A full text of Brian Dobson’s RTÉ interview with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
RTÉ’s Brian Dobson: Taoiseach, before we come to the detail in relation to this and you’ve acknowledged that payments were made from friends and associates in the late 1993, can you explain to us first of all the context in which this occurred, the background to this exercise?
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern: Eh, yes, over the, eh, last number of years, a number of false allegations, half truths, lies were made against me, eh, to both the tribunals, and there have been so many of them I won’t detail them all, but the main ones, that I took a bribe of £50,000 in a car park in the Burlington Hotel from Starry O’Brien which was meant to come from Owen O’Callaghan in the all-Ireland final day of 1989, the second one was that I took a bribe from Owen O’Callaghan of 30,000 in 1992; that I had bank accounts the Netherlands, Antilles, Liechtenstein, Jersey, England; that I had 15 million in an offshore account; that I had received 30,000 and a payment of 50,000 from Owen O’Callaghan to another politician some time in 1994.
Eh, that I fixed a designation for Golden Island in Athlone for Owen O’Callaghan, eh, that I had a bank account in Mauritius and, eh, they produced forged documents to show that I had this bank account.
Now these allegations were made to both, eh, tribunals. So the tribunals rightly under their terms of reference and had no option, and naturally I was totally obliged and assisted them to produce evidence that these allegations and there were others too.
So I had to give full discovery of all my records, my bank accounts, my wife’s bank accounts, bank accounts I had in my children’s names, em, you know, the Fianna Fáil bank accounts associated with my constituency, so I had to give them all those records.
Dobson : Included in that was the records relating to your separation from your wife in 1993.
Ahern : Yes, I, I had given, obviously I had given all of the records that, that related to it, I hadn’t given the court documents, but I’d given all the details of monies that were transferred between us and between the children.
Dobson : And it was the leak of those documents and that information last week that has given rise to the current controversy and you’ve confirmed that most of the details in that original Irish Times story were correct.
Ahern : Yes, I had given all the documents in confidence to the tribunals. Over the years I’ve dealt with tribunals for nine years on all kinds of issues, some party and some personal, but these were personal ones. I had given all the documents to show that none of these allegations, eh, were correct. So my life wasn’t being investigated, my marriage wasn’t being investigated, what I gave to the children wasn’t being investigated. It was – the planning tribunals are about corruption, eh, about people doing wrongdoing and I just wanted to clear my name to show that and it was right that I would have to give all these details. And I did give them.
Dobson : And the situation now is that some of those details are in the public domain. Are you prepared now this evening to clarify to the Irish people exactly what was involved and what led to this collection on your behalf in 1993?
Ahern : Eh, I am Brian, because, em, you know I’ve obviously taken advice over the last few days and in the normal course of events any information that I have given or that others have been asked to give were given always for the strict rider that it’s all confidential. Eh, but the effect that it leaked out, I am left with no alternative and my legal advisers have told me, eh, that I have asked them, they’ve thought about this for a few days, that’s why I had to wait and, em, they say that I’m entitled to protect myself.
Dobson : Why was the money raised then for you?
Ahern : The money was raised, eh, by close friends, people who were close to me for most of my life. They are not political friends, they are personal friends and they are long-standing friends. And in Christmas of 1993, em, if I can go through, there are two issues here. The first one, Christmas week in 1993, my solicitor, the late Gerry Brennan, who had been a long friend of mine, he had asked friends of mine, unknown to me, and, eh, unsolicited by me, to make a contribution to help me because he knew of my financial state at the time.
Dobson : He was aware that there were demands of you financially as a result of your separation?
Ahern : Yes, he, he was my solicitor in my, he was my solicitor right through.
Dobson : What were the figures involved?
Ahern : Well what he, he raised, should I say first of all they offered, eh, they came to me a month earlier, my High Court case which had been dragged out, I separated in 1987 and I had been in the High Court a number of times in 1993 and it concluded in November 1993. Em, Gerry Brennan came to me and he said that, em, they wanted to raise a function for me. Em, 1,000 a head, 25-30 people. I said no, I wasn’t going to do that, that was personal [ indistinct].
