'Implausible' evidence takes toll on the Teflon Taoiseach
Bertie Ahern is known as the Teflon Taoiseach but, after an epic 17-hour cross-examination by an anti-corruption tribunal, there are indications that the Irish Prime Minister's credibility may have been damaged by his performance.
Although his legal ordeal is over for the moment, the Irish parliament, the Dail, resumes today with opposition parties poised to continue the interrogation into his unorthodox financial affairs. The Labour Party has called for Mr Ahern to resign, saying his explanation for secret cash payments in the 1990s, was "implausible".
Although few regard Mr Ahern as a corrupt politician, his performance at the tribunal has been widely described as confusing and more baffling than illuminating. His testimony, which was at variance with bank records, was characterised by vagueness and claims of memory lapses. His epic interrogation, the culmination of an inquiry which has gone on for more than seven years, was unsatisfactory for the tribunal and the Taoiseach himself.
It pitted Mr Ahern – once famously described as "the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all" – in a tense contest against the cream of the Dublin legal profession.
The tribunal's lawyers uncovered no smoking gun in Mr Ahern's affairs, but did highlight a number of "memorable" cash transactions in which he was involved in the early 1990s.
In the witness box he made no damning admissions, but nor did he succeed in clarifying to general satisfaction a convincing narrative that might explain the transactions, which totalled £68,000. Mr Ahern stuck by his assertion that he had "done nothing improper... done no wrong and wronged no one."
But his performance was described as "evasive, bewildering and confusing". As one headline summed it up: "17 hours in witness box – still no answers". A newspaper poll found that only one in three voters believed his account.
That account, and the evidence of a number of other witnesses, provided fascinating glimpses of the financial arrangements of the man who in the early 1990s was Minister for Finance and who expected to become Prime Minister.
At that time, as part of a complicated house deal, an Irish businessman told of heaping about £28,000 in cash on a table in Mr Ahern's constituency office. Mr Ahern had accepted the money, had not counted it and had shown "no particular reaction", he said.
Mr Ahern testified that the money was not for him, but to do up a house which the businessman would buy and he would rent.
The public gallery of the tribunal, held at Dublin Castle, has been packed for the past few weeks, with factions for and against Mr Ahern making their opinions evident. The occasion was viewed by some as an enthralling spectator sport.
Celia Larkin, Mr Ahern's girlfriend at the time, provoked laughter in the gallery when she testified: "Bertie dealt in cash. I think he felt more comfortable with it."
In another example of his attachment to ready money, she said Mr Ahern had driven her to a bank in Dublin's O'Connell Street, waiting while she went in and withdrew £50,000. Mr Ahern testified that she had collected the money, but said he did not recall personally taking her to the bank.
Such incidents were among the more accessible, and entertaining, parts of proceedings which also consisted of stretches of mind-numbing minutiae centring on five transactions. Hours were spent toiling over foreign-exchange transactions, with tribunal staff evidently suspecting that something fishy had happened. Mr Ahern was adamant he never dealt in US currency: "There were no dollars. There were never dollars. It's a complete red herring," he said. But not all of his evidence was so forthright, which means that his finances remain shrouded in uncertainty. In one way this is a continuation of his political skills, since he is famed for resorting to a cryptic style to foster deliberate ambiguity.
He can also be comical. He once reputedly condemned political exchanges as "throwing white elephants and red herrings at each other".
While the practice of declining to dispel imprecision is regarded as a legitimate political ploy, past scandals involving his Fianna Fail party have been so numerous that he has previously placed on record his assertion that the public are entitled to "an absolute guarantee of the financial probity and integrity of ministers". But, while the seeming lack of clarity in his evidence may return to haunt him, at the same time there is no clamour for his departure. It was only months ago that he won a third term as Taoiseach, his famed personal popularity overriding doubts about any financial irregularities.
There is also much public sympathy for Mr Ahern who, for more than a decade, has ranked as the Republic's most popular politician. The transactions all happened, it is said in the bars of Dublin, a long time ago and at a time when his marriage had broken up.
Besides, even if every allegation against him were true – and few really believe all of them – it all pales into insignificance against the low standards set by his predecessor, the late Charles Haughey who, in his time, pocketed millions.
The bottom line was summed up by a journalistic sleuth, Sam Smyth, who has spent many years investigating Irish wrongdoing. He wrote: "Not many people who have followed the detail believe Mr Ahern's evidence. Yet few believe he is corrupt, if you define corruption as taking money in exchange for doing favours."
The consensus, for the moment, seems to be that there is no convincing evidence that he has done anything illegal or politically fatal. At the same time, the perception is widespread that he has damaged himself through lack of frankness, and that he is no longer the Teflon Taoiseach.