'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
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower