Kevin Meagher reports on the downfall of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a man so dodgy he makes David ‘Cash for Access’ Cameron look positively incorruptible.
Imagine if David Cameron was at some point in the future about to be expelled from the Conservative Party over the cash for access scandal… Well, this is exactly the fate that was set to befall thrice-elected former Irish premier Bertie Ahern, who faced calls for his expulsion last week from the Fianna Fail party he led for 14 years.
This follows a 15-year long corruption investigation probing links between the Irish political class and property developers which concluded Ahern provided misleading evidence to the tribunal about the source and use of more than £215,000 lodged in bank accounts connected to him.
While stopping short of directly alleging Ahern received corrupt payments, the tribunal nevertheless accuses him of lying by failing to “truthfully” explain the sources of the money.
In response Ahern says he “hid nothing” and provided investigators with “unfettered access” to his financial affairs, adding:
“I have told the truth to this tribunal, and I reject strongly any suggestion that I sought to mislead it.”
The tribunal (or to give it its full name, ‘The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments’) has been the longest-running investigation in Irish legal history. Latterly chaired by Judge Alan Mahon, it held 1,200 days of public hearings and interviewed more than 600 witnesses, costing somewhere in the region of £200 million.
The tribunal’s mammoth 3,270-page report has now been handed over to prosecuting authorities. Its recommendations are wide-ranging and include the creation of a powerful new planning regulator, stronger protection for whistleblowers, limits on political donations and a new register of lobbyists.
Current Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, last week threatened to expel Ahern (and former EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn) from the party because they “fell short of the standard of personal behaviour which all holders of public office should uphold”.
A motion to expel the pair was expected to be put before a special meeting of the party’s national executive this Friday. Martin, Ireland’s respected former foreign minister, was, in turn, accused by Ahern’s brother, Noel, of being in a “mad rush” and using the issue to “build his own media image”.
Jumping before he was pushed, Ahern told yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper that he was quitting Fianna Fail after 40 years, but this was not “an admission of wrong-doing” and that “nobody should try to interpret it in that way”.
For Fianna Fail, their former leader’s travails are an unwelcome distraction as the party seeks to rebuild its shattered reputation following last year’s general election drubbing (it fell from 77 seats to 20).
Ahern, the one-time “Teflon Taoiseach” who dominated Irish politics for a decade, has had his reputation irredeemably tarnished. The irony is that this uber-schemer is no longer the fixer but the problem itself.
Indeed, in the Irish state’s centenary decade, replete with key events commemorating the sacrifices of countless patriots who fought for freedom and democracy, a glimpse at the grubby underbelly of Irish politics is especially seamy.
His predecessor as Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, once famously said of Ahern:
“He’s the man. He’s the best, the most skilful, the most devious, and the most cunning of them all.”
That dubious tribute may have been a back-handed compliment in Ireland’s boom years; it now seems an all too literal character reference.