Haughey wins a reprieve in secret gifts case

Charles Haughey was yesterday given a temporary reprieve before answering claims by the former supermarket magnate Ben Dunne that he secretly paid the politician pounds 1.3m while Taoiseach between 1987 and 1991.

The payments-to-politicians' tribunal at Dublin Castle granted an application by Mr Haughey's counsel, Eoin McGonigal, to defer a decision on the confidentiality of discussions between Mr Haughey and Mr Dunne's solicitor, Noel Smyth.

Mr Smyth told the tribunal on Friday that he could not disclose what Mr Haughey told him unless specifically ordered to, as the talks related to his role as Mr Dunne's lawyer. His account of those conversations may reveal whether Mr Haughey knew at all times that Mr Dunne was the source of funds obtained to pay off his large debts.

Mr McGonigal stressed that he was not asking for an indefinite delay, but simply one "allowing the tribunal to complete its inquiries into matters that relate to my client. It seems to me that I am entitled to have that evidence before advising my client, and it should be available to [Mr Haughey] first," he said.

The breathing space given to Mr Haughey echoes numerous eleventh-hour escapes as opponents came close to unseating him during his 12 years leading Fianna Fail, Ireland's largest party.

But the issue will still have to be faced probably within the next month. If Mr Haughey cannot refute evidence heard to date he could face ruinous tax demands or court action seeking return of the pounds 1.3m from the new management of Dunne's Stores.

The tribunal chairman, Mr Justice Brian McCracken, agreed to Mr McGonigal's plea that investigations in London and elsewhere gathering more evidence should be completed first before any decision to order Mr Smyth to reveal what took place during his five meetings with Mr Haughey.

Mr McGonigal said Mr Haughey only received Mr Smyth's statement of evidence last Friday and "while it has been possible to make certain inquiries since that time, [they] will not be complete for some time."

Earlier, the Taoiseach, John Bruton, appeared before the tribunal and confirmed that his Fine Gael party had received donations of pounds 50,000 in April 1991 and pounds 100,000 in 1983 from Mr Dunne following meetings with the businessman.

He said it had been made explicitly clear that no political favours were being given in return for the funds, and Mr Dunne had agreed to this "with alacrity".

But he was reminded that in July 1991 he had told an earlier tribunal "not even the party leader" would normally know the source of business donations. Mr Bruton said yesterday that he had been referring primarily then to donations from the beef industry.

Approaches to Mr Dunne came amid requests to corporate chiefs to help clear Fine Gael's then debt of more than pounds 1m. It emerged that Dunne's was Fine Gael's largest corporate donor at that time.

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