Why Ahern has been forgiven

By | October 7, 2007

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 €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 £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 £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.

35 thoughts on “Why Ahern has been forgiven

  1. steve white

    but he didn’t use the money to pay rent to simply keep aroof over his head or look after his daughters he used it to build a conservatory and buy fancy furnishings?

  2. Oonagh

    “Let me be clear: I don’t know anyone who truly believes that Ahern took money from businessmen as bribes.”

    Really? I know plenty of people who believe Ahern took money from Owen O’Callaghan in return for favours, tax designations etc. And that this money went into off-shore accounts.

  3. Sarah Post author

    but why can’t the Tribunal find it then? They’ve been pretty good at tracking down everything else…anyway as I’ve said before, the Tribunal can’t do him any real damage. People believe what they want to believe irrespective of the evidence and most people seem to believe that he took some money and was hiding it but it was to get him a house and they don’t really care. The rev can still come after him, and I hope they do, but it won’t effect his position. I don’t hear the masses demanding a resignation, do you?
    T

  4. The Crewser

    Why can’t the Tribunal find the name of the Lawyer who has been leaking confidential information to Journalists? that is what I would like to know. They are now seriously compromised in anything that they do in the future and much of what they have done in the past. Apparently they have now stopped looking for the mole whose leaks may very well be finding their way into the hands of Tom Gilmartin. He has regular conversations with none other than Frank Connolly (he of the official Public Inquiry outfit) not the Sheridans. As we know when one journalist finds something out, they all find it out. But trivialities about what is lawful and what is not in terms of the administration of justice would not bother many of the contributors to this site, as we can see in relation to Fine Gaels shredding of important documents which the Mahon Tribunal required and the acceptance by a Fine Gael County Councillor of 20,000 Euro in 2002. This minor matters are not worthy of a mention. Clearly a different standard of accountability must be applied to Fianna Fail politicians than would apply in the case of FG or Labour.

  5. The Crewser

    I believe it was the Moriarty Tribunal who were looking for the Fine Gael shredded documents. A minor typing error but it was serious non-cooperation with a Tribunal which is never mentioned by contributors here. And Onagh there is not a shred of evidence ever got a bribe from anybody, builder or otherwise.

  6. Tom N

    I’m with Oonagh on this. Nobody gives an non repayable “dig out” to someone they don’t know. You might give money to charity, you might throw a few quid to your best friend or a family member but you would still expect them to make good on it once they had found their feet. Nobody gives money to a person they don’t know personally but know can repay it, without asking for it to be paid back at some stage.

    Only the most delusional would call the Manchester “payments” anything else.

  7. leon

    We just have to accept that Ireland is run like a medieval Italian city state with the mercantile classes buying and selling positions and favours, with the bovine acceptance of the masses as long as they get thrown the odd carrot. Lets hope some nice norman marauders turn up soon to implement some kind of far and accountable system (oh yeah that happened before and the locals complained about it for 800 years)

  8. Sarah Post author

    Crewser, who is so awful I hate to give him any ground, does have one valid point: When I was suspected of leaking in the Moriarty Tribunal they simply said they’d ask me on the stand- then a denial would have turned a leak (which in itself is not illegal) into perjury. Why don’t they just put all the lawyers on the stand and ask them under oath who’s leaking?

  9. Oonagh

    Sarah, if leaking is not illegal, why on earth would they do that? So they can slap him/her on the wrist and tell them to behave.

    Crewser has conceded that Alan McMahon was a FF nominee who is ’embarassed’ by what the Tribunal has turned up. Maybe whoever leaked just wanted to ensure that Ahern was fully investigated and didn’t get off the hook without the public knowing the extent of his murky dealings.

    Who thinks it woud have been better if none of this had come to light?

  10. The Crewser

    And there is a further myth that Enda Kenny has been putting about in relation to Bertie Ahern and monies that were mentioned in the Mahon Tribunal. Kenny reckoned that the current value of such monies would be 300,00 Euro today and Sarah has quoted that figure here. Let me tell you that is figure is utter bunkum from Enda Kenny as you might expect. The true figure is considerably less than 200,000 Euro. But then FG were never great at getting their calculations right, maybe that’s why they have spent so much time in opposition.

