterday morning, O’Neill put up a chart showing the five big foreign exchange transactions that Ahern made between October 1994 and December 1995. He got the Taoiseach to agree that they were all memorable, collectively and individually. And that set the tenor for the entire day.
And I will paraphrase seven hours of questioning into one line: if they were all so memorable why the hell does the Taoiseach remember so little about them or has had to refresh his memory with new details so often?
All day, O’Neill returned again and again to Ahern’s dealings with the Tribunal over two and a half years, He probed him on why he omitted so much material information until so late in the process. He also questioned him on why his accounts have changed, sometimes with each telling.
In the morning, the thrust of his questioning seemed to centre once again on the issue of Ahern’s compliance. At one stage, O’Neill accused Ahern of being in “clear breach” of his obligations to comply with an order of discovery. But this was revisiting much of Thursday and Friday’s evidence and you wondered what was the point of it? Eas the Tribunal team going to content itself with making a case that Ahern had not fully cooperated with the Tribunal?
But then in the afternoon, the tack changed. Again O’Neill cleaved to the chronology, again asked Ahern why he had been shy with information, why he had introduced changes into the narrative. But now it wasn’t about compliance. It was about testing the credibility of Ahern’s story. And gradually (everything is gradual in Dublin Castle) O’Neill began zeroing in on the amazing story of Bertie’s fifty grand.
Just before we get into the nitty-gritty details, it must be said that Ahern had a stronger day. He conceded nothing and quibbled over, challenged, contextualised, every area of consensus that O’Neill tried to establish. And he refused at all times to give a straight yes or no, and took potshots at O’Neill’s questions at every opportunity.
“What you want to do is to speak endlessly and get me to say yes or no,” he said to him at one stage.
At another juncture he objected to O’Neill’s use of the word ‘behaviour’ when describing the withdrawal of the fifty grand from the bank.
“I hope you don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with me taking out money out of the bank account… I hope Mr Gilmartin gets the same grilling as I am,” he said with pencil thin lips.
That said, the story about the fifty grand gets longer and more convoluted each time Ahern tells it. And each times he tells it, it sounds less convincing, creates more of a credibility gap.
Bear with me, this is the boring detail bit and will take a little work. The fifty grand was money that Ahern had in two accounts and that he transferred to a new account Celia Larkin opened in December 1994. This was money, he said, that she was going to use to decorate Ahern’s future house in Beresford Avenue.
Ahern didn’t tell the Tribunal about the fifty grand in the Order of Discovery, but did mention it in the covering letter. The first time the fifty grand was mentioned specifically was in a report accountant Des Peelo compiled on Ahern’s financial affairs in April 2006.
Then and up until February of this year, the story about the fifty grand was simple. It was lodged in Celia’s account. It was taken out as cash a month later in January 1995. He kept it in his safe. In all 30 grand of it was spent on the house, with the balance of £19,142 being relodged into his account the following Christmas.
But then after April this year, the story became more complex. At a private interview with the Tribunal it was established that two lodgements – in June 1995 and the Christmas lodgement – involved £10,000 and £20,000 sterling respectively. Ahern agreed and now faced a bit of a quandary.
His problem was this. It was the very first time that some £30,000 in sterling was mentioned. He had sent a letter explaining the fifty grand to the Tribunal in February and never mentioned sterling. And then in April, he told the Tribunal that he now recalled that he exchanged Irish money into £30,000 sterling sometime between January and June of 1995.
The major difficulties Ahern has faced about this is that since April his explanation of why he changed the money and how he changed the money was shifted considerably.
Some of the closest questioning on this yesterday came from Judge Mary Flaherty and Judge Gerard Keys. First the why. Before April, he said he took the £50,000 out because he preferred cash. In April, he said he changed 30 grand of the 50 grand into sterling to allow Micheal Wall and Celia to refurbish the house.
And then last week, in his opening statement, he introduced a new line to the Tribunal– that he had thought about backing out of the deal with Wall to rent and then buy, and had got £30,000 sterling to give back to him. He then changed his mind.
“The explanation is an entirely different explanation. They are like polar opposites. You are intimating that you are walking away from the project,” said Judge Flaherty.
Ahern was able to show that he had given the latest explanation as long ago as May 13 during the election campaign. But the shifting sands of it did stretch credulity. What he has to show is that he is not changing his story to fit in with newly-emerged facts. And so far he’s not doing a good job of it.
Nor was he on safe ground when it came to explaining how he changed it? Thirty grand in sterling was a huge sum in 1995. There are no records in AIB of the sum being exchanged. Ahern remembers the 30 grand or thereabouts being changed into sterling but can’t remember when.
Ahern would need to notify the bank, Judge Keys reminded him. Yes, said Ahern before unfurling a whole new explanation. He might have withdrawn it by instalments, or might not have done it in a bank at all. As new leader of FF he was clocking up 120,000 on the chicken and chips circuit and might have got “somebody to do it on my behalf”.
So there you have it. Speaking of fiction, he used a classic device of murder mysteries. It was called muddying the waters.
Ultimately, I tend to agree with the former chairman Feargus Flood who said this week that he doesn’t think the Tribunal will make a finding of impropriety against him.
But that said, Ahern’s credibility and his reputation as the anorak man have taken an awful pounding. What was that line from Fifty Grand? It’s funny how fast you can think when it means that much money.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Question: What’s got a trunk, floppy ears, massive legs and grey crinkly skin?

Answer: A Fianna Fail press conference.

