The Dublin government is enveloped in a new and potentially critical corruption scandal over revelations of payments made to the 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in 1993.
The Fianna Fail leader has confirmed that he received payments from wealthy businessmen when he was Minister for Finance during his separation from his wife, Miriam.
The source of the revelations, leaked from the ongoing Mahon tribunal into political corruption remains unknown.
With growing opposition calls for full disclosure of the details, the Dublin parliament is to discuss the payments on Wednesday.
Mr Ahern has said that the payments, which he denied amounted to several million Euros, were intended to help him financially at the time of his separation and were not intended as bribes.
It was also reported that the monies were in the form of “loans” which were never pursued or repaid. One Fianna Fail source was quoted as saying that Mr Ahern “offered repeatedly to repay the money. It’s a debt of honour to him. He wants to repay them but the boys won’t take it back at the moment.”
The Mahon tribunal is continuing the investigate the payments. Although Mr Ahern is attempting to prevent the tribunal obtaining information relating to the financial details of his separation from his wife, a law brought into force by the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell just last spring appears to rule out the possibility.
Suspiciously, there has been no comment from the new leader of the Progressive Democrats, who appears to be biding his time. Some political commentators have said the self-styled Fianna Fail watchdog, buoyed by his party’s sudden rise in the polls, could move suddenly to terminate the coalition government and force an election.
Mr Ahern is under pressure to explain how much he received in 1993, the identity of the donors, whether he paid tax on the money, if it was given in the form of gifts or, if it was in the form of loans, why he did not declare it in his annual statement of interests to the Standards in Public Office Commission.
At the weekend, Mr Ahern issued a statement on the controversy saying that he could not discuss confidential matters relating to the tribunal. He added: “I have never received a bribe in my life. Everybody knows and sees that my lifestyle is as simple as it is honest. I have broken no law or violated any code of ethics.”
Labour leader Pat Rabbitte said that the manner in which Mr Ahern had dealt with the issue had increased public concern.
“In Clare on Thursday last the Taoiseach appeared to confirm the substance of the story and took issue only with the amounts quoted in the article. However, when issues were then raised as to how the monies may have been handled for tax purposes, a series of sources close to the Taoiseach were then sent out to brief the media with an entirely different version, ie, that it was not four businessmen, but 10 or 11, and that the money was in the form of loans that the Taoiseach had not yet got round to paying back,” he said.
Mr Rabbitte said it was now essential for Mr Ahern to come into the Dail on Wednesday and make a full statement on all circumstances of the payments.
“One of the stranger aspects of this affair is the absolute silence of the Progressive Democrats. Are we to assume that the party has departed so far from the standards of Des O’Malley that not a single PD deputy or senator has any concerns about these extraordinary revelations?” asked Mr Rabbitte.
While accepting that Mr Ahern’s split from his wife Miriam in 1993 would be an “awkward dimension” to revisit, he said: “He needs to make a statement about the identity of the donors, did he make any decisions that benefited them and so on?”
He said it was not enough to say that the loans Mr Ahern received from up to eleven wealthy friends were personal.
“I recall well his forensic pursuit and quite proper pursuit of Michael Lowry at the time private businessmen conferred advantage on him and in this situation it would appear that a number of businessmen have done precisely that for Mr Ahern and it needs to be disposed of.”
It also needs to be established whether or not any of Mr Ahern’s benefactors were appointed to State boards, the Labour leader added.
Fine Gael environment spokesman Fergus O’Dowd also demanded a statement from the PDs. “The Tanaiste’s silence following the Taoiseach’s admission that he received cash gifts from a number of prominent businessmen is deafening. It is astonishing, for the first time in recent Irish political history that Michael McDowell has not had a view and been willing to express it forcibly.”