  11. Liam

    That depends on how you measure it and what you’re trying to buy, Crewser. £80000 would have bought you a fine house in the early 90s (where average house prices were around £55000 – 60000). Latest figures for 2007 show the average at just over €300000. If we were to use this measurement, then perhaps FG and Enda under-calculated.

    And really Crewser, is this an issue? if it was under €200000, would that make it all ok?

  12. Sarah Post author

    Lest anyone think from the above post that somehow I have turned into a Bertie cheerleader I’d suggest a closer reading.

    On the leak: I am delighted the stuff was leaked BUT all I’m saying now is, if Mahon was serious about finding the source, he’d put all the staff in the box.

  13. tom

    I believe Bertie took bribes. Isn’t it obvious?

    the tribunal can’t find any ‘evidence’ because when you give someone a bribe you make it as difficult as possible to uncover. You pay in cash, for example.

    the idea that the onus is on the opposition to ‘prove’ that the then minister for finance did something specific in return for these vast sums of cash just shows how debased political accountability is in this country. In almost any other western democracy Bertie would be gone long ago.

  14. Sarah Post author

    But Tom, the specific allegation is about Owen OCallaghan and Liffey Valley. The Tribunals have a good track record of finding money whether it be in different bank accounts, offshore accounts or transferred via complicated property transactions. They have the dig-out money which Ahern will face Revenue related consequences. I think if they can’t find anything which links him to O’Callaghan then he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

    Of course, I think he should resign anyway for the Revenue issue on the money they HAVE tracked down, but until they come up with something linking him to O’Callaghan I think you have to concede that that allegation isn’t proved. All they have are his lodgements. They have to establish the source..

  15. The Crewser

    Liam there is a fairly standard way of measuring the value of money from one year to the next. It is linked very closely to the Bank rates and there is not a possibility that the figure could be over 200,000. It is condiderably less. including compounding it would work out at less than 5% per annum. The fact that there was a property booom between then and now has nothing to do with it. A correction is taking place now in respect of that.
    Tom is skating on thin ice by suggesting such a thing. Starry O’Brien did the same and paid quite a high price.
    Not one person has the gumption to comment on the Anne Devitt situation and Enda Kenny’s lack of integrity as a result of his failure to address it. Is there a conspiracy of silence here, I ask myself.

  16. Graham

    Crewser, it’s funny that you are seemingly so upset by the Anne Devitt situation, but you seem to think what Bertie did was fine. Why are you defending anyone in such circumstances. I don’t care how much Bertie took, the point for me is that he took money, quite a lot of money, even though it is as you say ‘considerably less than €200,000’. He took money and that calls into question his integrity as an elected representative.
    It is hypocritical of anyone to condemn Bertie but not any other person who does the same thing, but that works both ways. Now, either you condemn the kinds of corruption that we all know have been going on, preventing the country from developing in a manner in which it desperately needs to develop, or you don’t. Perhaps you could clarify you position in that respect.

    In my opinion, any politician who has shady dealings involving receiving sums of money from ‘friends’ or ‘business men’, then said politician should resign from office, plain and simple.

  17. The Crewser

    Graham you dont really get it do you. Enda Kenny has been preaching about honesty, integrity and probity sine he became leader of FG. Yet despite all his preaching and pledging he does not notice that his own politicians are on the take. He decides not to do anything about it, for electoral reasons I understand.
    He decides to go on an anti Bertie Ahern crusade in respect of events which happened 12 to 15 years ago. Anne Devitt’s 20 Grand arrived in the middle of the Tribunal (Flood) as it was then, in 2002.
    So much for Enda’s preaching. He should put some of it into practice.
    Bertie Ahern had marriage difficulties and his friends helped him. Thats what people do in this country. Bertie also has a likeability factor attaching to him whereas Enda Kenny does not. Personally I want to see Enda Kenny leading FG into the next election. It will ensure another victory for FF.
    Enda cant even do his sums. He has been talking about a figure of 300,000 Euro in today’s money as being the amount which raised at the Tribunal when Bertie was there. The true figure is approximately half of 300,000. Would you let someone govern the country who is incapable of doing basic mathematics. I wouldn’t. An easy way of working it out would be to see what 100 pounds invested in a bank 1995 would be today. It would not come to 160 Euro.
    Enda Kenny would be better employed keeping his eyes on his own errant politicians before focusing on any other political party.

