By Miriam Lord (for the Irish Times)
Spare us your indignation, Micheál Martin. Button your disgust, Fianna Fáil. We don’t want to hear it. You had your chance and you chose to do nothing. So don’t pretend to be shocked now.
Just do us that much. We won’t buy it.
If the tribunal were to take another 15 years to deliver its findings, you’d still be sitting on your hands. I sat through all of Bertie Ahern’s evidence. It was appalling.
Hilarious? Frequently. Pathetic? Often. Infuriating? Utterly. Embarrassing? Completely.
I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now.
And, unlike the clever people entrusted by us to run the country at the time, I didn’t have to wait years for a tribunal of inquiry to tell me.
But did it matter? Well yes, it did, because this man, grinning in the witness box, was our taoiseach.
He wasn’t a corner-cutting property developer. He wasn’t a millionaire builder, doing what you have to do to close a deal. He wasn’t an amoral middle-man or a small-time councillor on the make.
Bertie Ahern was the prime minister of our country, holder of the highest office in the land.
That’s supposed to mean something.
And he was lying through his teeth. Anybody with half an ounce of wit could see it.
Reporters detailed his ridiculous explanations for the huge amounts of money washing through his myriad accounts, and resting in his office safes. The most cursory of examinations of the daily transcripts would have shown up his risible stories for the twaddle that they were.
But throughout, his government and party turned a blind eye; squirmed and twisted and gave every manner of excuse to avoid the blindingly obvious taking place in full public view in a State-established inquiry.
He was lying.
“Due process,” they spluttered, when not muttering about being too busy to read his lengthy testimony. “It’s not an issue on the doorsteps,” they parroted, as if that made all the difference.
Of course, they couldn’t prejudge the report either. We can’t interfere: let the tribunal take its course, they chorused.
They commented when it suited them, taking selective quotes from the transcript to bolster their arguments, like when ministers mobilised to insist the tribunal had cleared Ahern of allegations of non-compliance.
It wasn’t true.
The tribunal merely stated it wasn’t addressing these allegations, one way or the other.
Bertie Ahern was not in front of the courts. His evidence was not sub judice. Ministers, backbenchers and cheerleaders could comment, and act, as they saw fit.
But they turned a blind eye to the lies of their leader and instead, attacked the tribunal for daring to ask him legitimate, hard questions. Party, and political expediency was more important than political integrity and public trust in our democracy.
It was spurned for one more twirl on the political gravy train.
If Bertie Ahern was making a mockery of us inside that tribunal chamber, his colleagues were every bit as bad outside of it.
Worse, even. For Bertie was fighting tooth and nail to save his reputation – at least he had a reason.
No surprise then, to see that when the Mahon tribunal chickens finally came home to roost yesterday, Fianna Fáil pushed the young people forward into the line of fire.
Par for the course.
Micheál Martin surfaced on the evening news. Talking to Dobbo – looking almost as sad as Bertie Ahern on that famous evening in September when he poured out his heart to the RTÉ anchorman – Deputy Martin said he accepted the findings of the report and took them very seriously.
Back in 2008, when his leader had them rolling in the aisles with his far-fetched yarns of wads of cash turning up in his office and a “sinking fund” of money to stop that same office from sliding into the river Tolka, Micheál robustly declared that he believed Bertie’s evidence and accused the opposition of using the tribunal process to undermine Ahern’s political leadership.
He wasn’t alone in taking up the cudgels for his beleaguered boss.
But Mahon nailed the spineless and cynical response of those senior ministers to the cross-examination of their leader, their election winner who had to be protected at all costs.
There were “unseemly and partisan attacks” on the tribunal with a “sustained and virulent attack” on their work from “senior government ministers.” It didn’t bother those political paragons in 2007/2008, as they trotted out on to the Leinster House plinth and fanned across the national airwaves to defend the indefensible.
Those of us who were enduring Ahern’s farcical evidence couldn’t help but feel angered and demoralised by the closing of ranks in the cabinet.
Bertie’s colleagues eventually took him out because even they could not stomach the mounting shame caused by his tawdry excuses for all the money he amassed when minister for finance.
Money which was far in excess of his earnings and for which he couldn’t plausibly account.
When a low-paid office secretary, through her tears, was forced to endure two harrowing days in the witness box as part of his faltering efforts to keep up his cover story, they could take no more.
But as a consolation prize, they let Bertie off on a lap of honour around the world and lauded him as the finest politician of his generation.
The former taoiseach was lying even before the tribunal began. After The Irish Times published that first story of very large sums of money flowing into his coffers, Bertie met it head on.
“Off the wall!” he declared, when presented with a figure of between fifty and a hundred thousand pounds.
He was right, in a way. That figure was far larger.
Punts. Sterling. Dollars. It didn’t matter to Bertie. Once it was hard cash. He always dealt in cash, we were repeatedly told.
The saga of the two digouts will go down in song and story. The explanation, told in tearful tones to Bryan Dobson, was that he was hard up for money after his marital separation and his pals rallied around to give him the deposit for a house.
That was another fairytale. His mates, smirking and swaggering, corroborated it. Nobody believed a word of it, not least because the tribunal had already established that Bertie was awash with cash.
Then there was Micheal Wall, the North of England businessman, who attended the Manchester whip-around night but “didn’t eat the dinner.”
He bought a house for Bertie and provided the money to build a conservatory while tens of thousands more were lodged in the bank by Celia Larkin to do up this mini-Versailles in Drumcondra.
She had the receipts. About the only documentary evidence surviving. The tribunal dismissed the entire caper.
Tall story piled upon tall story, until the former taoiseach had to fall back on the time-tested “won-it-on-the-horses” defence to account for some of the cash.
The timing of the hearings was lucky for Bertie. The sums of money involved would have been huge, back in the early 1990s. But he took the stand during the building boom, when the most of the figures under examination could be compared to the deposit on a shoe-box apartment on the outskirts of town.
People, shelling out hundreds of thousands for badly built starter homes, shrugged. Small beer, or so they thought.
Today, deep in negative equity, they think differently. The actions of people who subverted the planning process had a consequence, one they are now living.
But, as Bertie Ahern’s supporters were quick to point out yesterday, he subverted nothing. The tribunal found no proof of corruption.
Just all this money, for which they found he had no credible explanation. In fact, in the circumspect way of judges, they essentially said he lied about where he got that money.
Look. Bertie doesn’t matter anymore. Nor does the buffoonish Pee Flynn or those grasping councillors. Most of Ahern’s cabinet have departed the political scene.
“I believe political loyalty is a virtue and that loyalty will be maintained by the government for the taoiseach on the basis of his achievements” said Brian Cowen, his eventual successor.
But Bertie Ahern was not just their taoiseach.
He was our taoiseach too.
And that’s the tragedy.
He lied. I heard him.
We all saw it.
Our taoiseach dishonoured the office with his tribunal performance. And by deliberately averting their gaze, so too did his colleagues and his party.
So spare us your indignation, Micheál Martin.
Button your disgust, Fianna Fáil.
We don’t want to hear it now.