The 26-County Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, last night won a vote of confidence in the Dublin parliament, despite a challenge by the main opposition parties over the veracity of his evidence before the Mahon corruption tribunal.
Fianna Fail, Progressive Democrat and the Green Party supported a government motion expressing confidence in Mr Ahern by 81 votes to 76 when the question was put to a vote shortly before 9pm last night.
While Minister for Finance, Mr Ahern engaged in a bewildering series of cash payments, deposits and withdrawals involving two or three currencies and various business figures described by Mr Ahern as friends.
In testimony to the Mahon tribunal, Mr Ahern’s memory failed in regard to the details of the payments, adding to the confusion and doubts over his veracity.
Using tough and uncompromising language, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny openly doubted that one dinner in Manchester - where Mr Ahern has said he was given Stg8,000, or the so-called “dig-out” payments - ever happened.
“In my view, in my opinion, they’re fictitious. Complicated stories, part of a web of complicated stories designed to mask hard facts, constructed stories to fit known facts,” he declared.
“The scale may well be different from that of [former Taoiseach] Charles Haughey. But scale does not alter standards. It may well have happened at a time of change for the Taoiseach. But circumstances do not alter standards,” said Mr Kenny.
Broadening his attack, he said the public should be concerned about the affair because efforts to have a better, more honest society should always be led by the Taoiseach. “But that is now an impossibility,” he noted.
Calling for the tribunal to be allowed finish its work, Mr Cowen, to cheers from Fianna Fail backbenchers, charged: “This is not about political integrity. The tribunal will be the arbiter, unless we are to have arbitrary justice.”
The closeness of the result is explained by the absence of a number of Government Ministers on official business, who were refused pairs by Fine Gael.
Speaking ahead of the resumption of the Dublin parliament, Sinn Féin Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said there had clearly been “a lack of prudence” in the Taoiseach’s decision making and that there was now “a credibility gap”.
“The seriousness of what is at stake has nearly been lost in the minutiae of foreign exchange transactions and the soap opera style coverage of some of the media,” he said.
“The Taoiseach needs to deal with this issue and do so immediately. It is vital that people can have trust in the Office of Taoiseach and that is not the case at present.
“The fact is that the focus of government is being taken away from serious issues. Instead of doing their jobs, minister after minister is coming out to defend the Taoiseach.
“I have never seen a government as badly prepared for the return of the Dail as this one. This is deeply worrying given the serious challenges facing the economy and our public services.
“Fianna Fail has presided over a catalogue of failures and delays in cancer care. I am left with little confidence that this government can and will tackle the chaotic state of the country’s health service.”