Today is my last day with the Irish Examiner before I move over to the Irish Times in the New Year. It's an incredibly sad day, far more so than I imagined. I have been with 'de paper' for four and a half years and, professionally, it has been a very happy period in my life.
I was hoping that the last week would be relatively quiet but it's been busy. It hasn't been helped by the fact that I've come down with a cold that's not bad enough to make me miss work but is bad enough to make me feel sorry for myself.
And of course, I finish today, as I started in August 2003, writing about Bertie. The controversy he was involved in then sounds so trivial, so insignificant now. His daughter was getting married in France and the media were going bananas about the deal they had forged with one of the gossip-celeb mags and Bertie's attitude to the media.
And on my last day, it's all about Bertie again - this time, his ongoing appearances at the Mahon Tribunal.
I'm sorry for dredging up a horrible metaphor. But yesterday he was like - to use a description used of him before - a rat in an anorak. The aggression he displayed yesterday was jaw-dropping. And when Dermot Ahern, Mícheál Martin, and Dick Roche (who alleged 'bias') started getting in on the act, it was hard not to think that there was a concerted effort going on to undermine the Tribunal.
Ok the last day isn't going to descend into a long liquid Christmas lunch... but hey, we have the best Christmas panto of them all... Bertie and his Magic Anorak...
And if you can bear it, here is my analysis from yesterday's evidence... it's 1,600 long, so strictly only for Anorak anoraks!
There were moments during yesterday afternoon when the dialogue seemed closer to New Jersey and James Gandolfino’s portrayal of Tony Soprano than to Drumcondra and to Bertie Ahern’s portrayal of a Ward boss.
There is no way of exaggerating the accusation he made against the Tribunal and its lawyers, directly alleging that it was “trying to set me up and stitch me up”.
Mr Ahern repeated again and again this was unbelievable. And if you were to find a word to describe the entire day it would be the closely related unreal, maybe even surreal. This was as dramatic as the Tribunal gets, with the Taoiseach playing it tough and hard and, looked at from his perspective, saying no more nice guy, I’m going to give as good as I get here. Was this a new strategy or direction by the Taoiseach and his legal team. You would have to say yes, on balance, especially with the strategically-timed intervention late in the afternoon of the Cabinet’s self-styled bruiser Dermot Ahern who didn’t let the fact that he wasn’t there prevent him from having a go at the Tribunal and its legal team, for its “astonishing” line of questioning.
In truth there wasn’t anything all that astonishing about the Tribunal’s line of questioning. All morning and all afternoon, the senior member of its legal team, Des O’Neill, continued his same patient, snail-like, implacable, even-voiced and occasionally monotonous line of questioning.
With two days scheduled we all thought he’d jump into the second dig-out and ask questions about the size of the envelope Dermot Carew gave him or what kind of a friend Padraic O’Connor of NCB really was. But besides brief references in passing to that second payment from Carew, Paddy the Plasterer, Barry English and Joe Burke, Mr O’Neill honed in how Mr Ahern managed his finances between 1987 and 1994.
And in the end, it boiled down to two lines of questioning. The first was a detailed examination of how he managed his financial affairs without a bank account and how he managed to save £54,000. Nothing astonishing about that. A lot of unexplained cracks there, that Mr Ahern didn’t really fully Pollyfilla to a smooth finish yesterday.
And the second line of questioning centred around a loan that Mr Ahern took out in December 1993 of just under £20,000 to pay legal fees from his separation and pay off his ex-wife’s car loan.
Mr O’Neill probed him on why he needed to take out a loan when he has said he had £54,000 saved over seven years at that stage.
It gets a bit complicated from here, granted, but the sequence is very important. The loan of £20,000 was drawn down on the 23 December 1993, the same day as Mr Ahern opened a Special Savings Account (SSA). Three days later, on St Stephen’s Day, December 26, Mr Ahern received his first dig-out loan from eight friends amounting to £22,500. Mr Ahern said that when he opened the SSA he hoped to put £30,000 of his own savings in. But in fact, on December 30th he put the £22,500 from the dig-out in and waited another four months before putting the £30,000 in.
There were a couple of other unusual aspects to this. He did not start paying the £20,000 loan back until 18 months later. And on the application for the SSA, the date of 23 December seemed to have been written over another date, 14 December.
