Ahern accused of taking covert payments

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The Independent Online

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, was at the centre of a growing political storm yesterday over his acceptance of payments from business figures to pay legal fees 13 years ago.

While confirming he had received money while minister for finance in 1993, he denied impropriety had taken place and insisted that the sums involved were far less than the €50,000 (£33,000) claimed in a newspaper report.

Mr Ahern said information in a report by the Irish Times had been leaked from an anti-corruption tribunal in a manner which he described as unfair, unjust, dirty and dishonest.

The Mahon tribunal, as it is known, has been investigating corruption in Irish political and public life since 1997. Official inquiries have led to the imprisonment of several prominent members of Fianna Fail, the party Mr Ahern leads, as well as the disgrace of its former leader, the late Charles Haughey.

But the Irish Prime Minister himself has emerged personally unscathed by various corruption scandals. Following one serious allegation, that he had taken £50,000 from a businessman, he successfully sued for libel. The fact that this accusation was shown to be completely unfounded, and that Mr Ahern's reputation has remained intact during years of intensive investigations, meant that yesterday's disclosures were received with interest but also with caution.

Mr Ahern appeared stung by the fact that the leak from the tribunal had been based on information he himself had supplied to it on a confidential basis. Denying that he had questions to answer, he asserted that the matters were "my own private business".

He declared: "I'm not answering how I got my holy communion money, my confirmation money, what I got for my birthday, what I got for anything else. I gave all the details of everything to do with my life to the tribunal."

He said the question was "who went to the trouble in such a motivated and scurrilous way, leaking what was a confidential session with the tribunal and putting it into the public domain?".

Two of the smaller opposition parties called for additional confirmation of the affair, saying Mr Ahern had himself publicly declared that politicians had not only to avoid illegality but also to avoid anything which might appear to put them under a personal obligation.

The tribunal has contacted an Irish businessman, David McKenna, and two or three other persons regarding payments to Mr Ahern in 1993, when he was both finance minister and treasurer of Fianna Fail.

In letters to them it said it "seeks your assistance in reconciling certain receipts of funds by Mr Ahern during this period". The tribunal asked Mr McKenna and others to name the person who requested payment, the reason why it was required, who it was given to and whether it was in cash or some other form.

Mr McKenna, a wealthy man at the time whose recruitment firm later went bankrupt, is known as a friend of Mr Ahern and a supporter of Fianna Fail.

The tribunal has proved extraordinarily diligent in its task of pursuing the details of political corruption, unearthing many unsavoury facts in the face of stonewalling and obstruction by politicians.