Ahern hits back against fraud claims

4 May 00
It is a rare Easter in Ireland when the commemoration of the 1916 Rising is overshadowed. But this year, a more modern drama swamped the historical pageants.

05 May 2000

Long-running inquiries into political corruption at the highest levels in the Republic suddenly produced new sensational headlines.

The Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Bertie Ahern, flanked by other leading members of his Fianna Fail faithful at an Easter Monday march, publicly denied newspaper allegations that he had taken an IR£50,000 bribe (£38,000) from a property developer in the car park of a Dublin hotel.

Tales of corruption, long a shadow in the background of Irish political life, had hit the big time. 'I am a straight, honest person,' said Ahern. He had not received money 'from anybody, either in the car park in the Burlington, or in any other car park in 1979, 1989, 1999, or at any other time'.

A tribunal chaired by Mr Justice Flood – set up by Ahern – has spent the past two-and-a-half years investigating allegations over the obtaining of planning permission for a multi-million punt shopping development in north Dublin.

Foreign minister Ray Burke resigned at the outset of the inquiry after accusations that he received IR£30,000. Then European Commissioner and fellow veteran Fianna Fail politician Padraig Flynn bowed out of political life after facing allegations of a gift of IR£50,000.

The latest, sensational allegations followed evidence to Flood from chat show host, political lobbyist and former Fianna Fail and government press secretary Frank Dunlop. He claimed he had given IR£112,000 on behalf of a developer to 15 Fianna Fail and Fine Gael Dublin councillors to assist with planning permission by

'rezoning' farming land as suitable for development. Then it emerged that Flood was also investigating suggestions that three other senior Fianna Fail politicians had been given IR£50,000 each by the same property developer.

The property developer concerned is Owen O'Callaghan, who admits making a IR£100,000 donation to Fianna Fail and paying Dunlop as his lobbyist, but denies paying out bribes to councillors.

O'Callaghan is coincidentally at a critical stage in pushing on with a highly controversial IR£320m shopping complex in his home city of Cork. Attempts last week by Green and Labour Cork councillors to halt the sale of 111 acres of land to O'Callaghan for the scheme were defeated after councillors were told the contract was binding. O'Callaghan claims that he has been the victim of 'a serious personal, business or political vendetta'.

Behind all this lies a plethora of less sensational but still deeply damaging allegations – the odd IR£10,000 here and there handed over by business-people to leading politicians, and the occasional failure to declare to the tax authorities money received in brown paper bags. A former Dublin council official is alleged to have had IR£200,000 in cash on him when arrested by the police at Dublin airport. Another senior Dublin official was found to have no less than IR£500,000 in his bank account.

Alongside Flood, the Moriarty Tribunal into political funding, also instituted by Ahern, has been running on near-parallel tracks. Moriarty itself was the product of the McCracken Tribunal, where arch-fixer and former Taoiseach Charles Haughey met his fate. Anyone who wondered how Haughey acquired one of the best mansions in Dublin after a life of modest, declared incomes soon learnt the unsavoury answers.

Ben Dunne, then head of Dunnes Stores, Ireland's major supermarket group, gave Haughey £1.3m. Other businesspeople spoke of handing over hundreds of thousands of pounds. In all, millions of punts may have been given to Haughey – leading to new tax demands of at least £1.7m. Parts of Haughey's considerable property portfolio are now being sold to meet his tax and legal bills.

But perhaps the most shocking allegation made to Moriarty is that Haughey fundraised tens of thousands of punts to pay for a liver transplant for his seriously ill ministerial colleague and friend, Brian Lenihan, when the costs were already pledged. Donations instead found their way into accounts connected to Haughey, while Lenihan's widow says she received only £200.

If suspicions have mostly pointed towards Fianna Fail politicians, it is by no means a one-way street. The scandals have been almost equally damaging to Ireland's other main party, Fine Gael. McCracken also investigated former Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry, whom, he concluded, was paid hundreds of thousands of pounds illicitly, again by Dunne.

Now the latest Flood allegations have led to Fine Gael as well as Fianna Fail ordering an internal inquiry.

As in Britain before it, political party funding is now a hot issue, and there are growing calls to end commercial donations to the parties.

Dunlop has yet to finish his evidence to Flood – interrupted because the man was too ill to continue answering questions. Flood will reveal more this month, as may Cork and Dublin businesspeople whose accounts are gradually emerging in the nation's sensation-hungry papers.

While Ahern continues to maintain his innocence, the Irish media are likely to have enough material to feed their readers' hunger for new sensations for some time yet.


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