Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

How woman trouble led to the downfall of Bertie

The women closest to the outgoing Taoiseach tried to stand by him, but were forced by the Mahon Tribunal to help in his downfall. By Lise Hand

In 1854 French writer Alexandre Dumas wrote in one of his stories of high adventure: "There is a woman in every case; as soon as they bring me a report, I say, 'Look for the woman'." Dumas coined the phrase 'cherchez la femme', and in truth no good story or whodunnit is complete without the involvement of a female at a turning-point in the drama.

And thus it is with the hero/villain of the hour, Bertie Ahern.

For a man who famously likes to surround himself with a coterie of trusted lads who watch his back, drink pints with him, organise whip-rounds and dig-outs, and go with him to Old Trafford to cheer on his beloved Manchester United, two women from his past have possibly had the most profound effect on his future.

Despite his robust assertions on Wednesday that his decision to step down next month "was solely motivated by what is best for the people" and was not triggered by recent events at the Mahon Tribunal, there is no doubt that the recent appearances of Grainne Carruth and Celia Larkin at Dublin Castle — in person and in the course of evidence — that changed the story dramatically.

On March 22, Bertie presented himself for a second consecutive day of giving evidence at the Mahon Tribunal.

The day got off to an electrifying start when the chairman Judge Alan Mahon let fly at Bertie's senior counsel Conor Maguire, but then the real bombshell of the day dropped. The day before, he had answered questions about a IR£30,000 withdrawal from the B/T, or Building Trust, account, explaining that it was a loan to a member of his staff who had "a private family difficulty" involving "three elderly relatives".

The tribunal's senior counsel Des O'Neill wanted Bertie to name names. "Who was the member of staff?" he asked.

"Celia Larkin," said Bertie quietly.

There was an audible mass intake of breath from both the packed Press area and the public gallery. This was totally unexpected.

Almost immediately, the questions began to mount up outside the tribunal.

How come that the trustees of the Building Trust account handed over this enormous sum of money to Celia without the knowledge of her 'life partner'? Had she paid the loan back? (She had, in January 2008.)

A week later the Press pack descended en masse to Adare in Co Limerick, where the glamorous blonde was holding a workshop for businesswomen on personal branding.

She said not a word about the revelation that she had received her very own dig-out back in 1994, but Celia's image was striking enough.

There she was, swinging a Hermes Birkin handbag which — assuming it was the genuine article and not a $25 knock-off from New York as carried by large numbers of image-conscious businesswomen — costs a wallet-emptying £5,500.

It is the status symbol of a woman who lives a high-flying lifestyle, who has money to spare and who last autumn sailed through her grilling at the Mahon Tribunal with equanimity.

Celia Larkin and Bertie had been a close couple. She was involved in every aspect of his life, from organising the purchase of his house in Drumcondra, to spending a small fortune on the fixtures and fittings, to conducting financial dealings for him, as she did on January 19, 1995, when she withdrew IR£50,000 from the AIB on O'Connell Street and gave it to Bertie who was waiting in a car around the corner.

They were that close, yet Celia

had omitted just some months earlier to tell her life partner that hismates had handed over IR£30,000 from an account allegedly used for party funds. Bertie's bombshell about this 'humanitarian' loan at the tribunal seriously shook the bottomless well of blind faith shown time and again by Fianna Fail's grass roots.

And Bertie's lads never really did like Celia anyway.

If this evidence saw a seeping away of support for Bertie, then it was the evidence of his former secretary Grainne Carruth which shook the public's perception of the Taoiseach.

She had worked for him for years in St Luke's.

He obviously trusted her to make bank runs for him to lodge money into the accounts of his two daughters, and she obviously hero-worshipped him.

On the witness stand she called him Bertie.

Grainne lodged thousands into various accounts for her boss. But she was adamant she never lodged any sterling for him.

After all, Bertie had previously told the tribunal that he had never dealt in sterling.

But then the lawyers backed her into a corner and she conceded that the evidence showed that she must have lodged British bank notes. Grainne cried. "I just want to go home," she sobbed. "I'm hurt and I'm upset."

The public didn't like to see a woman set adrift, forensically gutted by the tribunal's senior counsel Des O'Neill as she desperately tried to keep Bertie out of trouble.

But now — albeit reluctantly — she had given evidence directly at odds with his own.

Last weekend, the first opinion poll since Grainne Carruth gave evidence showed a drop in support for Fianna Fail.

But the Government ministers held firm around the Taoiseach. Then last week, PD senator Fiona O'Malley lobbed the first grenade. The Taoiseach needs to clarify his contradictory evidence to the Mahon Tribunal, she declared. Hours later, Bertie's great friend and longtime Cabinet compadre Mary Harney backed up Fiona's call. It was time for Bertie to end "public disquiet" over his evidence.

And days later, Bertie decided to go. For the good of the country, he insisted. But there's no doubt that the sisterhood — wittingly or unwittingly — played a role in his departure. As his predecessor, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds once ruefully remarked: "That's women for you, now."

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