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 The fifty grand went on a merry wander being lodged, withdrawn, stashed into a safe, withdrawn, partly converted to sterling, lodged in dribs and drabs to two different accounts over 12 months.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.