Page last updated at 21:15 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

Ministers' concern on Ahern money

By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC NI Dublin Correspondent

Bertie Ahern
The ministers said Bertie Ahern must address the public's 'disquiet'

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has come under additional pressure about his personal finances after two of his cabinet ministers voiced concerns about new revelations.

The ministers have spoken out for the first time about information given at a judicial tribunal in Dublin that Bertie Ahern had over £15,000 in sterling lodged to his account in 1994.

The two coalition party leaders, Mary Harney and John Gormley, said it was time for Mr Ahern to address what they said was public "concern" and "disquiet" over his public finances.

The evidence was given last week at the Mahon Tribunal into planning corruption.

It is investigating lodgements of over IR£100,000 made on behalf of Mr Ahern in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.

The taoiseach denies any involvement in corruption, and the tribunal has not so far uncovered any evidence he received money from a developer, which sparked its investigations into Mr Ahern in the first place.

Former bank manager Blair Hughes last week provided documentary evidence to the Mahon Tribunal of the hitherto undisclosed sterling lodgements made in 1994 to accounts on Mr Ahern's behalf.

Mr Hughes showed that money was lodged by Gráinne Carruth - Mr Ahern's secretary between 1987 and 1999 - into one of the taoiseach's bank accounts and those of his two daughters.

Following this evidence, Ms Carruth - who was paid IR£66 week during her time as secretary at Mr Ahern's Drumcondra party constituency office - told the tribunal she could not remember lodging thousands of pounds sterling for her boss, and broke down in the witness box.

Confronted with the documentary evidence she had made the lodgements, she finally admitted that she had probably handled sterling after being warned that perjury at the tribunal could mean penalties of up to two years in jail and fines of up to 300,000 euro.

Contradiction

Last week's evidence by the bank manager and secretary contradicts all of Mr Ahern's previous accounts to the media and previous evidence he has given to the tribunal, in which he has denied handling such amounts of sterling.

He says he was given £8,000 by a group of businessmen after what he said was a speaking engagement in Manchester in the 1990s, but has vehemently challenged tribunal lawyers who have claimed he also benefited from a lodgement of £25,000.

Mr Ahern is taking legal action in the High Court in relation to the tribunal lawyers' method of calculation asserting he received £25,000.

The contradiction has prompted a growing political storm in Ireland.

Acting leader of the Progressive Democrats and health minister Mary Harney told reporters on Thursday: "What I am saying is that the public disquiet has to be dispelled and that is a matter for the taoiseach and only the taoiseach can dispel that public disquiet."

Irish Green Party leader and environment minister John Gormley also called on Mr Ahern to make a statement.

"Well obviously there's considerable concern within my own party, the Green Party, and out there amongst the general public about some of the evidence emerging from the tribunal, and it's probably in the best interests now of everyone that a statement is made to clarify this by the taoiseach," he said.

"I do believe that the Mahon Tribunal should be allowed to continue its work and I hope that it will conclude its work very swiftly," he added.

Up to now, the Green Party in government has followed the Fianna Fáil view that any queries relating to the taoiseach's personal finances should be dealt with by the tribunal alone.

Fianna Fáil defence minister Willie O'Dea backed his leader, saying that the tribunal alone should deal with the matter.

Labour leader Éamon Gilmore however claimed the comments by the ministers were the first cracks in the government, and that Mr Ahern's political career is facing the end over the allegations.

"The game is up for Mr Ahern," he claimed.

Political difficulties

The new sterling revelations pose several significant difficulties for Mr Ahern.

He must square the evidence of the sterling lodgements with previous evidence he has given to the tribunal, and with comments he made to the media.

He has denied throughout receiving large amounts of sterling apart from £8,000 from the businessmen in Manchester.

He also must convince the Irish tax authorities he was not in receipt of money which he has not previously declared or which was not part of his income.

Failure to do so could open him to charges of tax evasion which he denies.

Mr Ahern is not due to give evidence to the tribunal again until May, but is likely to face stiff questions next week when the Dáil resumes after the Easter break.

Allegations so far about his personal finances have not affected Mr Ahern politically, and he won a third term in a row as taoiseach in last May's general election.

Since then, however, the tribunal has found that lodgements to his accounts between 1993 and 1994 were over two-and-a-half times his salary, and also found that he did not operate a bank account while minister for finance.

Mr Ahern said his staff cashed his pay cheques for him and either handed him cash or left bundles of up to IR£1,500 on his desk when he was away.

He also said that other money he received came from friends to help him after a marriage separation and to buy a house.

The complexity of the allegations and the tribunal's long-running proceedings have tended to tire some voters.

But the simple admission of a poorly-paid secretary in tears that she lodged large amounts of sterling for her boss has been easier for the public to understand, serving to increase the political pressure on Mr Ahern who may be fighting for his political survival as a result.


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