Thursday, September 13, 2007

INSIDE POLITICS - CELIA LARKIN'S EVIDENCE

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.

1 comment:

Dan Sullivan said...

There are some who are querying what Bertie was doing driving when it has been suggested by Bertie that he doesn't drive or have a driver's license. Yet a key aspect for me is that Celia appears to believe and to want us to believe that she was his "life partner", when it would seem that she was his girlfriend and not more than that.