Read Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money Online

Authors: Colm Keena

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Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money

BOOK: Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money
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  PART ONE

2006
Chapter
1  
SCOOP

A
newspaper reporter’s work is like that of a firefighter, in that there are periods when the reporter has to be there, just in case. During such dull periods the newspaper still has to be filled, and reporters can be assigned to write up reports about matters that are of little general interest. A way of escaping from the more tedious aspects of the job is to generate your own news, or scoops, since reporters who can do so win a little freedom from the line editors to whom they report, and with a bit of luck they can make their lives more interesting.

On the morning of 19 September 2006 I arrived at work on what looked as if it was going to be a quiet news day. The
Irish Times
was still in D’Olier Street, in a terrace of old buildings that had been connected to each other over time by the knocking of holes in their walls, creating a complex whole whose full details were known only to a select few. If you were going to the canteen and strayed from your normal route you could get lost in a warren of linoleum-covered staircases and bizarrely connected hallways.

I entered by the so-called works entrance in Fleet Street, climbed to the newsroom on the second floor and walked through it to a smaller room at the back that had once been the men’s toilets but was now the business and finance section. It looked onto the dull brick wall of the building opposite, through the broken windows of which pigeons flew in and out. There was little by way of natural light.

At that period much of my section’s work consisted of reporting on the phenomenal and seemingly never-ending growth of the Irish economy, and on the astonishing wealth that had been accumulated by business owners and investors over the previous decade or more. Every week there was yet another startling story about a killing made through the sale of assets, or about the latest purchase made by the Irish leviathans who were busy buying the choicest properties in the Western world. There was an air of unreality about the stories which created their interest while at the same time robbing them of any depth. Unfortunately, too few of us paused to reflect on what that might mean.

I sat at my desk with my takeaway cup of coffee, an almond croissant and a copy of that morning’s edition. My to-do list was empty. Then the phone rang.

A short time later I had in my hands a number of documents that I read carefully so as to estimate their journalistic value. It was immediately clear that I had not only a scoop but one that concerned the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Anything about Ahern was of journalistic interest. He had been in power for nine years and was the most popular politician in Ireland—possibly the most popular since the foundation of the state. He was at one and the same time the country’s most powerful politician, one of its biggest celebrities and someone whose place in history was secure. Everything about him was news.

The documents concerned the workings of the Mahon Tribunal, the planning inquiry that had been set up by Ahern’s first Government soon after it had come to power in June 1997. Scoops based on leaks about tribunals had become so frequent that they were something of a debased currency. The country was suffering from tribunal-allegation fatigue. The saving grace, however, was that this leak involved Ahern.

The information I had showed that the tribunal had written to a man called David McKenna informing him it had been told that he paid money to Ahern in or around December 1993. McKenna was a successful businessman who was friendly with Ahern and had on occasion brought him on a private jet to watch soccer matches in Manchester. The tribunal told McKenna that it was investigating a number of payments to Ahern. Furthermore, the information indicated that McKenna had replied to the tribunal saying that he had indeed paid money to Ahern. So what was at issue wasn’t another allegation of a payment: it was a confirmed payment.

A tribunal can investigate only matters that are covered by its terms of reference, and the Mahon Tribunal was charged, in the main, with investigating allegations of corruption in planning. Allegations of corruption in different planning decisions over the years had been arranged by the tribunal into discrete sets of planned hearings, or modules, and I had to explain to my readers which module or planning decision the inquiry being made of McKenna, who ran a successful employment agency, belonged to.

Making my way across the newsroom, I stopped at the news desk and told the news editor, Miriam Donohue, that I had some material revealing that the Mahon Tribunal was investigating payments to Bertie Ahern in 1993.

‘Oh, that sounds good. You’d better go up and talk to Geraldine,’ she said.

Miriam was referring to the then editor of the
Irish Times
, Geraldine Kennedy. I walked across the newsroom and through a doorway that led to the editor’s office, which was in fact a number of rooms. In the first were the desks of the editor’s secretary and five or six more desks belonging to senior editors. On the right was the editor’s office, while on the left, up a step, was the conference room, where the section heads met at scheduled hours every day to discuss what was going into coming editions and the progress of the items being worked on. This room, with its wall maps and set of tables arranged in a square, was used for less frequent meetings in which the organisers of the different elements of the paper’s content would meet and apprise the editor or duty editor of their plans and progress. It also served as an important stage for all the gossip and office manoeuvring that exists in any organisation of substance and supposed power.

