Bertie Ahern: Still the Teflon Taoiseach?

Ireland's Bertie Ahern is toughing out the biggest crisis of his career after admitting he accepted payments from associates. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online

Dublin's most astute political operator, whose outstanding political skills always kept him clear of the Irish Republic's recurring financial scandals, has finally become entangled in allegations of impropriety.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, defended himself in the Dail yesterday against opposition charges that he had been at fault in accepting money from a dozen business figures more than a decade ago. Attempting to defuse the crisis which is proving one of the most serious in his political career, he insisted he had done nothing wrong in the affair.

He has admitted, however, that he has suffered political damage from revelations which have tarnished his reputation as a figure largely untouched by the corruption scandals which have swirled around his Fianna Fail party for decades. He now faces an anxious wait while the Irish electorate decides whether his actions were excusable or unacceptable. Last night the general sense was that he is set to survive this crisis, providing no further damaging disclosures emerge.

While his coalition partners, the Progressive Demo-crats, often present themselves as keeping Fianna Fail honest and maintaining the highest standards, they will be most reluctant to walk out of government and force an early election.

In an emotional television interview following revelations that he was under investigation by a corruption tribunal, he described 12 donations, totalling €50,000, as a personal matter rather than a political one. The money is said to have been raised by friends who were anxious to help him out following a lengthy marriage separation which had left him bereft of funds. He was at the time finance minister.

While no one has accused him of illegality, opposition parties have claimed his behaviour conflicted with his frequent refrain that politicians should not place themselves under personal obligations to anyone. Some of the friends who chipped in were later appointed by Mr Ahern's government to the boards of public concerns.

In the Dail, opposition leader Enda Kenny declared: "You don't need legislation to know what is right or wrong," suggesting double standards. Mr Ahern said he had never taken a bribe and had done nothing wrong, though he conceded it, "could be made to look wrong".

With an election due next year, the affair is seen by Mr Ahern's opponents as a chink in the armour of the man who has been called "the Teflon Taoiseach." The two main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have been working closely together in the hope of convincing voters that they can form a workable coalition.

One line of opposition attack is that Mr Ahern says the payments were not gifts but loans, which he fully intended to repay. He has acknowledged however that in more than a decade he made no repayments and paid no interest.

Mr Ahern's television interview was generally view-ed as a bravura performance in which he spoke of his marriage break-up as "a dark, sad time" which had eaten up his savings as he made provision for his wife and children. Repeatedly saying he regarded it as "a debt of honour" to repay the donations, he declared: "The money was raised by close friends, people who were close to me for most of my life. They are not political friends. They are personal friends and they are long-standing friends."

He insisted: "I've broken no law, I've broken no ethical code, I've broken no tax law." He has described as "calculated and scurrilous" the leaking of material which he said he had disclosed in confidence to an official tribunal. He claimed it had been twisted into a political smear against him.

"It was done to damage me. I suppose those people who set out in a calculated way to do that, whoever they were, probably have succeeded to some extent."

The Irish Times, which broke the story, said it had received "an unsolicited and anonymous communication". Its editor, Geraldine Kennedy, and a reporter have been summonsed to appear before the tribunal tomorrow and ordered to hand over documents.

Mr Ahern made an uncertain start in responding to the allegations, describing the figures quoted by the paper as "off the wall" when they have since been shown to be accurate. Presenting the matter as a personal one, he originally said he felt he had no questions to answer about the affair.

But he quickly changed this stance giving many details in his TV interview. These included the identities of the 12 donors. They include Jim Nugent, a senior business figure later appointed to the board of the Central Bank, who was also chairman of an official training agency, and Fianna Fail fundraiser Des Richardson, who became a member of the Aer Lingus board.

Another donor, publican Charlie Chawke who owns half a dozen bars and is a major shareholder in Sunderland football club, said yesterday that on at least four occasions Mr Ahern had made "very serious" efforts to repay the money, but he had refused to take it.

He said on Irish radio: "I don't know anything about gifts or otherwise, other than he accepted it as a loan. This wasn't a politician accepting money from people, this was a friend helping out a friend, or friends helping friends, and that was the only way I looked at it.

"I'm not involved in politics but I'm a friend for a long time of Bertie Ahern's. I was only too delighted. I hold the man in the highest of esteem."

Mr Ahern told the Dail he had calculated that, at 3 per cent, interest on the monies would amount to €20,000.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, yesterday paid tribute to Mr Ahern, describing him as a man of outstanding stature. He added: "My belief is that he will come through this and work with us in the coming weeks and months."

Fianna Fail figures in disgrace

Charles Haughey

Charles Haughey, one-time leader of Fianna Fail, was compared to Richard Nixon, narrowly escaping prison but being formally condemned for accepting illicit payments. He took millions in surreptitious payments from business figures, denying any impropriety at tribunal hearings. But his reputation collapsed when he was confronted with incontrovertible evidence. He died this year.

Liam Lawlor

A prominent member of the Dail, he was jailed for contempt on three occasions for his obstructionist approach to a tribunal investigating his financial affairs. Regarded as one of the toughest brass necks in Irish politics, he was temporarily released from prison to hear the leaders of all parties call for his resignation. He defied them all. He died last year in a car accident in Moscow.

Ray Burke

The former Justice minister was last year jailed for six months for tax evasion following a long political career littered with suspicions of wrongdoing. A search of his home uncovered undeclared building society accounts. He was at first defended by Bertie Ahern, but later the Taoiseach said he was "saddened and betrayed". A tribunal concluded he had accepted a number of corrupt payments.