'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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Smart phones, dumb reading: Rebecca and Harry from ‘Teens’
tv
News
people
News
Amazon's drones were unveiled last year.
business
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Life and Style
Worth shelling out for: Atlantic lobsters are especially meaty
food + drink
Sport
Gareth Bale
footballPaul Scholes on how Real Madrid's Welsh winger would be a perfect fit at Old Trafford if he leaves Spain
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Motor Mechanic / Technician / MOT Tester - Oundle

£11 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Small friendly Ford dealership based i...

Recruitment Genius: Development Worker

£18300 - £20300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - New Business - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The flat management structure a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss