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.