We had 50 minutes of it yesterday at the Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting at Druid’s Glen including a 15 minute marathon answer from Tánaiste Brian Cowen on the economy, construction, the fundamentals, soft landings, liquidity, Northern Rock, Kerry’s victory in the All Ireland, and the spillover the sub-prime market in the US has globally.

And all the time stampeding from the corner was the elephant but the ignoring of said vast grey mammal by the top table at Fianna Fail was admirable.
When the inevitable question arose about the Mahon Tribunal, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern went into schtum mode, as he had done when being harassed by reporters during the election campaign. The question, when it arrived, was adroitly posed by TV3’s Ursula Halligan, who asked him how people had reacted to his appearance last week.

He wasn’t going to go there, he said. When she persisted, he just clammed up, pursing his lips into a rictus smile. There was a brief embarrassed silence, nothing like the extraordinary eight seconds of silence that occurred during the election campaign. But the message was clear; the subject is off limits.

The Taoiseach’s uncomfortable journey through his own marathon examination at Mahon has been the undertow of the two day annual think-in of the parliamentary party. To be sure, it was never going to be any other way, given the fact that the think-in is now sandwiched between his two appearances. But it was clear that everybody in the party was following the Boss’s lead – by saying nothing. The only thing of significance that Ahern said was that Willie O’Dea was a “great minister”. That was in response to the remarkable free run O’Dea got in the Sunday Independent to take a swipe at its Tribunal.

Ahern’s problems with his personal finances have overshadowed everything in Fianna Fail since the story first broke exactly a year ago. It panicked Ahern into calling the election early, gouged into his party’s election campaign for an agonising two weeks and is still dominating the party’s agenda in the autumn, just as the Dail returns to business proper. And if he thinks the reporters’ questions are offside, wait till the opposition parties begin to take a cut off him next week in the Dáil.

This is the extent to which it dominated. The other Fianna Fail-related story of the story was the controversial axing by Aer Lingus of its service from Shannon to Heathrow. This think-in was the first opportunity that backbench TDs from the mid-west had an opportunity to vent their frustration publicly over the issue and the Government’s cack-handed handling of it.

Yesterday, nobody brought it up at the plenary session. Nobody that is except the unexpected figure of Senator Mary White (not really associated until now with the save the stopover campaign) who took a huge cut at the leadership for abdicating its responsibility and also reportedly dressed down the Taoiseach’s special adviser Gerry Hickey for shaking his head in disagreement. We have written before about FF rebellions but it was clear that there was no appetite for mutiny yesterday. In previous years, White may have got a round of applause. But yesterday, there was silence.

In recent years, party strategists have realised that the think-in is a good way of capturing the news agenda in the slowish weeks before the Dáil returns. And so every year, there is at least one new initiative and one core message, each drip-fed in a coordinated way to the media. They took on an extra importance for the party this year, in that they would help distract the public’s attention – if only temporarily – from Mahon.

This year’s initiative was FF’s proposal to attempt to do in the North what Sinn Fein is doing in the South. It all sounds very grand except we have heard it all before, at Ard Fheiseanna over the past four or five years. And it’s all very vague. It might or might not involve a tie-up with the SDLP. It might or might not involve Fianna Fail establishing an electoral presence in the North. That only thing that’s solid is that yoke that is beloved of all political parties, a high-powered committee, has been formed to look into it. This one will be chaired by Dermot Ahern.

One other major announcement – the probability that we will have two referenda (one on Europe; the other on children) within the next 12 months. Will the age of consent be broached? Again Ahern was very circumspect, saying that it would be very hard for all parties to reach consensus on this.

The core message was simple – the economy stupid. On a day when Irish customers of Northern Rock began queuing for their money at its only Irish branch on Harcourt Street, it was important for the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to come out with a positive line.
There was no need to panic, was the key message.

Or be to verbatim about it, this is what Ahern actually said:
“There is no place for negativity. No need for any pessimism. Above all, there is no place for politically motivated attempts to talk down the economy and the achievements of our people across all sectors.”

Ahern was particularly dismissive of one headline that said the economy was crashing.

“They are not economists who say things like that. Anyone who says that knows nothing about nothing. You wouldn’t give them a dime going down to the shop.”

He and Cowen accepted that construction had ‘moderated’ or was facing a soft landing. The figures behind those euphemisms are that new starts on houses will fall from 90,000 last year to 75,000 this year to as low as 60,000 next year. And double digit growth in departmental budgets ain’t going to happen next year. The message from Cowen was that it all must be manageable and sustainable.

This was the first PP meeting after the election and it was low-key, subdued. Especially compared to the high octane ones beginning in 2004 at Inchdoney when FF revved itself up into election footing.

This was as flat as the plains of Kildare. Not because it's the beginning of a long slog (the 2012 election), but because it's right in the middle of one (Ahern's money problems).

Monday, September 17, 2007


The Sunday Independent's coverage this weekend of Bertie's woes at the Mahon Tribunal was staggering. It allowed its second favourite politician (Willie O'Dea) hectares of newspaper space to mount a propaganda counter-attack on behalf of its favourite politician (no guesses there).

No matter how weighty the evidence is against the Anorak, the paper's take is that s a conspiracy cooked up by the Tribunal, or by the lefty-liberal Cosa Nostra in the media, or by sinister anti-FF forces. And of course, the paper employs its typical swarm tactic, led by Bombastic Harris, to hammer home its point. Subtle it is not. But it is effective. And just like New Labour made sure it looked after the Sun and its political editor Trevor Kavanagh (as well as his ultimate boss, the Dirty Digger), Fianna Fail look after the Sindo.

