In an interview on Irish television this evening, the 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, admitted receiving sums of almost forty thousand Euro from business figures he described as “long standing friends”.
Mr Ahern said the money, received in two separate payments in 1993 and 1994, were loans, although he admitted he had not repaid the money or paid any interest.
He described the payments as “a debt of honour” which he fully intended to discharge. He said he had repeatedly attempted to do so, but his donors had refused to accept repayment.
Mr Ahern also revealed that he received another ten thousand pounds for addressing businessmen about the Irish economy.
In his first major statement on the controversy surrounding the payments, the Taoiseach said the money went towards legal costs associated with his separation from his ex-wife and, as part of the separation, towards his children’s education.
Donors included businessmen Charlie Chawke, Mick Collins and Des Richardson.
He was adamant that the payments in no way compromised his then position as Minister for Finance.
The controversy surrounding the payments was precipitated by a report on Thursday which said the ongoing Mahon Tribunal into political corruption was investigating payments of between fifty and one hundred thousand Euros to Mr Ahern in 1993.
In the face of persistent calls to clarify details of the payments, Mr Ahern was today forced into making a statement on the matter.
Mr Ahern said: “The difference of talking about somebody taking millions and somebody taking hundreds of thousands in exchange for contracts and other matters and taking what is relatively small contributions from friends who had a clear understanding they were paid back -- I do not equate those.”
Asked if he thought the episode has damaged him politically, Mr Ahern responded that the leaking of the information was done to damage him timed for the resumption of the Dail [Dublin parliament].
“I suppose those people who set out in a calculated way to do that, whoever they were, probably have succeeded to some extent.”
Mr Ahern’s position, and that of the coalition goverment, is now thought to be hanging the balance.
Before tonight’s interview, the leader of the junior coalition partners, Michael McDowell of the Progressive Democrats, said that he believed Mr Ahern is an honest man.
“I have no doubt about the Taoiseach’s integrity,” he added.
But Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said Mr Ahern was “guilty of double standards” and had “compromised the office of the Taoiseach”.
Mr Kenny pointed to the fact that Junior Transport Minister Ivor Callely was forced to resign in December 2005 after comparatively minor claims that a building contractor involved in public contracts had painted his house for free in the early 1990s.
In the North, there was some concern that a resignation by Mr Ahern could jeopardise the peace process at a critical time.
Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said the reality was that the Taoiseach had been “let off the hook” on bigger scandals than those alleged in the current controversy.
He said the facts revealed today about how developers were being allowed to “shred” parts of the Planning and Development Act and refuse to build social and affordable housing showed the “hand-in-glove relationship” between the FF/PD Government and unscrupulous developers.