Anyone does that it’s for politics, so I refused. So then unknown to me he went to personal friends of mine, Paddy Reilly, Des Richardson, Pádraig O’Connor, Jim Nugent, David McKenna, Fintan Gunne, who is deceased, Mick Collins, Charlie Chawke, all personal friends of mine. And they gave me 22,500 either Christmas Eve or Stephen’s Day in 1993.
Dobson : That was to settle, at that stage, your legal bills?
Ahern : It was, they, they knew, a good few of them knew that I had taken out a loan with AIB in O’Connell Street to settle my legal bills. I had taken out the loan so I actually used the loan to settle the bills. Em, I didn’t want to take the money, I took it on the agreement, it was Gerry Brennan and Des Richardson, I didn’t deal with them all, they gave me the 22,500 and I said that I would deal, take this as a debt of honour, that I would repay it in full, that I would pay interest on it. I know the tax law, I’m an accountant. And, em, that I would pay that back in, in full and at another date when I could.
Dobson : Now, this amount, this 22,000, was this evenly divided between this group, did they all contribute more or less the same?
Ahern : All but one paid 5,000 and one paid 2½. Em, eh, they had given me that, they were all friends and I was beholden to none of them or them to me for any political issues, they were people who were well known to be very close to me.
Dobson : This was a loan and you made it clear to them at that stage that that was the way you regarded it.
Ahern : I, I, would say I told them very clearly that I wouldn’t accept it on any other terms and that has always been the basis, and a loan with interest because I said Brian, that I wouldn’t be able to pay it back for a time but that I would pay it and pay it with interest. There was no written agreement they were friends.
Dobson : So there are no documents to support this?
Ahern : There are no documents, well, well, other than, well there is the documentation that all of these people have now given to the tribunal.
Dobson : And have you paid interest in the interim?
Ahern : I haven’t paid, em, the money because they refused to take it, I think they will now because they see the difficulty but I offered a number of times to repay it. I offered, some of them said take it when I retire from politics, others said they would put it into my constituency. I refused that and always had taken it that it was as a loan, that, that I would repay back.
Dobson : So as we speak, the loan, none of the money has been repaid and no interest has been paid.
Ahern : No, but, but the understanding, the first understanding still remains that it is a debt of honour, it’s a debt that I’ll pay the interest on, and they all accept that.
Dobson : Was that the extent of the money that was raised at that time?
Ahern : That was the extent of the money that was raised at that time. There were other people, can I say last week, the impression, just for correctness case, the impression given that this was four people and that it raised between £50 and £100,000, as you can see that was not the case and the person who was deemed to have paid most of this actually paid £2,500. Em, there were others that wanted to assist at the time and later on in 1994, four of them gave me £16,500. Em, they would have contributed at Christmas but they were good friends of mine and they were Joe Burke, em, Dermot Carew, Barry English and Paddy Reilly who’s a different Paddy Reilly, he’s known to my friends as Paddy Reilly the plasterer. He wouldn’t be known publicly.
Dobson : So the total figure now at this stage is £38,000?
Ahern : £38,000, that’s right.
Dobson : Again was that in the form of a gift or as a loan?
Ahern : No, that was clearly a loan, it was on the same basis and again they are long- standing friends. It was unsolicited. These people are friends of mine, people like Joe Burke was my neighbour of 35 years ago. They gave it on, on that basis. So all of this information I gave the first one obviously was taken somewhere, the second hasn’t come out but they were the two amounts.
Dobson : And again just to be clear, the second 16,000, again that’s a loan but no interest has been paid and none of that money has been repaid?
Ahern : That money has, has not been repaid.
Dobson : You regard that as a debt which you expect to discharge?
Ahern : It is a debt of honour that I have to discharge. And em, eh, I made this point, to be honest Brian, and I would not have been able to pay it until about 1999 or 2000 and, eh, a number of times since, Dermot Carew, who was the one who organised, again unsolicited by me, the second amount, they understand and I think all of them would say they, they were loans.
