The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, mounted a defiant defence of his highly unconventional personal finances when he appeared before an official tribunal looking into allegations of impropriety yesterday.
Forcefully declaring that he had never taken a bribe in all his years in politics, the Irish Prime Minister presented himself as a victim of "reckless and scurrilous" allegations. "I have done nothing improper. I have done no wrong," he testified in the ornate surroundings of Dublin Castle, the one-time seat of the former British administration.
He will give evidence again today at hearings which have attracted intense media attention in the Irish Republic, with more than a hundred reporters and photographers attempting to follow the often bewildering detail concerning contested currency transactions.
During this year's general election, in which he triumphantly won a third term as Taoiseach, Mr Ahern repeatedly declared that any allegations against him should be dealt with not during the campaign but at the tribunal. It is clear, however, that the tribunal feels that he has been dragging his feet in meeting its repeated requests for full cooperation in supplying his banking details.
The most revealing, and indeed entertaining, part of the hearings so far has centred on a cash payment of £28,000 made to Mr Ahern by a Manchester-based Irish businessman, Michael Wall, in 1994. The tribunal heard from Mr Wall that he intended the money to be used for improvements to a house which he was to buy and then rent to Mr Ahern. He testified that he had brought the cash from Manchester in a briefcase, leaving it in the wardrobe in a hotel room while he attended a function run by Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail party.
On the following day he went to the constituency office of Mr Ahern, whom he described as a close friend, and put the money on a table. Mr Ahern had not expected the money, he said, but had shown no surprise when it was produced. Mr Wall testified: "There was no particular reaction." He described Mr Ahern's response as "normal. Normal is the best I can say."
Mr Ahern had not counted the money, had not discussed the amount and had not offered a receipt, said Mr Wall. He added: "He didn't count it, I didn't count it. I just said it's roughly there and he said he'd put it in the bank." Mr Wall was in no way furtive or evasive in his tribunal appearance, smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign to cameramen.
At the time Mr Ahern, who is an accountant, was The Irish Minister for Finance and was expecting to become prime minister the following week. It has previously emerged that for some years he did not have a bank account.
This week there was laughter in the public gallery during evidence given by Mr Ahern's then partner, the beauty stylist Celia Larkin, who was also at the meeting with Mr Wall. She explained: "Bertie dealt in cash. I think he felt more comfortable with it."
Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail party has for years been jeered at as "the party of the brown envelope", since several of its leading members have been found guilty of taking bribes.
The briefcase stuffed with cash seems set to join it in Dublin's political folklore. The Opposition leader, Enda Kenny, declared: "I do feel you can't have this situation where you live in fantasy land, where money is flying around in bags and hotel rooms and constituency offices. This is the time for the Taoiseach to deal with all this and to explain why he accepted this money."
A minor point of embarrassment for Mr Ahern arises from the fact that he appears not to have had a driving licence at the time, being accustomed to a chauffeur and government vehicles.Reuse content