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.