Dobson : Is that the extent of the payments?
Ahern : That’s the extent of the payments Brian, just, I just want to make another few points.
Dobson : Just to be clear, there were no subsequent payments in connection to these matters of separation or anything else in the period since then?
Ahern : No, no – can I just make two other points I think are important? I was not impoverished when I was going through the separation, it was a very dark period for me and very sad period for me. I didn’t, I had taken out a loan like anyone else would, but colleagues knew what the situation was. From 1987, when I separated from Miriam, until the end of 1993 was a long, protracted period that happens in family law cases. And, em, delays and delayed for one reason or another. Miriam was, I had no account in my own name in that period. Miriam had joint accounts and, em, I paid Miriam maintenance but also saved money during that period and I’d saved quite a substantial amount of money because it was from the time I was lord mayor in ’86 I’d saved in the order of 50,000. The trouble was that in the separation I agreed to provide 20,000 for my children to an educational account as part of the agreement that I made. I don’t like giving details of the children but for completeness, I did that. I also had to pay off other bills, so the money I’d saved was gone. So my friends knew that. I had no house, the house was gone so they decided to try and help me.
Dobson : That explains the 38,000, that’s the figure we are talking about here?
Ahern : That’s what it was, the only other thing, Brian, totally separate and nothing to do with this, but I don’t want anyone saying I didn’t give full picture. I did a function in Manchester with a business organisation, nothing to do with politics or whatever, I was talking about the Irish economy, I was explaining about Irish economy matters and I’d say there was about 25 people at that. The organisers of it, I spent about 4 hours with them, dinner, I did question and answers, and all the time from 1977 up to current periods I got 8,000 on that, which you know whether it was a political donation.
Dobson : This was a regular event?
Ahern : I’d actually done the event a number of times, but I only once got a contribution. So I think at all of the times in my personal accounts, I’ve gone through them and given my personal accounts, that is the only other payment, its nothing to do with this but it was a payment that was in my accounts and I did give that to the tribunal as well.
Dobson : At the time of this 38,000 that was raised for you in late 1993 and into 1994, you were minister for finance, perhaps the second most senior political position in the country. Did you have any qualms about taking this money from these individuals given the position that you occupied?
Ahern : Well I think probably I had every qualms, they wanted to run a function and I wouldn’t let them. They wanted to give me the money and I refused. But they were long-standing, close, political and personal friends of mine and mainly personal friends. And on the basis that I would pay back the money, it wasn’t big money either, quite frankly, and that they were under that understanding, now I had difficulty paying it back afterwards. I think the impression is that some of them are very wealthy, I mean some of them might be, some of them were probably wealthier then than they are now, quite frankly.
Dobson : But some of them were people in business, they had business interests, they were in position potentially to benefit from decisions you would make as minister for finance.
Ahern : Well, you know, all I can say on that, they didn’t and never did they ask me. Em, they were not people that ever tried to get me to do something. I might have appointed somebody but I appointed them because they were friends, em, not because of anything they had given me and you know, and I think they appreciate that these were debts of honour, they gave them to me. Em, ah, I suppose on hindsight back, I wasn’t to know then, em, that I would be Taoiseach that I would have more money, that my daughters would be far more self-sufficient, I didn’t know these things. Em, you know, so whether I should have took it or not, but I always seen them as loans. I didn’t see them as any risk other than friends at a time of need when they knew I was in difficulty, when they knew that where I was staying and how I was living was a source of conversation.
Dobson : Can I put to you on the other hand, Mr Justice Brian McCracken had to say just a couple of years later in 1997 and something with which you said you concurred? He said that it is quite unacceptable that a member of Dáil Éireann and in particular a cabinet minister should be supported in his personal lifestyle by gifts made to him personally and this is what you have to say in response to that. You said that Mr Justice McCracken, and I quote Bertie Ahern here, ‘stresses a point I have repeatedly emphasised that public representatives must not be under a personal financial obligation to anyone’. Now at the very least there’s an appearance there that you were under personal financial obligation to this group.
