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What did the Mahon Tribunal find against Bertie Ahern, and what's happened since then? logo 09/02/2023 Órla Ryan

FORMER TAOISEACH BERTIE Ahern has rejoined Fianna Fáil more than a decade after he resigned from the party.

The former leader is now back in the fold just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

A spokesperson for Fianna Fáil yesterday said: “We received a membership application and it was accepted by the party.”

It is understood Ahern has rejoined the party as an ordinary member in Dublin Central. Members are considered provisional during their first year and do not have voting rights.

Ahern resigned from Fianna Fáil in 2012 after the Mahon Tribunal published its final report. He stepped down as Taoiseach in 2008 and as a TD in 2011. He made the move before leader Micheál Martin sought to expel him from the party.

The tribunal (officially called the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments) found that Ahern did not truthfully account for payments of IR£165,000 made to accounts connected to him.

The report did not make findings of corruption against Ahern, but proved hugely damaging to his reputation. He rejected its findings and always denied doing anything illegal.

In September 2022, Martin indicated he would be open to allowing Ahern back into Fianna Fáil, noting that he had been consulting with his predecessor about Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Several Fianna Fáil TDs have welcomed the news, but many members of the opposition have criticised Ahern’s return and the message it sends amid ongoing debates about ethics and standards in public office.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels today, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appears to have softened his stance on Ahern – who he once compared to John Gilligan. In 2008, Varadkar compared Ahern to the convicted drug dealer over his disclosures to the Mahon Tribunal.

“A former Taoiseach has gone to the tribunal and essentially given the John Gilligan defence — that he won the money on the horses,” Varadkar said, speaking in the Dáil at the time.

“This is a defence for drug dealers and pimps and not the kind of thing that should be tolerated from a former Taoiseach and Member of this House.”

However, when asked about his comments in Brussels this morning, Varadkar said that those comments were made at a certain point in time.

“I think that was at a particular point in time and if you look at the totality of Bertie Ahern’s career, you know, let’s not forget that he was one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and that’s something that we’re going to recognise in a few months time,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone can diminish the role that he played. But, you know, who’s a member of Fianna Fáil is a matter for Fianna Fáil, it’s not my business,” Varadkar added.

Ahern’s return to Fianna Fáil will ramp-up speculation that he will seek the party’s nomination for the Irish presidency in 2025.

However, when asked about such a scenario in Washington yesterday, the Irish Times reports that Martin said: “Nothing like that has been discussed. That is just speculation. He just wanted to re-join his local cumann and it is as basic as that.”

When asked about a future presidential bid last October, Ahern replied: “When is that election anyway? 2025. Jesus, that’s a long way away. Number one, I have to stay alive and then ask me again.”

Left to right Then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern then-US senator George Mitchell and then-UK prime minister Tony Blair after they signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 © Dan Chung Left to right Then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern then-US senator George Mitchell and then-UK prime minister Tony Blair after they signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998

Speaking on the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk today, Michael O’Regan, former parliamentary correspondent with The Irish Times, said Ahern’s return to the party has been expected for several months now.

I think with the 25th anniversary of Good Friday Agreement coming up it was imperative [for him] to be back in the party because whatever his economic record and the controversy surrounding his personal finances and all that, there’s no doubt about it, Bertie Ahern’s contribution to peace in Northern Ireland and to the Good Friday Agreement was enormous.

However, O’Regan doesn’t think a presidential bid is in the works.

“It won’t happen, under any circumstances. Were it to happen, all the controversy surrounding Mr Ahern in the past would surface.”

So, what exactly was the controversy? What did the Mahon Tribunal find and what has happened since then?

Why was the Mahon Tribunal set up?

The Mahon Tribunal was set up by Dáil Eireann in 1997 to investigate allegations of corrupt payments to politicians over planning decisions.

Initially, it began investigating claims of payments to Fianna Fáil Minister Ray Burke. Although Burke denied the allegations, he resigned from Cabinet and the Dáil.

Following on from hearings into this and other planning matters, the Tribunal began to look into claims made about Ahern.

Allegations began to surface midway through the 2000s that Ahern had received payments from developer Owen O’Callaghan.

The then-Taoiseach was interviewed about the topic by Bryan Dobson on RTÉ News in 2006.

Replay Video

Ahern rejected all the claims made against him – namely corruption, accepting bribes and wrongfully accepting money.

He claimed that a group of personal friends had raised thousands of pounds for him while he was going through a divorce in 1993.

“I’ve broken absolutely no codes, ethical, tax, legal or otherwise,” he said.

Ahern gave evidence at the Mahon Tribunal over the course of 15 days in September 2007. He persisted that he never “took a bribe or a backhander or anything from anybody”.

He was asked about not having a bank account for a number of years including when he served as Minister for Finance, and said there was “nothing in the law or the constitution” that he had to have one.

The then-Taoiseach did describe receiving a sum of money from a number of rich businessmen after speaking at a Manchester hotel, and also winning money through gambling on horses.

At all times, he maintained he had never done anything wrong. However, amid mounting pressure, he stepped down as Taoiseach in 2008 and as a TD in 2011.

What did it find against him?

In its final report in March 2012, the Mahon Tribunal rejected much of Ahern’s evidence.

While it accepted his claim that he didn’t have a bank account for years between 1987 and 1993, it rejected his assertion that he had built up around £54,000 in savings by the time.

In all, the Tribunal said that he did not truthfully account for payments of £165,000 made to accounts connected to him.

Separately, based on evidence from broadcaster Eamon Dunphy, the Tribunal said it was satisfied that developer Owen O’Callaghan had inferred to Dunphy that Ahern had received payments to ensure certain tax statuses for two major shopping centre developments.

It found that O’Callaghan had indicated that he generally found it necessary to engage in corruption in order to develop property in Dublin, and implied he had “taken care” of Ahern and given an inducement of some sort in return for a favour.

The Tribunal said this corroborated evidence from another developer, Tom Gilmartin, that O’Callaghan had personally implied the use of corrupt payments, including to Ahern.

However, the Tribunal did not label Ahern as “corrupt”.

In a statement following its publication, the former Taoiseach said that the Tribunal “has not made – nor could it make – a finding to support the scurrilous and untrue allegation” that he had received a corrupt payment from O’Callaghan.

Despite this, Ahern resigned from the Fianna Fáil party soon after the report came out.

Good Friday Agreement

Ahern was instrumental in peace process negotiations in Northern Ireland that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement being signed on 10 April 1998.

Amid speculation that US President Joe Biden and other notable politicians are set to visit Ireland in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the landmark agreement, many people expected Ahern to rejoin Fianna Fáil in advance of attending commemorative events.

Ahern’s role in helping secure the GFA was somewhat overshadowed in the following years by controversy over his finances.

In 2018, Ahern walked out of a German TV interview after being asked about the Mahon Tribunal.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, the former Taoiseach became uncomfortable when presenter Tim Sebastian asked him about the tribunal.

The interview, on the Conflict Zone programme, first discussed the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and Ahern’s role in negotiations, before it turned to questions about the tribunal.

In the interview, Sebastian asked him: “Did you clear your name?” To which Ahern replied: “Yes, I did. I’m quite happy I cleared my name.”

When Sebastian noted that the tribunal “never reversed its decision” and said Ahern “wasn’t truthful”, the former Taoiseach said: “The tribunal gave its views … and I gave my evidence. I was very happy with my evidence.”

As Sebastian pressed him, Ahern said: “I’ve dealt with that issue and I am not saying any more about that issue.”

Brexit and Bougainville 

Ahern was largely absent from political life for some time but in recent years has reemerged is some likely, and unlikely, roles.

In 2019, he served as the Chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission – helping to oversee a referendum in which the region voted for independence from Papua New Guinea.

Ahern has also positioned himself as a commentator on Brexit and related issues.

Just last month Ahern, when giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Committee at Westminster around the workings of the Good Friday Agreement, he said that dealing with concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol “isn’t rocket science” and a solution must be found.

Ahern said the current stalemate which has plunged the Stormont Assembly into flux is “beyond comprehension”. He emphasised that, with a bit of flexibility, it can be resolved.

“I really, really believe that this isn’t rocket science,” he said.

When you think of the things that we resolved, we got the IRA to decommit their arms, we released prisoners … we reformed the old RUC to now a very competent international PSNI.

He said yet now “we can’t find a way of working out how sausages and rashers” can move between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“It’s beyond comprehension, there has to be a solution that is unique to Northern Ireland,” he said.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern file photo © PA Images Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern file photo

Speaking in September 2022, Micheál Martin said that he had been engaging with the former Taoiseach in recent times, particularly about issues related to the Protocol.

He said: “In terms of Bertie Ahern, I have been engaging with Bertie Ahern actually over the last year and a bit, since the rows on the Protocol, and he’s very involved in Northern Ireland issues, he maintains contacts with different groups.

“From my perspective, that level of consultation will continue because I think he has invaluable insights to all of that.”

Martin said that his former colleague has experience with a range of groups in Northern Ireland.

“He has reached out to communities in the north and is sort of picking up perspectives in different communities and that’s been valuable in terms of engaging and discussions on that,” the Fianna Fáil leader added.

“No one can take from the contribution he made to peace in Ireland and to the peace process, so the fullness of time certainly we will give him that consideration. It’s very relaxed when we meet.”

When reminded that he sought to expel his predecessor from the party, Martin said that he resigned in the wake of the tribunal.

“As far as I am concerned, it’s 10 years on, I’m conscious of the contribution he has made to peace in the country. He made a very significant contribution,” Martin added.

Contains reporting by Press Association and Sean Murray


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