On the day I went up to the editor’s office Geraldine was just finishing her weekly meeting with the political reporters who covered the goings-on in Leinster House. We sat at the conference-room table, and I told her what had happened and gave her the material I had to read through. Geraldine, a former political editor and a long-time political journalist, was immediately interested. She was cognisant of the fact that it was a controversial matter affecting the reputation of the most powerful person in the land. We discussed what I had and how I should go about preparing my report for publication. Any mistaken allegation about such a figure would be a huge embarrassment. Ahern would have to be given an opportunity to respond to anything that was going to be written. It was agreed that I would work closely with her on the story.

By the next evening the story was ready to run. I got in contact with people who acted as spokespersons for Ahern. The Government spokesperson said it was a matter for the party spokesperson, who said it was a tribunal matter and therefore confidential. I contacted McKenna and, on his instructions, his solicitor. The story was ready to roll. I sat at my computer in the messy business section and wrote the few paragraphs that were going to appear on the next day’s front page. Geraldine came up and looked at it on the screen and suggested a few changes.

It is important to say that the report the
Irish Times
was about to publish was, we believed, more than just another tribunal leak of something that would in time have come to the attention of the public. The information we had belonged to what is called the private phase of the tribunal’s inquiries, and it concerned a matter that, depending on how it panned out, might never come to be mentioned in the course of one of the tribunal’s public hearings. The tribunal, naturally, investigated much more than it disclosed publicly, largely because a great deal of what it investigated turned out to be untrue or to be unconnected with the terms of reference that laid down its powers and duties. We were reporting something that might otherwise never be disclosed—the best sort of scoop. The payments might be of no interest to the tribunal in the context of its terms of reference, but they were of legitimate public interest.

The report was published on the front page on 21 September 2006, with the headline ‘Tribunal examines payments to Taoiseach.’ The first few paragraphs read:

A wealthy businessman David McKenna has been contacted by the Mahon Tribunal about payments to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
The tribunal is investigating a number of payments to Mr Ahern in and around December 1993, including cash payments,
The Irish Times
has learned.
Mr McKenna is one of three or four persons contacted by the tribunal concerning payments to Mr Ahern totalling between €50,000 and €100,000. The tribunal has been told that the money was used to pay legal bills incurred by Mr Ahern around this time. In a letter to Mr McKenna in June of this year and seen by
The Irish Times
, he was told the ‘tribunal has been informed that you made payment of money to Mr Bertie Ahern
TD
, or for his benefit, in or about December 1993. The tribunal seeks your assistance in reconciling certain receipts of funds by Mr Ahern during this period.’
The tribunal requested a detailed statement from Mr McKenna. He was asked to name the person who requested the payment and his understanding as to why it was required. He was also asked who the payment was given to, and whether it was in cash or another form.
It is understood a solicitor who was an associate and personal friend of Mr Ahern’s, the late Gerry Brennan, may have played a role in the matters being inquired into. Mr Brennan, a former director of Telecom Éireann, died in 1997.
Mr McKenna, a friend of Mr Ahern’s and a known supporter of both him and his party, was estimated to be worth more than €60 million a number of years ago. However his publicly quoted recruitment firm, Marlborough Recruitment, collapsed in 2002.
Mr McKenna is also a friend and business associate of Des Richardson, the businessman appointed by Mr Ahern in 1993 as full-time fund-raiser for Fianna Fáil and who also fundraises for Mr Ahern’s constituency operation. The tribunal was told in private that Mr McKenna was one of the people who made a payment to Mr Ahern.

The report was printed across the top of the front page. What happened next is well captured in the diary kept by the then deputy political editor of the
Irish Independent
, Senan Molony. The diary is also useful in providing a flavour of the political coverage of the time. I am grateful for his permission to use these excerpts.

Chapter
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BOOK: Bertie Ahern: The Man Who Blew the Boom: Power & Money
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