Ahern : Well, I, I don’t accept that, em, Brian one bit. The difference of talking about somebody taking millions and somebody taking 100s of 1000s, em, in exchange for contracts and other matters and taking what is a relatively small contributions, em, from friends who had a clear understanding they would be paid back. I do not equate those. Em, if I was to take several 100s of 1000s pounds or several million from people where I had no association with or, em, eh, eh, people that were totally business interests, that would be totally, totally wrong. Em, perhaps you could say in politics nobody should ever take anything from anyone, perhaps that . . .
Dobson : You would have to declare it now?
Ahern : Eh, eh, yeah, and I wouldn’t have had a difficulty quite frankly, em, declaring it, I, I’ve broken no law. I’ve broken no ethical code. I’ve broken no tax law. Eh, I’ve always paid my income tax, I paid capital gains tax but I’ve never had much in my life to pay and I paid my gift tax. I, I never, so I broke no ethical code and, em, if I had to have returned on these things, I wouldn’t have had a difficulty. I did point out to my friends a number of times that it was better that I clear these and you know, they would sometimes laugh it off, but they all accept and and have accepted that these are loans to be repaid and will pay.
Dobson : But the suggestion for example today that the standards in Public Office Commission might be looking at this because of the benefit you got from having the, so far anyway, the interest waived on that and that could be something that could be retrospective to the legislation.
Ahern : Well that’s that’s not my advice, I was well aware of the legislation, I have long checked these things back by eminent tax people, I’ve looked at the legislation closely and, em, my advice is that it’s not the case.
Dobson : We are not talking here just about tax liabilities; we are talking about your requirements under the ethics legislation.
Ahern : I’ve, I’ve checked that and I repeat, my advice is I’ve broken absolutely, em, no codes, ethical, tax, legal or otherwise and, eh, I’ve checked that to the best of my my ability. And these were, eh, close friends, they were not big business interests that were removed from me, they were people that I saw, if not on a weekly basis on a very, very regular basis, most of them would be known to be very, em, very close to me.
Dobson : And yet people watching this, Taoiseach, perhaps they have gone through a separation themselves and they’ll appreciate just how difficult and painful that can be, will say that the financial consequences of that is something they’ve had to deal with themselves. Perhaps had to go to the bank to borrow money and repay the interest and you were in a position where you were able to have a whip-around organised on your behalf to meet your debts.
Ahern : Well, you know, I have been involved many times in my life in whip-arounds for friends, em, for people close to me, and I value friendships. I’ve done it for constituents; I’ve done it for people who have been in need. Em, I, I think people understand that, people say all that has happened since you were unwise to do that in 1993 but it it didn’t happen since. What I did was in 1993, em, and you know I have given all of my records, I’ve given all of my accounts, I’ve probably, this is right that I should give it, there’s no privileged position being Taoiseach or anything else. But, em, as far, I, I was not, eh, I don’t want this to be an investigation by a tribunal into corruption, there was no corruption in this. There was no favours sought, no favours given. There was no cosy contracts given to me or, eh, to any members of my family for business interests.
Dobson : But there is also the important question here of the appearance of being above reproach and that is really the issue here, isn’t it, Taoiseach, that you have created circumstances in which that can be called into question?
Ahern : Well, I, I, I wouldn’t like to think that. I wouldn’t like to think that any member of society or anybody else who takes at a time of need, a loan and would pay interest on it, that that is not beyond reproach. I wouldn’t like to have the stigma that because a group of a dozen of my friends, when they saw my life being one thing and go to another, eh, it’s not for me to plead how bad life was then but I mean it was clearly obvious that those who cared about me and those who were with me. I had to pay my legal fees, which I did take a loan out, they helped me to clear out quicker and then I had to go through, but I did it at that particular time. I didn’t continue with, I didn’t do it again. I didn’t, you know, do anything that was untoward in anyway. And I wouldn’t like, well people would say based on all that has happened in the McCracken tribunal, the Mahon tribunal but that hadn’t happened in 1993, 1994.
