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.