When then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited Canberra in 2000 to open the Book of Kells exhibition at the National Gallery, he was accompanied by a woman who was not his wife.
There was a time when such an arrangement would have attracted the ire of the Irish electorate – think Parnell – but in the modern Ireland, it went without comment. I mention it because the breakup of his marriage was one of the reasons he gave to explain his finances, described by himself as chaotic.
He was asked to give some explanation for this financial turmoil before a tribunal that he himself had set up in 1997 to look into dealings between developers and politicians. He said that $200,000 which had passed through his accounts in the 1990s was mainly the result of “dig-outs” or “whip-arounds” from friends.
Last week, that tribunal said that he had not “truthfully accounted” for those funds; it stopped short of using the word corrupt in his case, but did use it for other Fianna Fáil politicians, some of whom have already served time for corruption.
The tribunal ran for 15 years, the last nine under Judge Alan Mahon who has given the tribunal its name. It has sat for over 900 days and its report runs to more than 3,200 pages; it has cost the taxpayer over $100 million to date and that figure is expected to treble when all costs are in.
One of Mahon’s strongest criticisms was reserved for attempts by members of Bertie Ahern’s front bench to discredit the tribunal at a time when it seemed to be going after him most forcefully.
Almost all of those ministers have since retired or lost their seats in the 2011 wipeout of the Fianna Fáil party. Bertie himself has resigned, possibly to avoid the ignominy of being kicked out, as the party’s current leader said would happen.
Not surprisingly, the release of the report has led to fury in Ireland and to demands that people should serve time or have their pensions quarantined. Neither of those is likely to happen, because there is no shortage of senior counsel happy to take $2,400 a day (the going rate for those arguing before Mahon) to point out the absence of hard evidence.
But while the ordinary Irish citizen has every right to be angry, they might well be reminded that they elected Fianna Fáil to run the country in eight of the nine general elections between 1987 and 2011.
The electorate can now claim that they were fooled by devious politicians, but Mahon would have none of it, using words like “systemic” and “endemic” for corruption in Irish public life.
What’s more, with the exception of Charlie Haughey and Bertie Ahern and some other senior ministers, most of the brown paper bag payments were small, less than a few thousand dollars: local and national politicians who were not only corrupt but also cheap.
People living in Ireland were drip fed most of the revelations in the Mahon report over the years and waited for its release to know that what they had heard was more than rumour. For someone who taps in only infrequently to Irish news, there is the uncomfortable thought that this could be Zimbabwe or some third world country, not one’s country of birth. I mention three things in particular that made me sit up.
Mahon quotes the evidence of one developer, a man who had made his fortune in Britain and returned to Ireland when the property boom was just taking off. He attended a meeting in the seat of parliament, Leinster House, attended by Haughey, Ahern, Albert Reynolds and most members of cabinet to discuss a proposed development in west Dublin.
In the corridor after the meeting, he was accosted by a man from the meeting whom he did not know, who told him that he should deposit £5 million (1989 money, pre-euro) in a named account in the Isle of Man. Everyone except the developer concerned denies that such a thing ever took place.
Writing in an Irish newspaper at the weekend, Joan Burton, the (Labour) Minister for Social Protection in the current government tells of a talk she gave in 1993 in which she made some remarks about corruption and said that there should be open disclosure of payments from developers to local councillors. Afterwards, she received 42 solicitors letters demanding that she withdraw the remarks.
My favourite, however, was the answer given to the tribunal by one of Ahern’s benefactors when asked why he had given his “dig-out” in cash. He replied that Ahern was such an upright and proud person that if he was given a cheque, he might tear it up.
Yes, Prime Minister.
This piece originally appeared in The Canberra Times on March 27.