Special Report | Ireland: No more a Teflon Taoiseach

In the second of her reports from Ireland, Ceasefire's Lily Murphy revisits the spectacular fall into disgrace of former PM Bernie Ahern in the wake of last month's Mahon tribunal corruption report.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments

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Bertie Ahern

March 22nd 2012 will go down in Irish history as the day when old style politics died a gruelling yet expensive death. It was the day which saw the publication of the results of the Mahon tribunal, a fifteen year investigation into political corruption that has cost the Irish state upwards of 300 million euro. Many high profile figures in Irish political life were named and shamed in the report though none stood out as much as the former prime minister, Bertie Ahern.

From the 1990s until his resignation in 2008, Bertie Ahern and his party, Fianna Fail, had dominated the Irish political landscape. The man who won three elections in a row while spending a weekly average of 500 taxpayer euros on cosmetics became a symbol of the rotten politics that turned Ireland into a slush pile of corruption.

The planning and payments tribunal headed by Judge Mahon was set up fifteen years ago with the aim of investigating political corruption in the planning process and, without any surprise, it found that politicians were bought by developers in various Dublin land deals. The 3,270 page report is packed with so many findings that on the morning of its release I was waiting NASA reports confirming it could be seen from space. It took a total of 600 witnesses over 1,200 days of public hearings to come to the conclusion that dodgy dealings of land re-zoning occurred epidemically against the advice of many level-headed planners.

While Ahern was Taoiseach he played the international leader, the bringer of peace to the north and the creator of a booming economy in Ireland but the reality is that it was all a mirage. Ahern did not singularly bring peace to the north, those on the unionist and nationalist sides came together over years of peace negotiations to bring the north of Ireland to its (relatively) peaceful state today. Ahern did not create a booming economy in Ireland, it was a brief burst of prosperity brought about by a worldwide technological boom in the 1990s. We had a boom and we splurged on it, now we are suffering from a depressing recession. The ordinary person on the street knew Bertie Ahern wasn’t a truthful politician and there always seemed to be an air of corruption hang about him, but since the publication of the Mahon report, it is now clear where we stand and history can judge the rest.

The end for Ahern began when former government Press secretary Frank Dunlop testified about cash being paid to politicians in exchange for re-zoning lands. The payments were, he claimed, made in pubs and hotel car parks; it was beginning to sound rather murky. A high profile developer called Tom Gillmartin made allegations that Bertie Ahern was paid off by rival developer, Owen O’ Callaghan, an allegation which was the start of a long and at times astonishing money trail leading all the way to the then-Taoiseach. While giving evidence against Ahern, Gillmartin quipped that ‘Fianna Fail make the mafia look like fucking monks!’

The Mahon tribunal duly started gaining attention from the public, and as queues started forming to gain admission to the public hearings, it became, or so it seemed, the only show in town. During the fifteen days that Bertie Ahern was called to give evidence, between 2006 and 2008, an amazingly murky world of corrupt political dealings came to light. Ahern was linked to dig outs, numerous bank accounts, whip-rounds, bags of money, secret handovers and currency swaps. Ahern’s excuses were just as bizarre, from winning copious amounts of cash on horses to not having a bank account even as he served as finance Minster in the early 1990s, always denying he ever dealt in other currencies. All came to a head in 2008 when his own secretary broke down in the witness box.

Grainne Caruth was once Bertie Aherns’s faithful secretary but after two gruelling days of questioning she caved in and revealed the truth about lodging sterling cash for her then-boss, contradicting Ahern’s claims that he had never dealt in other currencies. Up until then Ahern had been dubbed the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’ by the media due to the fact no sleaze allegations could stick to him. That term is no longer in use.

Ahern resigned shortly after his secretary’s testimony. On the day of his resignation, whispers around parliament buildings were reminiscent of the days of Charles Stewart Parnell. The fact of the matter is that it was Bertie Ahern himself who knotted his own noose; and when the Mahon report was released on the morning of March 22nd, that noose was well and truly tightened.

Although the tribunal report stopped short of calling Bertie Ahern corrupt it did state he had failed to tell the truth regarding 165,214 Irish pounds that had passed through various bank accounts linked to him. The Mahon report has now been forwarded to the director of public prosecutions as well as the revenue commission. The tribunal may be over but the fall out is only beginning. Now the tribunal is over, those it had named and shamed have gone to ground, waiting for a call from the revenue police and/or the gardai.

Still, I have to ask: why did it take fifteen years and 300 million euros for a report to tell us what everyone already knew? We already knew Ireland was rotten to the core with corruption, we all knew Fianna Fail was a political party drenched in dodgy dealings and we all knew that Bertie Ahern was a man who couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. Fianna Fail might soon expel the former Taoiseach from its ranks, but some stains are hard to remove. Some even stick around for eternity.

Lily Murphy

Lily Murphy is a graduate of University College Cork from where she achieved a B.A in history and politics. These days she falls into the category of Ireland’s lost generation.

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