FF backroom people whinged throughout the election campaign about the media having an anti-FF bias. Brian Cowen even wrote a learned thesis on it. But what he forgot to mention the equally powerful counter-pull - the Sindo's blatant and unashamed support for Bertie and for FF.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


There is a school of thought that if the report of the McCracken Tribunal into Charles Haughey’s venal trousering of other people’s money had come out a couple of months earlier, then politics would have had a different complexion over the past ten years.

The Report was published in August of 1997, over two months after the General Election of June 6. Some say that the findings of the report were so potentially catastrophic for Fianna Fail and for Bertie Ahern that if the report had been published before the election (in April or May of that year) that the three-party Rainbow coalition would comfortably have been returned to power.

I’m not so sure, not so sure at all. For one, Bertie Ahern was only a bit player in the saga surrounding payments to Charlie Haughey. Besides his little cameo (he unwittingly signing blank cheques for the party leader’s allowance) did not come to light until the Moriarty Tribunal began probing other aspects of Haughey’s personal finances.

There’s a well of forgiveness and understanding that exists in Irish society for public figures that just can’t be compared with any other democracy. My own instinct is that it’s because Ireland is a much smaller, more familiar, more intimate country than, say, Britain. And that people instinctually brand people who find themselves in sticky situations as ‘poor old divvils’ rather than ‘unmentionable so-and-sos’.

In Britain, we have seen so many ministers fall on their swords, sometimes for relatively minor transgressions. In Ireland, it needs to be in the neighbourhood of one of the seven deadly sins before it becomes career-threatening. And that's what happened to Haughey. He had long dried his well of understanding before he shuffled off this mortal coil. Posterity will recall some of his achievements but he will be primarily identified as a rogue.

The selfsame school of deep thought has made a return this week to ask the same ‘what if’ questions about Bertie Ahern. Would FF have saved the election if he had been called as a witness to the Tribunal earlier this year? Would he still be Taoiseach?

And of course, because he still is Taoiseach, there’s a second strand of reasoning. A couple of hits below the waterline might mean he will never make it to port. And this particular port of destination of course is September 2011 when Bertie Ahern reaches his 60th birthday. But of course nobody ever believed that this is feasible, that he will hand over the reins to the anointed one, Brian Cowen, eight or nine months shy of a general election.

In the best tradition of the ‘king is dead, long live the king’, there has been ongoing speculation about when Bertie Ahern will step down. Most predictions tend to hover around 2009 in or around the time of the local and European elections as a time of natural cleavage, to allow Ahern’s successor to bed himself or herself in.

The fly in the ointment is the planning tribunal and Bertie Ahern’s increasingly Byzantine explanations of those mysteriously big payments that went in and out of his account. The thinking has gone that if he fared badly at it and lost face, his tenure as leader of FF would come to an end within months.

For a long time, his Tribunal appearance looked like it would be a short sharp shock. But now it looks like it will grind on into another week, and that it will conclude just in time for the return of the Dáil and for an angry opposition to go onto the attack.

And it’s certain that he has shipped damage this week. His own protestation that he begged and pleaded and bended his knee to accommodate the Tribunal sounded a little bit hollow when Tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill made public a couple of home truths. To wit, he only made the Tribunal aware in April this year that there were foreign exchange transactions involved in three of the four lodgements being examined. He also, according to O’Neill, did not include all the relevant information (particularly the fact that Celia Larkin was operating an account on his behalf) in an affidavit of discovery. Also, yesterday morning, it became apparent that at a very early stage in the process, on New Year’s Even 2004, he himself identified all the payments totalling E85,000 which now form the basis of the inquiry into his finances but did not disclose that information to the Tribunal for a long time.

But the question remains: what will it take to down him? My own sense is that it would have to be enormous and that is not likely to happen. His famous Teflon will suffer some deep gouges this week but not enough to render him inoperable. The opposition will go after him.

But career-ending? It was wrong and unethical of him to take non-repayable repayable loans from friends, and a large sum from businessmen in Manchester. Especially since he was a high officer of State, the serving Minister for Finance. I, for one, think that taking money like that should be career-ending.

But I'm not the Irish public. And the Irish public have forgiven him, in opinion polls, elections, and – I’m sure – in opinion polls again. The Irish public has a very special relationship with its political head, that’s closer to the cult of personality found in the middle east and some South American countries. The blows to his credibility are undoubted. But ultimately they are glancing rather than fatal.


Those who work in the survival business – writers; sportspeople, actors and politicians - know that ultimately they are only as good as their last book, game, film or election.

Bertie Ahern is around enough to understand more than most what a precarious, dangerous and unpredictable business politics is. He will be well aware of Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failures, will have seen too many of his colleagues – Charlie Haughey, Ray Burke, Liam Lawlor, Padraig Flynn, and Denis Foley – see their careers and reputations upended unceremoniously for them.

What is clear is that Bertie Ahern has himself taken a bit of a hiding this week.
What is more difficult to assess is the extent of the damage to his reputation and to his standing as Taoiseach. What is sure more he walks into booby traps at the Mahon Tribunal, the shorter his period as leader will be. But it is infuriatingly difficult to make any firm conclusions. We have seen him encounter crises like this before where he looked like a sure goner only for his popularity to go shooting up in opinion polls, or for FF to win elections.