Dobson : Are you prepared to go into the Dáil and make a further statement and to answer questions?
Ahern : If people want me to do that, leader’s questions are on every day and I answer things every day. Em, I’m quite, eh, frankly not sure what I’d have to answer, I’ve looked at all the the issues of this and, em, I think my friends would realise that if they had accepted back the money when I offered it, it would have been easier for me now. But they thought they were being helpful to me. Em and I had other loans, you know, I have, I’m in a good position as Taoiseach now. My daughters are doing well so I don’t have difficulties; and I, I think my mortgage is well advanced now. But I did things as everybody else did.
Dobson : Just 38,000 today perhaps mightn’t be a terribly significant amount of money, but back then it was a very substantial amount of money, it would have bought you a house here in the city of Dublin, it was a sizable contribution.
Ahern : I bought my house a few years later and I can tell you it was a long way, nearer 200,000 than 38,000. Em, it is what it is, I’m not going to say, I, I’m, you know, clarifying what the position is. I mean you know, I gave confidentially all my information, people saying 50,000 to 100,000 and, eh, any other money was my own money. Obviously lodgments after my separation was over and money that I saved and put back into my accounts, I don’t know where the figures come from. I think people are perhaps looking at my own money that I’d saved and put back into, I didn’t have an account in my own name during the separation years.
I opened an account after the separation work was over and I put back in my own money and then paid out, perhaps that’s what people are adding it up. But the impression that I got between 50 and 100,000 and may be far more from just a few people wasn’t correct. I’m giving you precisely how I got the money, from close friends, eh, people who cared about me. Perhaps I should have just got a bigger loan and let’s be honest, I would have, I was Taoiseach a few years later it wouldn’t have killed me one way or the other. And I’m paying back the interest so I, I really don’t think I did anything wrong in anyway.
Dobson : Do you think this has been damaging politically, has it damaged your, particularly in the run up to the election your capacity to lead Fianna Fáil into the general election?
Ahern : Well, I mean that’s another issue, I don’t want to go into it, but I mean this was designed, I think people would examine my accounts. I mean, I’ve looked at my accounts since ’77, I’ve given you the only three things, there might be a few small ones but I tried to match up every single issue back, em, after 29 years in politics. And in my constituency since 1982, eh, I’ve probably as good records as there is, and, and luckily, because people close to me kept very good invoices and records, I was able to give this data but the the leak last week, by whoever, I have been accused that I was pointing the finger but by whoever, it was a leak which had nothing to do with the tribunal, it had nothing to do with planning, building, zoning or anything else. And, and it it was done to damage me, I suppose those people who set out in a calculated way to do that, whoever they were, probably have succeeded to some extent.
Dobson : There has been some damage, does that come from perhaps the way it was handled initially. You confirmed some of the details and then you said it was none of anybody’s business what money you got and now you’re giving this interview.
Ahern : Well the point is, em, I think if I was legally advised, what I would have said the first morning, the whole lot is nobody’s business, it’s the tribunal. And I’d say no more about it ever. But for the Taoiseach of the country that is just unsustainable and it is ridiculous that wherever I’ve gone for the last week, that there has been you know 50 journalists running around behind me, like pied pipers, its ridiculous. So I said to my legal people, I cannot sustain keeping things that are not secret, I gave this information, this wasn’t dreamt up, nobody sneaked into my safe and found it, I gave this information to the tribunal, it shouldn’t have been leaked.
I don’t know who leaked it, I’m not blaming anyone, I don’t want to be taking anyone’s character but somebody took mine, and in a very cynical way. But it’s best that I just give the true facts and, em, you know from the position of the Irish public they’ve always been kind to me about being separated. They’ve always been understanding and, em, if I’ve caused offence to anyone, I think I have to a few people, em, I’m sorry.
Dobson : Taoiseach, thank you for talking to us.