EXCITABLE newspaper headlines continued to suggest until quite recently that the taoiseach’s political difficulties were deepening. He’d simply have to resign, it was suggested, because he had failed to explain credibly how up to â‚¬300,000 washed through his personal finances in the mid-1990s.
Throughout, Bertie Ahern stuck rigidly to the message he has delivered ever since this story first broke a year ago: “it was all because of my marital separation”.
On the face of it, Ahern’s claim that inordinate amounts of cash moved in and out his and Celia Larkin’s bank accounts due to his separation makes no sense whatsoever. Marital breakdown generally results not in riches but in impoverishment – to such an extent that many people stay in miserable marriages because they can’t afford to leave them. Let me be clear: I don’t know anyone who truly believes that Ahern took money from businessmen as bribes. All the Mahon tribunal has shown is that Ahern got his hands on considerable amounts of cash in 1994-95. One assumes that if they were able to link this money to Owen O’Callaghan, we’d have heard about it by now. So Ahern is most likely innocent of Tom Gilmartin’s charge that the source of his money was the Cork-based shopping centre magnate and the payments were linked to the construction of Liffey Valley shopping centre.
Nevertheless it is the function of the tribunal, which the taoiseach incorrectly claims credit for establishing, to investigate all apparently relevant claims made to it. Ahern, despite his complaints, has not been singled out. He is simply one of a series of people being investigated because others, from perjurist Frank Dunlop to possible fantasist Gilmartin, named names. What distinguishes Ahern is his difficulty in coming up with a credible explanation for the source of Â£50,000 here and what looks like $45,000 there. That he dealt so extensively in cash is an added embarrassment, given that he was then minister for finance and is a trained accountant.
So how to make sense of his story? Why would anyone eschew the regularity of a bank account and do business in cash? Well, people usually deal in cash in order to conceal their income, and for one of three reasons: corruption, tax evasion, or ex-wives who can only take half of what they know to exist.
I share the general disbelief that Ahern is guilty of corruption. The “dig-outs” he received were inappropriate for someone in high office, but don’t necessarily translate into bribery. The Revenue could be a bigger problem for Ahern. His admission that he got dig-outs which he tried but failed to repay has already prompted a phone call from tax officials and money has been paid “on account”. The onus may eventually be on Ahern to prove that he really managed to save Â£50,000 while on a ministerial salary. Anyone who has experienced an income-tax audit will wince at the forensic examination Ahern can expect when those boys come to visit. If he failed to declare income, the interest and penalties imposed could necessitate another dig-out.
But I’m not convinced tax evasion was his aim. Ahern is most likely telling the truth when he claims his irregular financial and property dealings in 1994-95 were the result of his separation.
The breakdown of a marriage sometimes provides a significant motivation to hide money. As the complex process of distributing joint assets gets underway, and the full impact of a financial settlement being made by one party on the other begins to bite, the incentive is there to disguise the extent of assets and savings. Since husbands are usually the ones who generated income in a marriage, they are required to write a cheque and it hurts.
So when Ahern says “anyone who has been through a similar situation will have some understanding of my position; going through a separation is a very complex and fraught ordeal”, he doesn’t mean that separated husbands are legally barred from opening bank accounts and must deal in cash. He knows that we know that what he really means is that he was hiding money from his wife.
His legal separation was concluded in 1993 and it is hardly a surprise to find large amount of cash popping up in 1994 and, for safety’s sake, being funnelled through Larkin’s account. Without this being spelled out for us, we understand that these irregular transactions are what is being referred to under the euphemism “marital separation”.
The advantage of so willingly offering “separation” as the excuse for extremely odd financial dealings is that Irish people, who readily accept pretty low standards in high office anyway, are absolutely clear on the relationship between private and political lives: none. Parnell is the last Irish politician required to resign over private difficulty. Since then we have cheerfully, and sometimes correctly, accepted that separations, extra-marital affairs, personal debt, encounters with prostitutes or rent boys, and imprisonment bear no reflection on the ability of an elected representative to do his job.
The only time a politician finds himself under pressure to resign is when there is a specific connection to the office. Once voters are clear that Ahern’s handling of briefcases full of cash was due to his quite understandable, if unethical, desire to hide income from his wife, there is no appetite to seek his removal from office. Particularly not within the male bastion that is Fianna Fail.
Forgiving this kind of behaviour does leave Irish politicians and voters open to the charge of tolerating hypocrisy. Indeed, hypocrisy is seen as not merely acceptable but probably necessary to the conduct of one’s life here. This may be due to the oppressive nature of our past society, where low official tolerance of marital difficulties meant an unofficial understanding evolved that good people experiencing hard times feel obliged to use what are strictly speaking unethical, irregular and occasionally illegal methods to cope. Those who fought on the losing side of the first campaign to introduce divorce are entitled to be bitter about Fianna Fail politicians who conducted second relationships while refusing to support others who wanted to regularise their position. But without a general revulsion of this kind of double-dealing, no one will call them to account for that.
Sure in this knowledge, Ahern’s plaintive “separation” tale of woe is effective. There will be no resignation and Brian Cowen may as well have the tanaiste’s office redecorated. He’ll be enjoying it for some time yet.