  18. Graham

    Ahh thats it crewser, I don’t get it, but your blatant double standards makes you all the better. I love the way you’ve resorted to US style attacks. The best form of defense after all eh?
    I never mentioned anything about Enda Kenny. I don’t like the man. I would never give him my vote. Your way of ignoring Berties shady dealings, and they are that, lets not pretend it’s anything else, is to say that ‘ah, his friends helped him out, coz thats what people do here, but look at your man Enda, he can’t even do his sums, you wouldn’t want him running the country, now would ya’.

    Now, lets for just one moment carry your logic on over the FF. We’re looking at a trained accountant, who was then minister for finance, but who can’t remember where large sums of money came from (presumably he wasn’t getting so many large wads of cash that any one single lump sum is difficult to recall), who didn’t have a bank account, but rather claims he saved such a sum of money in his own safe. If that is the best practice of an accountant and someone who was effectively in charge of the country’s economy, well what does that say?

    I agree, Kenny is being hypocritical to hound Bertie over his past when he has done nothing to publically condemn the dealings of his own. But lets face it, no more hypocritical than you are being.

    Like I said to you before, but which you so conveniently failed to reply, either you condemn that kind of corruption or you don’t.
    It seems to me that Berties likeability factor is enough for you to ignore the fact that he cannot explain the origins of large sums of money.

    If, as Sarah has suggested in the article, all of this money was really just a ‘dig out’ from friends because he was trying to hide his assets and money from his ex wife for the purposes of his separation, well what does that say of his honesty and integrity. You can say that that’s what people do, but thats beside the point. He’s human, yes, but he’s also in a position of power and influence (both today and then), so different standards must be applied. In that respect, you really are missing the point and it is people like you who have kept this country in the status quo for so long.

  19. The Crewser

    Graham what you are failing to realise, just like all the others is that the allegations made against Bertie Ahern are being made by somebody who is utterly discredited, vengeful, vexatious and bitter. Bertie Ahern should never have been at the Mahon Tribunal in the first instance as the leaks compromised the Tribunals work. It is very likely that the Tribunal mole has given information to a journalist who has in turn given it to Gilmartin.
    The length of time which has elapsed since the monies in question were being lodged is such that no human being could be possibly expected to piece together, without the aid of documentation, the detailed explanation which the Tribunal were hoping for. Gilmartin has a grudge against everyone who was in power since his property development ambitions failed. Even his own pals described him as paranoid in 1994 and he hadn’t even encountered complete failure at that stage.
    The Irish people are happy with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and so am I. Its just tough if most contributors to this site are not.

  20. Tom Neville

    Back in the real world (i.e. where Crewser’s hijacking is ignored), it is important that the debate goes to the end. If Ahern has taken bribes (which let’s honest he has), then it is imcumbent on the authorities to see that justice be done. The most important thing is justice.

  21. The Crewser

    There is not a shred of evidence that Bertie ever got a bribe from anyone. Remember “Starry O’Brien” Tom N. He paid a big price for saying that Bertie took bribes.

  22. Graham

    Oh, gee, thanks Crewser. Thats cleared it all up for me now. How stupid of me to think that 50 odd grand in cash, which came into the posession of the then minister of finance, an accountant, without any real or valid explanation of its origins, could be taken to be anything but a big misunderstanding. And you’re right, how could any human being be required to remember the events of over a decade earlier, thats just ridiculous.
    It’s all a big conspiracy.

    I’m glad you’ve kept your sense of humour through what must be a very traumatic time for you. Cheer up though, it will all be over soon.

  23. The Crewser

    Bertie Ahern has proved to be an exceptional leader over the last 10 years, almost 11 now. Even the greatest begrudgers can hardly deny that. The Irish people are impressed by that sort of thing you know Graham. They like people who deliver. Not people who talk about probity and honesty and integrity and then turn a blind eye when one of their number gets 20,000 Euro for solving a problem for a constituent. Thats Enda Kenny I’m talking about. But sorry Graham you are not a FG supporter atal, you are a floating voter who might some day vote for FF. Give me a break Graham, you are a dyed in the wool blueshirt, why else would you be contributing to this site. You claim to be a democrat, but yet you will not accept that the Irish people voted Bertie Ahern as their choice for Taoiseach on May 24th last. I can read you like a book.
    Democracy can be cruel sometimes.

