Brian Cowan’s defence of Bertie Ahern at the Humbert School in Ballina is curious in regard to its timing and to its selective nature. It comes just three weeks before Ahern is due to answer some crucial questions before the Mahon tribunal, principal of which is how a Minister for Finance earning approximately £50,000 a year could lodge to his account in a short time between 1993 and 1995 upwards of £120,000, despite having to maintain two separate houses for himself and his separated wife and daughters.
Cowan argues that after ten years the public understand that Ahern “is not motivated by personal gain” Ahern, it is generally agreed, presents an image of a man who lives modestly, with none of the ostentation of his mentor, CJ Haughey. But, power, like wealth is a huge attraction for a politician and Ahern has always relished being at the top table. He sat at Haughey’s feet for years and would have to be blind and deaf not to recognise the extent of the corruption going on around him as scores of back slappers turned up with their grubby pounds to secure planning permissions or designation of building sites to avoid taxes.
Ahern himself contributed to the general lowering of standards by signing dozens of blank cheques for Haughey fro the Party’s Oireachtas fund. At the same time, he was aware of thousands of pounds being contributed to individuals for Party funds which were never passed on to the Party.
Among the lodgements made to Ahern’s account in December, 1994 was a sum of £30,000 which, he claimed had been brought to his office by a Manchester businessman in sterling in a brief case. The money was lodged in the bank a couple of days later, except that bank officials told the Tribunal that the largest amount of sterling lodged that day was just under £2000 and that Ahern’s lodgement was “probably in dollars”.
All of these matters raised legitimate concerns for the newspapers who pursued them but got no satisfactory answers. Cowan obviously feels they should not have been pursued and that Ahern was hounded by journalists as if suspicion surrounding the financial affairs of the country’s leading politician should not be allayed.
There was never any question of Ahern’s personal probity until he himself disclosed last September that he had taken thousands of pounds from a group of friends for his own personal use. He claimed the money was a loan but thirteen years later had not repaid the money until the issue became public knowledge. Several of his friends were appointed to the boards of State agencies for which they had no qualifications except that they were “his friends” as he told the Dail. At the same time he disclosed that he had been given a gift of £8,000 by a group of businessmen in Manchester. Their names were not disclosed and there was no explanation for their generosity.
Despite the widespread concern aroused by these events, Cowan says the public showed an innate sense of fair play which is willing to hear all the information before reaching a conclusion. Ahern, however, has had several opportunities to explain his position in the Dail, on television, in newspaper interviews and through his legal advisors in the Tribunal. Up to now, most of the explanations have simply added to the confusion. Most decent minded people find it inconceivable that their Taoiseach would allow a cloud of suspicion to hang over his financial affairs without coming forward with irrefutable evidence that he has not been guilty of any wrongdoing and that the allegations of receiving backhanders from building speculators are without foundation. Cowan does him no service by pretending it is all a newspaper conspiracy to damage Ahern.