Mr Ahern’s explanation was this. He had money saved. But £20,000 of it was earmarked for a trust fund for his daughters. If he paid out another £20,000 for legal fees and Miriam’s car loan, he would have only £10,000 left. So he took out a loan to leave him with £30,000, which he then earmarked for the SSA. Then just after he applied for the SSA, the first dig-out came in and he put that in instead.
But Mr O’Neill advanced another possible scenario in the later afternoon, that Mr Ahern went into the bank earlier, on December 14th with the intention of borrowing money. But he did it in a back-to-back arrangement, whereby he promised to put in a deposit that would be equivalent to the loan plus interest paid (£19,000 plus interest would come to around £22,500). The SSA document, if it was dated December 14th and not December 23rd, would support this thesis. Then the scenario went that Bertie Ahern started going around raising the funds which were collected together by the 30th December.
The implications of this were clear. That the spontaneous dig-out didn’t happen, but the Bertie Ahern had been planning from at least 14th December to make a back-to-back arrangement.
The real purpose of why he must do this remained unsaid. But the unspoken allegation that threaded the entire day (and this is my interpretation) was that Bertie Ahern was somehow trying to conceal funds he had, and funds he was raising from friends, from his ex-wife.
That scenario challenged his version of events and led to a rare display of raw and apoplectic anger from him. Twice he used the term “stitch up”. Well, the stakes were very high. Because if that scenario were to be true, it would make Bertie Ahern into a liar. And that’s the beginning and the end of it.
Here’s a taste of his response: “That is just unbelievable. Unbelievable… To think that AIB would get into a conspiracy to set up such a convoluted set of circumstances,” he railed.
In his strongest moment of the entire day, he pointed out to the fact that if he was plotting to do that on the 14th, how could he have done it when Padraic O’Connor’s draft and the cheque from Des Richardson were not signed until the 22nd of December. “Be Jesus, I’m some fella,” he said.
In a way, some people (including the media) have slightly distorted expectations of what to expect. The name of the game is establishing the facts and the facts in Bertie Ahern’s universe don’t assemble themselves as neatly as a denouement in an Agatha Christie novel
Given the very slow pace (it is Christmas and I’m being very kind) of Des O’Neill’s examination, it is a possibility that he has laid down some traps that might be sprung today or in the New Year, (because Bertie is going to have to come back).
But it seemed yesterday that some cul-de-sacs were ventured into and we came back out as wise as we were when we went in. At one stage, Des O’Neill pointed out that the design of some of the notes had changed during the seven years Ahern was stashing money in the safe at St Luke’s and in his Minister’s office. Where was this leading to? Nowhere really (unless Des O’Neill comes back to it). There was no penalty for depositing old notes rather than the new one.
O’Neill set about his business with the same calm unflappability as December. From early on, it was clear that Bertie Ahern’s attitude had changed. There was an assertion there, verging on aggressiveness at time. Again and again, he got in cuts of thinly-veiled sarcasm. His whole body language was hostile, hunched in the witness box – sometimes glowering and glaring at Mr O’Neill using the eyeball-to-eyeball technique used by professional boxers at weighs-in. When Mr O’Neill sailed too close to the wind when questioning him about £20,000 he had earmarked for his daughters’ education at the time of the separation, Mr Ahern pointed at him aggressively while saying:
“I had saved it since 1987 through the whole period of my separation which I don’t think is any of your damn business.”
There was another novel aspect; a bit of new detail that somebody hadn’t leaked. Mr O’Neill revealed that a handwriting expert in the UK had been commissioned and had concluded that the date on Mr Ahern’s SSA application might have been December 14 not December 23.
It prompted another barb from him: “You went to the trouble of sending this to a forensic expert in the UK… I was quite amused when I saw the document because I wondered how why you had Mr Gilmartin in for weeks on end, changing diaries, changing years… making it up on the hoof. You never bothered to send any of his diaries.”
The one thing that has sore-thumb stickoutablility is the fact that there are no documents whatsoever to show beyond the balance of probability that he saved £54,000 in dry cash when he had no bank accounts. On the other hand there is no documents, or other evidence, to show that he didn’t.
Somebody said yesterday that the Tribunal’s scenario was as plausible as Ahern’s story. Perhaps. But it’s not more plausible. And unless there is hard evidence to show otherwise, Bertie Ahern has the benefit of the doubt.
But stitch-ups, set ups, none of your damn business. One thing has changed since September – the gloves have come off.