  24. Tom Neville

    300 K going through a man’s accounts with no backup? Join the real world. I have mentioned it before. I have some very wealthy friends but I wouldn’t expect any of them to give me a dig out and not expect it back. And that’s from friends. There is no way that twelve guys whom I don;t know would throw in two grand each and expect nothing back. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….that’s why it is incumbent that justice be done.

  25. Graham

    “exceptional leader over the last 10 years….The Irish people are impressed by that sort of thing you know…”
    “Not people who talk about probity and honesty and integrity and then turn a blind eye when one of their number gets 20,000 Euro”

    There’s the hypocrisy right there, but you obviously don’t see that. I can see why you are such a die hard FF supporter now. You’ve as much integrity as the rest of them.
    How come you’ve gone from shouting conspiracy to attacking me now? Is it getting difficult to find new ways of distracting people from the truth?
    I’m not a FG supporter, nor am I a floating voter who might some day vote for FF. I also never claimed to be a democrat.

    “Democracy can be cruel sometimes”
    Really? But the truth hurts like a bitch. I bet it’s starting to really hurt now eh?

  26. The Crewser

    Yes Graham whether you like it or not Bertie Ahern has been absolutely outstanding as Taoiseach for the last ten years. What a tragedy it would have been if Geraldine Kennedy’s attempt to politically assassinate this great man had suceeded. But the Irish people are a sophisticated electorate these days. They do not suffer fools gladly and that applies to vexatious and false complaints made by compulsive liars such as Tom Gilmartin. But of course you Graham would not see the slightest problem with people like Gilmartin being fed details by journalists who had been in touch with the Tribunal Lawyer who has been leaking sensitive informate. Its a strange sense of justice you have Graham but one which suits your own political angle.

  27. Graham

    Back to calling it all a conspiracy now eh?

    “Its a strange sense of justice you have Graham but one which suits your own political angle”

    Pot. Kettle. Black.
    :)

  28. The Crewser

    The fact that you apparently condone the fact that a Lawyer in the Tribunal who has access to every document there, can, as he or she pleased pass the contents to Jounalists tells us exactly where you are coming from politically, Graham

  29. Gordon Davies

    It is debatable whether Bartholemew Ahern has been that remarkable. He has permitted a lot of people to make paper fortunes, but I would contend that he and his colleagues/accomplices have grossly mismanaged a faourable situation that they inherited from the previous Government. FF/PD Governement singularily failed to use the exceptional resources at their disposal to invest in the future.

    On another point – FF don’t do bribes. Like a good waiter or butler they have such an intimate knowledge of their clients that they can anticipate any desires. They then condescend to accept a substantial gratification. This is what Bartholemew did in Manchester. Having given valuable information to a group of businessmen who stood to gain large sums from speculating on the money markets, the Minister responsible for managing the Irish currency then accepted a large tip. On it’s own this sorry affair renders Barthoemew unfit to govern.

    Gordon

  30. irishpancake

    Bertie the “Accountant”

    Surely people should refrain from repeating this fiction. Apparently he was an Accounts Clerk in the Mater Hospital.

    But Fianna Fail insist on telling us

    “Educated locally, he qualified as an accountant and worked in the Mater Hospital.”

    http://www.fiannafail.ie/history_content.php4?era=6

    No evidence of his “Accountancy Training” exists, as per this:

    http://www.independent.ie/opinion/letters/surely-someone-was-keeping-records-1082246.html

    I have no problem with our leaders rising from humble origins, but surely Bertie’s fictional “Accountancy qualification” should be called into question. Or is it just the Myth of the Great Leader needs to be perpetuated, even if it is founded on very dubious grounds from the start.

  31. The Crewser

    All the dyed in the wool blueshirts who contribute to this site would do well to rremember one thing. Bertie Ahern never got bribes from anyone, not Starry O’Brien, not Owen O’Callaghan not anyone. You can make all the allegations you like, dodge around issues such as Enda Kenny’s integrity and Tom Gilmartins reliability as the Tribunal’s star witness, but there is not a shred of sustainable evidence anywhere that Bertie was bribed by anyone. But as most of you are pro opposition people, I dont for a second expect you to say anything that you are not saying. But thankfully as a cross section of Irish public opinion, you are cleary not in any way a representative sample.

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