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Ireland: Ahern's financial scandal puts his political survival in balance
Joe Higgins' speech "tore Taoiseach [PM] apart"
THE IRISH Taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, is under huge pressure following revelations that he received "loans" and "gifts" from businessmen when he was a government minister in the 1990s.
Leaks from a government established tribunal inquiry revealed that Ahern was given €50,000 from "friends" in Dublin and £8,000 (sterling) from Manchester businessmen in 1994, when he was government finance minister.
Ahern claims the €50,000 was used to help pay for his marital separation in 1993. He claimed in the Dáil (Irish parliament) he always intended to repay to the loan. Over the last week, Ahern signed cheques for more than €90,000 to repay with interest the 12-strong group of "Dublin friends", including the former managing director of stockbrokers National City Brokers, Padraic O'Connor. The funds Ahern got from businessmen in Manchester were a "gift" and, therefore, liable for tax. Ahern did not pay tax on this money and claims the gift was not given to him in his capacity as minister.
The Taoiseach was quizzed for days by the media and main opposition parties about the circumstances of the loans and gifts. The pressure on Ahern was increased on 27 September when Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (MP), spoke in a Dáil debate on the issue.
Joe produced a "draft letter" (see box), which he said the Taoiseach could have sent with a bank draft returning the €50,000. Joe's speech, including his biting, humorous draft letter, was widely covered by the Irish media. (Joe's 27 September Dáil Éireann speech is posted on www.socialistworld.net)
The Fianna Fail (FF)/Progressive Democrats (PD) coalition government may not survive this crisis. The arch right-wing Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Michael McDowell, leader of the PD, initially backed Ahern but is now asking for more information about the Manchester money, including a full list of who gave £8,000 to Ahern. Two previous Fianna Fáil prime ministers, Albert Reynolds and Charles Haughey, were eventually forced from office by their coalition partners, in 1992 and 1994.
Various scenarios now face the government. Ahern will try to ride out the crisis and maintain the coalition government. But if the crisis deepens, the PD could pull out. In that case, Ahern would probably try to continue with the support of independent TDs (MPs). This administration would be prone to instability and could collapse, triggering elections.
Alternatively, Ahern could be forced to step down and be replaced with a new Fianna Fáil leader, who continues in office with the PD. Or the coalition government could collapse, prompting an early general election (elections are due next year).
At the time of writing (2 October), it appears the PD have pulled back from a confrontation with Ahern, so they can remain in power. Opposition parties talk of a "secret deal" between Ahern and McDowell.
Whatever the result of the current scandal for the coalition government, Joe Higgins' Dáil speech has already increased the Socialist Party TD's standing in the eyes of many working people.
As the only TD who lives on an average skilled workers' wage, and who campaigns on behalf of workers, the low paid and the jobless, Joe Higgins is regarded by many workers as the authentic voice of opposition in the Dáil to the main rightwing, pro-big business parties. A Dublin current affairs magazine refers to Joe as the best orator in Ireland since Daniel O'Connell, the 19th century nationalist leader (the 'Great Liberator').
Printed in the Irish Times, 28 September:
"Did the Taoiseach ever hear of a bank draft? This morning it took me two minutes to draft the letter the Taoiseach could send with it:
'Ah Jaysus lads, you'll have me in trouble if you don't take back the Û50,000. My circumstances are improved and I'll have 50 reporters traipsing after me for the rest of my life if this comes out. Bertie'
It was as simple as that."
Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD, addressing Ahern in the Dáil (Irish parliament)
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