Ireland reflects on Ahern's 'shifty' tribunal appearance

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The Independent Online

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his nation are reflecting this weekend on his punishing questioning at a corruption tribunal which went far beyond that usually experienced by an Irish prime minister.

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his nation are reflecting this weekend on his punishing questioning at a corruption tribunal which went far beyond that usually experienced by an Irish prime minister.

The tribunal was set up in 1997 to investigate the planning history of 726 acres of land in north Dublin. Mr Ahern is generally judged to have struggled during a cross-examination at Dublin Castle that lasted more than five hours.

While the Taoiseach himself was not personally accused of corruption, he had to concede that he could have met a key witness. He had previously denied that such a meeting took place.

This concession has bolstered the credibility of the witness, Tom Gilmartin, a property developer who has insisted that he attended a meeting with government ministers in 1989.

He said these included Mr Ahern as well as the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. Mr Haughey is now regarded as being in disgrace, after he was forced to admit accepting large sums of money while in office.

Mr Gilmartin has alleged that after the meeting he was approached by an unknown man who gave him details of an Isle of Man bank account. He said he was asked to lodge five million Irish pounds in exchange for government support for his building projects.

Mr Ahern had said that he had wanted to appear at the tribunal as quickly as possible so that it would not clash with his many EU and international commitments.

Those who witnessed his rough ride in the witness box described him as being shaken and annoyed under questioning. One commentator wrote: "A grim and defensive Ahern seemed nervous and unsure of his answers. He managed to come across as touchy, evasive and shifty. His body language was all wrong. He was hunched up, arms folded across his chest, leaning forward as he spoke. He was clearly riled."

The half a dozen ministers said to have attended the meeting had initially maintained either that it did not take place, or that they did not recollect it. This version of events was undermined this week when one former minister, Mary O'Rourke, broke ranks and testified to the tribunal that she had briefly been at the meeting.

Mr Ahern had previously said in a written statement: "It is my firm belief that I did not attend such a meeting." Following the O'Rourke evidence, however, he moved from his position, conceding it was possible that an "informal gathering" could have happened.

The legal pounding of Mr Ahern was a sequel to his own counsel's searching cross-examination of Mr Gilmartin, who has made a series of damaging allegations against Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail party.

The party has been anxious to dent Mr Gilmartin's credibility, with counsel suggesting he was shifty and dishonest. Mr Ahern denied in his evidence that he had been involved in any decision to do a "hatchet job" on Mr Gilmartin. The holding of such a meeting is not in itself regarded as an indication of corruption, but this week's events mean that attempts to discredit the builder's evidence have been unsuccessful.

Mr Ahern's political feat has been to remain at the top of Irish politics despite years of apparently endless legal sagas arising from attempts to establish the extent of corruption in Ireland.

The government is putting through new legislation aimed at speeding up official inquiries. Mr Ahern has told the Dail that one tribunal investigating a large number of complicated financial issues could last for 15 years. An opposition leader claimed that the process could actually take twice as long.

A series of separate tribunals was set up in the wake of financial scandals involving senior political figures, including Mr Haughey. One prominent Fianna Fail politician, Liam Lawlor, has been sent to jail three times for his refusal to co-operate with a tribunal. At one stage the presiding judge stormed out, apparently enraged at what one commentator described as Mr Lawlor's "convoluted explanations, wearisome excuses and lame protestations".

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