What you can say with certainty is that he will be browned off that it did not finish last night as scheduled. Fianna Fail’s annual parliamentary party think-in begins in Monday. He would have wanted the Tribunal to have been behind him by then but instead for about the fifth time in a year, his personal finances will dominate the agenda at his party.

Amongst the scribes, the consensus on yesterday went as follow: He was damaged, that he an awful day, that some of the evidence was ruinous to him, that it was death by a thousand cuts etc. But I just couldn’t bring myself to agree with it? Sure it’s serious stuff. But given his Teflon knack in the past, it will have to be very serious to down him and until then, all FF ministers will stay loyal to him.

Having said that the stakes are very high indeed. Ahern’s explanation and clarifications of all the lodgements, the dig-out loans, the whip-arounds and the house purchase have been ropey. And that innate ropiness of his accounts has been exposed on a good few occasions by the persistent if sometimes monotonous questioning of Tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill.

As well, Ahern’s narrative has always been that he has fully complied and cooperated with the Tribunal. Yesterday, we had further reminders that the Tribunal’s own experience is at variance with this. As well as the lateness in disclosing foreign exchange reactions, it emerged yesterday failed in his obligation to include the fact of Celia Larkin’s involvement in an account operating to his benefit in an affidavit of discovery (that’s pretty serious)

Yesterday, after a day and a half of thoroughly exhaustive and exhausting preliminaries, the Tribunal finally turned its attention to the four specific lodgements, and the substantive issues surrounding Mr Ahern.

And the first that has come under scrutiny has been a lodgement of £24,838 in punts in October 1994. Ahern’s version of events is that this is primarily made up of two separate components – the second dig-out loan he got from friends totalling £16,500 in addition to the £8,000 sterling that he was handed after a whip-around by Manchester-based zillionaires sometime in 1994.

All very well until Tribunal lawyers began to do the maths and then discovered that the figures just didn’t tally. The exchange rates of the day just didn’t support the two sources that Ahern claimed for the money. In other words the sterling sum would have to be in pounds and pence.

When it did its own assessment, it found that the sum lodged of 24,838 exactly matched the money you would get if you exchanged £25,000 sterling. That was explosive stuff. If that was the case, it meant that the version of event that Bertie Ahern has put on the public record just wasn’t true, that there was no £8,000 sterling, no £16,500 and that his narrative was a fabrication and – well – a brazen bare-faced lie. And if that were true, or established, or proven, there would be no question but the Taoiseach would fall on his sword. He just couldn’t survive that, politically.

But there was one problem with this theory (and that’s what it is because there are no documents to back up this version of events; or indeed Ahern’s). It assumed that the bank teller had applied a rate that day that was for sums of £2,500 and below, rather than a more favourable rate for larger sums.

“You are saying a person going in with £25,000 gets a rate for £2,500 and is entirely screwed by the bank,” riposted Ahern to O’Neill.

The lawyer pointed out that the same rate for £2,500 was mistakenly applied for a sum of £20,000 Ahern deposited in December 1995, before it was corrected to the appropriate rate.

Hugely coincidental and all as it is, the theory still makes a huge assumption that the teller applied the wrong rate, either deliberately or mistakenly. And the December example isn’t compelling because the mistake was rectified by the bank at the time.

What was lacking yesterday were other comparitors. Surely, an exercise could have been conducted to see if the £2,500 rate was mistakenly applied to sums exchanged by other customers with large amounts around that time.

Overall, the Taoiseach has done himself no favours throughout the process. Everytime he explains, the sands shift a little bit more. A new detail is included. The story is tweaked to address a potential weakness in his version of events. There are new recollections.

There are parts of Bertie Ahern’s account that were not convincing when he first told it and are still not convincing a year later, notwithstanding all the tweaks, elaborations and clarifications.

And besides that, it was morally and ethically iffy for a Minister for Finance to take non-repayable repayable loans from friends and whip-arounds from Manchester businessmen. The sums of money involved were huge, especially if you are one of the little guys on the terraces. But having said all that, there are few who are as expert in the survival business as he is.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Bertie Ahern much-trumpeted appearance at the Mahon Tribunal yesterday brought a whole new layer of meaning to the notion of anti-climax.

It was like turning up to see a boxing match and mistakenly finding yourself being hemmed in at a chess match from which there is no escape. Not even a good chess match. A tedious dour away fixture of a chess match in November that takes over seven hours to grind to an inevitable stale mate.

In the middle of the afternoon, when a discussion started on document 19637, I had already lost the will to live. Imagine the headlines. Tribunal makes Bertie break by boring him into admitting everything and anything.

From the perspective of the predominantly silver-haired public gallery who packed the hall at Dublin Castle, it was tedious stuff. And the huge media pack spent most of the afternoon desperately searching for any sliver of a news line to justify an occasion that was billed as the biggest political story of the autumn.

Ok, Des O’Neill may not go down in history as the Irish Bar’s answer to Rumpole of the Bailey. But there was no doubt that the strategy employed by the Tribunal’s senior lawyer yesterday was masterly.

Ever since the details of Bertie Ahern’s personal finance became known to the wider public, the Taoiseach has gone to some considerable length to say that notwithstanding the grave injustice of the Tribunal looking into his private finances, he had gone to inordinate lengths to cooperate with all its enquiries.
His most famous utterance on the subject was intended to show that there were only a couple of aspects of his life that were excluded from the trawl:

“I'm not answering what I got for my Holy Communion money, my Confirmation money, what I got for my birthday, what I got for anything else, I'm not into that.”

But it became clear yesterday, as Des O’Neill patiently and painstakingly went through the entire chronology of Mr Ahern’s dealings with the Tribunal that there was an awful lot else that he was not answering for, and that he did not answer for a long long time.

The information that was furnished by him was often partial, incomplete, conditional, and very slow in coming. And as the correspondence between Tribunal lawyers and Mr Ahern’s legal team became increasingly tetchy in the spring and summer of 2006, the Tribunal questioned if Mr Ahern was dealing with its questions “with the appropriate degree of urgency and importance”.

By laying out all the correspondence, the full chronology of events that takes us today, the Tribunal lawyer achieved a couple of aims. He showed how the Tribunal had slowly come to focus its its inquiries on the key issues – the four lodgements made between October 1994 and December 1995. It also showed that despite his protestation the Taoiseach’s cooperation lacked urgency and fullness at various stages. And in a sense, he laid out all the relevant details and facts and background yesterday – got them out of the way, for what is sure to be a very close, very difficult and very specific examination of Mr Ahern today.

And there were two good examples of the difficulties the Tribunal had in receiving all the information. When the Tribunal first suggested to Mr Ahern’s legal team that it might make an order of discovery, his lawyers wrote back saying the order should be confined to dates between January 1989 and December 1992 and only to lodgements or withdrawals to his account over £30,000.

But Mr O’Neill got Mr Ahern to concede yesterday that such an order would have been more or less useless as he held no bank account of his own between those dates (he dealt only in cash after separating from his wife), and that all four lodgements now being examined would not have been caught by the inquiry as all fell under £30,000.

And right at the end of a long day, Mr O’Neill described the private interview it held with Mr Ahern on April 5 of this year. And what he had to say was potentially devastating. And it was on that occasion that the Tribunal was made aware for the first time that some of the lodgements made by Bertie Ahern to various accounts were foreign exchange lodgements.

Mr O’Neill put it to Mr Ahern that this was the first time it had come to light in its two and a half years of dealing with the Taoiseach: “Would you agree with me that that process, a lengthy process, that has taken place between October 2004 and April of 2007 did not in fact establish the foreign currency elements of these accounts until it was disclosed in the course of the interview.”

Sure, Ahern felt hard done by. Tom Gilmartin has made a rake of allegations against him (we’ll return presently to them). He claims that they are unfounded, scurrilous and based on hearsay.

But the Tribunal proceeded to inquire into two of the allegations in particular – claims by Mr Gilmartin that Cork developer Owen O’Callaghan told him that he made a payment of £50,000 to Mr Ahern in 1999 and of a further £30,000 between 1989 and 1992. Both Mr O’Callaghan and Mr Ahern have protested that Mr Gilmartin is telling a tissue of lies. And despite the allegation being baseless, the the Tribunal began to examine Mr Ahern’s accounts.

But his problem was this: what was unearthed might have nothing to do with Mr Gilmartin, as Mr Ahern claims. But they were so unusual for a public figure retaining high office that they warranted public scrutiny. The image of the man in the anorak who liked nothing more than a beer and football didn’t sit easily with large loans from friends; spontaneous whip-arounds in Manchester; the foreign transactions and the curious way in which 44 Beresford Avenue became Mr Ahern’s property.

It was a day of two halves yesterday. If Mr O’Neill was preparing the ground, so was Mr Ahern. He took the unusual step of reading out a statement right at the outset. There were one or two newish things to it, but most of it was a re-airing of past clarifications and statements.

It served an important strategic purpose though, letting the Taoiseach getting in his ‘pretaliaton’ , gaining the initiative when it came to the news agenda, setting out his stall. It contained specific denials. There was the refutation that he every handled $45,000. To bolster that there was new information, namely that a currency expert, former Bank of Ireland executive Paddy Strong, would show it was impossible for him to have dealt in dollars.

He also floated a new explanation as to why he bought £30,000 sterling in 1995. He revealed that the pressure to buy a new home receded when he didn’t become Taoiseach in late 1994. For a period he considered buying another house. He even looked at houses in Drumcondra. To that end, he exchanged Irish punts for £30,000 to repay Michael Wall the sum he had contributed for construction and stamp duty.

And the other strategic element was taking every opportunity to take a swipe at Tom Gilmartin. The Luton developer hadd been seven and a half years on Mr Ahern’s back, had variously made crazy, wild, scurrilous, unfounded and baseless allegations of Mr Ahern holding accounts in jersey, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and the Dutch Antilles.

“This man was saying all kinds of crazy things including that I tried to get two colleagues to blackmail another colleague,” he said.

It was lucky for Mr Ahern that he had his 15 minutes of the game. For he was almost reduced to the status of a spectator for the rest of the day, for the most part having to nod agreement to what was contained in the correspondence being displayed on the screen.

You do have to appreciate that he was Taoiseach and that he had other things on his mind beside the Tribunal. At one stage he said he had spent 10 Saturdays nights in a row (five or six hours each time) gathering information.

He and his counsel Conor Maguire said that there should be no implication that he didn’t cooperate.

“It took me months of knee-bending and hardship and begging to get the information,” Mr Ahern said at one stage.

Whatever about how long it has taken to get to where we are. What is certain it that so much is going to be decided in seven hours of testimony today.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Well, what we witnessed yesterday was the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of political evidence.
Early during Celia Larkin’s testimony to the Planning Tribunal yesterday, it was put to her that there were now four different versions of how Micheal Wall had given Bertie Ahern £30,000 and how it came to be lodged into a new bank account opened by her.
All day, despite the glaring inconsistencies between the versions, Celia Larkin insisted that there may indeed be four versions but, like the New Testament and its four Gospels, they may differ in detail but the essence, the truth, will always remain the same.
And every time Tribunal lawyer Henry Murphy dared to ask her about the minutiae of what had occurred, a querulous and testy Ms Larkin responded with the fervour of a Born-Again Christian being challenged on the existence of God.
The Taoiseach’s former ‘life-partner’, as Ms Larkin described herself twice, came into the witness box yesterday with one mission – to show that every penny that she has been asked to administer on behalf of Bertie Ahern and Micheal Wall had been accounted for.
But the problem that Ms Larkin faced is that this is not what the Tribunal is concerned with. It’s investigating where the money came from in the first place, and why it went through such a convoluted series of transactions, being passed through new bank accounts in Ms Larkin’s name, being exchanged back and forth from sterling to Irish punts, and being stashed in hot presses, safes in constituency offices and wardrobes in North Dublin hotel rooms.
Underlying all this, is that notwithstanding Bertie Ahern’s self-projection as anorak man, who cares for nothing other than a game of football and a couple of pints, the sums of money involved were vast. The monies allotted for refurbishment and renovation on an almost-new Drumcondra home (£80,000 in total) would have bought a three-bedroom terraced house in Phibsboro at the time.
What the Tribunal was investigating yesterday were three separate financial transactions that Ms Larkin conducted on behalf of Mr Ahern in late 1994 and in 1995.
The first was the lodgement of the £30,000 sterling that Mr Wall gave to Mr Ahern in early December, ostensibly for renovation and refurbishment of an almost new house that he had not yet fully bought. That was lodged into a new account Ms Larkin opened in December 5 1994.
The second was another account opened by Ms Larkin on the day in her name. That account contained £50,000 that were transferred from two of Mr Ahern’s accounts. Six weeks later, Ms Larkin withdrew the whole lot and gave it to Mr Ahern.
And finally, there was a sum of £10,000 sterling and £2,000 Irish that Ms Larkin into another account in June of 1995.
Ms Larkin’s poise and composure were as immaculate as her appearance. In almost five hours of evidence, there was no stumbling, no ‘ums’ and ‘aws’. She was also (refreshingly) familiar. This wasn’t a strategy. Anything lawyerly will always be po-faced but she brought a degree of levity by insisting on addressing her interrogators Henry and Des, as if she were a primary school teacher gently bringing unruly seven-year olds to order.
Sure, she had a few rough passages. Certainly, there were a couple of elongated pauses when she was faced with complex or tricky questions. But as the day wore on, she became more testy, challenging the basis of a line of enquiry, or accusing Mr Murphy of being pedantic. At one stage, when he accused her of conveniently going blank in her recollection, she acidly responded by asking him could he remember what he did last Friday at 9.02?
But her major problem was this. Why all the different and contradictory versions of the events and the transactions?
“It’s a fairly simple matter; there can not be that much of a mystery to it,” said Mr Murphy at one stage in an obvious piece of observation.
Let’s examine one of the lines of inquiry. Ms Larkin’s first account to the Tribunal was in June 2006 when she supplied it with a memo of her recollection. At that time, she said that Michael Wall had deposited the £30,000 sterling that he said he gave to Bertie for the house.
But subsequently she changed that, and introduced a new narrative. The following month, she was interviewed by Tribunal lawyers. At that stage she said it was she who lodged the money in a new account in her name. And she said that the money was handed to her by Michael Wall in the office of the late Gerry Brennan, Mr Ahern’s solicitor who also acted for Mr Wall in relation to dealings over the house.
And then in July this year, just as she was due to give evidence to the Tribunal, it all changed again. Now she was saying the money had not been handed over in Mr Brennan’s office after all but that she had collected it from Mr Ahern’s constituency office, St Luke’s, and lodged it into the bank.
And then yesterday, there was a further ‘clarification’. Now she remembered that she was in St Luke’s on the Saturday and had witnessed Mr Wall putting the cash on the table and Mr Ahern taking the bundles of sterling and going to a back room to put them into the safe. And then the following Monday, she collected a briefcase and lodged it. Up until now, she had made no mention of witnessing the money being handed over in St Luke’s. But these new details came only a day after Michael Wall had said as much to the Tribunal in evidence.
There were similar inconsistencies in relation to the second account she opened on December 5, the one for £50,000. In earlier evidence and communication with the Tribunal she could not recall exactly how the £50,000 came to be withdrawn in January 1995, only a month later. But in her communication with the Tribunal in July of this year, she remembered that she had collected it in a parcel or a bag. And yesterday for the first time, she recalled that it was Bertie Ahern who had given her the lift to the bank that morning and waited outside in the car. Suddenly the sketch writers in the Tribunal had struck gold – Bertie the Getaway Driver was born.
It was deeply unsurprising that the Tribunal lawyers would hone in on the inconsistencies of the accounts, and the apparent credibility gaps. What was surprising was that Ms Larkin considered this to be deeply surprising, as she objected with increasing force to the minutiae and the forensics.
She was not convincing, however, when explaining how her memory and recollection had improved over the past 15 months. Her strategy was two-fold. She insisted that the first interview by lawyers was informal and an information-gathering exercise. She had talked freely and openly, she insisted, but had only given the gist without going into detail. It was only later that she was able to piece together the rest.
And it was when Bertie Ahern told her that all these events took place on the weekend of his annual fund-raising dinner and on the weekend before he might have been Taoiseach (Dick Spring pulled the plug on that the following Monday morning, she reminded everbody twice) that she remembered everything in more detail.
But that alone couldn’t bring back such a flood of recollection, could it? The most interesting exchange was between her and Judge Gerard Keyes who asked her had anyone assisted her in furnishing the Tribunal with the fuller clarifications. Ms Larkin seemed to suggest conversations with Bertie Ahern but when Judge Keyes probed, all he had reminded her of was that the weekend was the fateful weekend before Dick Spring pulled the plug. Less than convincing, given the extent of the new detail she couldn’t recall last year but could suddenly recall with precision in July of this year and yesterday.
But in the end, there were no torpedoes, no scuppering, no big rips in the Anorak. We just saw more of the ongoing smoke and mirrors show that is Bertie Ahern’s personal finances. The inconsistencies remain. And following Celia Larkin’s evidence, there were the same number of loose ends. We’ll probably have more by the time the Taoiseach himself finishes his testimony on Friday.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Next Tuesday morning a school bus will pull up outside a hotel in Galway and a scatter of kids - in shiny new uniforms, with cheese and banana sandwiches in their satchels – will clamber into the lobby.

The fresh-faced ones are Fine Gael’s new TDs. In the immediate wake of the election, the party made a couple of vain and empty boasts like it had won the election (nearly); had got into government (nearly) and had bounced right back from the near-oblivion of 2002 (nearly). The one boast that it could really stand over without having to qualify or explain is that it has youth on its side. At least a couple of those sitting on the FG benches on the first day of the 30th Dail look like they had a tube of Clearasil stashed away somewhere on their person and still need to carry ID to get into pubs.

And sitting alongside them – hardly a zimmer frame length away – was the Labour Party parliamentary party. The tragedy that the media was writing up after the election was one relative one of youth and age. The argument went that the time this Dail comes to the end, the form of ID that most Labour Party TDs will carry with them will be the free travel pass. They must be green with envy comparing its failure to get more than three younger TDs elected with the success of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in terms of renewal. I heard the new super junior minister for children Brendan Smith reeling out the same old lines last week, like he was racing through the first decade of the rosary. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael equals young and vibrant. Labour equals doddery and falling into decrepitude.

It’s an easy exercise to do, to tot up the average age of the parliamentary party and find out that, hey, it’s 55. And what does that tell you? A little bit, sure. Ultimately, not a lot. Fine Gael had the youngest front bench of all the parties in the last Dáil. Performance wise, they had few star performers (Richard Bruton), a bunch of mediocrities and a few who were dire, completely dire. The woeful performers did include TDs who been knocking around for years. But it can also be said that of their younger spokespeople – John Deasy; Olwyn Enright, Denis Naughten, Simon Coveney – none really distinguished themselves as anything amazing.

To be sure, Labour has an age issue. But it’s been over-stated. Sure the party wanted more young blood. And it will be a major surprise if Gilmore doesn’t fast-track Sean Sherlock (and maybe Ciaran Lynch) into a senior role.

But let’s explore another thought for a second. This might seem like a strange proposition but the party is in a far better position than FF and FG to renew itself now and reap the benefits in the next election. If a third of its parliamentary party is retiring in the next election, Labour can spend the next year finding replacements (in addition to the ready-made candidates in the Senate), blooding them in the local elections if necessary, and making them recognisable Dail aspirants long before 2012.

To achieve that, Gilmore as the new leader will need to concentrate on the organisation more than his own profile in the first year. The mistakes made in Carlow-Kilkenny - where the party had no thought-out strategy to find a replacement for Seamus Pattison – cannot be allowed to be repeated. To do that, Gilmore and his team will have to borrow a tactic from Workers Party days – the use of a ruthless centralism to choose the right candidates and strategies locally.
And it’s not a nonsense to suggest that two big parties will have difficulties with renewal even if they have many young TDs.

Fianna Fail’s difficulty is encapsulated by Brendan Smith’s own experience. He’s been a TD for 15 years now and he’s not even at the Cabinet table yet. Bertie Ahern likes his troops to serve long apprenticeships. But when they’re promoted, they tend to stay put … forever. Most of his senior ministers have lots of smarts, granted. The problem is with the second-tier. They’ve also been around for a long time but very few have the necessary calibre or character. To really renew, Brian Cowen (when he eventually becomes leader) will have to be ruthless and skip a generation for some of his key people.

And what about Fine Gael’s lack of renewal? It will have a couple of badly-needed heavy hitters this time around, with the return of Brian Hayes, Charlie Flanagan and Alan Shatter to the Dáil. Its problem is positioning. Its identification of the three election issues didn’t work. Its decision to make the election a referendum on health doesn’t work. It’s been so long out of power now that it has been reduced to being the party that gives FF a rest from government every generation or so. It needs to get radical… and quckly!

Thursday, September 06, 2007


It was election by acclamation at the end. Eamon Gilmore always had a big gale behind him. But when others did the sums (and I'll tell you there's none better at Joan Burton than doing that) they realised that they would not even give him a contest. Democratic choice is all very well, but if it's you and if you're going to be chazzled in the contest, then it's better not even to step into the ring.

The blog just about ticked over during the summer as I took the Enda Kenny philosophy on political endeavor to heart (ie stay away from it as much as possible). Anyway, it's now September and we're back in full swing. Eamon Gilmore went through the crowning process. The Senate returns next week. Sure, the debates will be more interesting (but ultimately useless). And of course, most of the attention will be on the Skiberreen Ego (ok Baltimore these days)and Mr Bombastic Eoghan Harris. All of Harris's stuff is self-serving. The duels between Ronan Mullen and Ivana Bacik will be ultimately more interesting.

And of course, there's the Anorak taking the stand at the Planning Tribunal. If it goes badly, he'll not last the course - and expect Brian Cowen to be elevated in short order.

Incidentally, Sunday Indo have had it in for Cowen all summer. It's extraordinary how they initially went on the attack on stamp duty, pulled back during the election campaign (amid rumours of a back-Bertie-at-all-costs deal hammered out at Castle Martin) and - once FF had won - kept writing up Bertie while renewing their ridiculous attack on the anointed one.

* Sorry. Forgot to add in an amusing little bit from Gilmore's biography.

"Eamon's interests outside of politics include cooking. He is an avid sports fan and is a passionate follower of his native Galway in both the hurling and football. His local village team Caltra won the all Ireland club title in 2004. Recently he consoled himself following the disappointing results of the recent election by watching the Galway hurling team. Unfortunatley no matter what Galway do Kilkenny always seem to win the title."

Gilmore is one of six Oireachtas members from Catlra and Ahascragh (the three Kitt siblings; Ronan Mullen and Mary Harney who was also born there). As a fellow Galway man and long-suffering hurling supporter, I can safely vouch that he go no consolation whatsoever in the game.

Monday, September 03, 2007


To lose one chief executive of Aer Lingus may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like callousness.

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, that’s what the Government fears most when it comes to the Shannon Airport mess.

When Willie O’Dea spoke about Armageddon it was about the loss of the Heathrow slots to the mid-west. When the Government thinks of Armageddon, it is a scenario when Dermot Mannion and his top management team walk after being compromised by the Government at an EGM.

Bertie Ahern’s view of Mannion’s predecessor Willie Walsh was jaundiced. It was prompted by what he regarded as Walsh’s audacious cheek at proposing a management buy-out. It got so bad that if Walsh said he was going for walk, Ahern would have gone out of his way to ensure it was along the length of a plank.

Six months later – by which time Walsh had been forced out and had gone to British Airways – you could see that the Anorak was still all ripped up about it.

When Pat Rabbitte asked Ahern in the Dail was he going to give the go-ahead to privatise the airline, the Taoiseach rounded on him, and – by proxy – Willie Walsh.

“I am surprised Deputy Rabbitte is taking up a position that was opposed by every trade unionist in Aer Lingus, when management wanted to steal the assets for themselves through a management buy out, shafting staff interests. Deputy Rabbitte is now defending that position.”

And a little later, he added as an afterthought.

“I am glad those individuals (Willie Walsh and co) went on to prove their worth in the financial marketplace but at least they did not do it by taking the assets away from Aer Lingus.”

Stirring stuff from Red Bertie the Socialist comrade. We were all able to sleep easy in our beds that night. The assets were protected. They had been safely anoraked by the Taoiseach in the Dail.

And then a year later, Aer Lingus was floated. Or about 60% of it was. The employes got about 12% through another ESOT. And the State kept 25.4% which Martin Cullen, the then Transport Minister, told us was a ‘golden share’.

So we still didn’t need to worry about losing the assets. I won’t bore you with the details of the tome Cullen produced last October detailing how that golden share, that magic 25.4%, that cast-iron safeguard against the tyranny of unfettered capitalism would protect Aer Lingus’s assets. And Cullen spelled out what those assets were: they were primarily the Heathrow slots and the services from Dublin, Cork and Shannon.

So what was the difference between Willie Walsh stealing the assets and the Government floating the airline on the private market while retaining a 25.4% ‘golden share’?

None really. Except we got loads of bluster and self-serving bombast from Government when it went down the second avenue.

The golden share! What an abominable business cliché. If Cullen had read his Shakespeare he would have known enough about things that glisten not to mention golden shares.

We learned, when it was sprung on us at the start of August, that pulling the Shannon to Heathrow service was against the Government’s regional and aviation policy and was a disappointment. Though Martin Cullen never told us back in October, the Government knew back then that there was damn all it could do about it. What’s more if Aer Lingus decided to transfer all the Heathrow slots out of Ireland, Bertie the Bystander would live up to his name. He couldn’t do anything about it. Nada. Nothing. And what’s worse, there would be no Willie Walsh to blame.

The Minister for Finance as the nominated Government shareholder could only call an EGM if Aer Lingus ‘disposed of’ (ie sold) the slots rather than transfer them. What’s more, it got advice this week from the Attorney General Paul Gallagher that even if a majority of shareholders ordered management to reverse the decision on Shannon, the service could not be saved at this stage.

The current Transport Minister Noel Dempsey arrived into his Ministry just in time to see that plane take off from the runway. Asked this week about the purpose of the ‘golden share’ he replied that it can help repel a hostile takeover (as happened when RyanAir began huffing and puffing) and will also help prevent the disposal of Heathrow slots.

However, he admitted that down the line all of the Irish slots could be transferred to Dusseldorf or Taipei or Abu Dhabi. He made the fair point that this was highly unlikely, given the sheer volume of air traffic between the two islands of Ireland and Britian. But the point is that, politically, it makes a mockery of the Government’s stern prose from last autumn. It was selling us a pig in a poke back then. And what was worse it knew it.

The following is wild and groundless speculation on my part. But one of the reasons I believe the Government will back Dermot Mannion to the hilt is that otherwise Bertie Ahern will be forced to back an aviation boss he dislikes even more intensely than Willie Walsh.