The failure of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to provide convincing answers to the questions put at the Mahon Tribunal undoubtedly led to his eventual resignation. Those questions have continued and yesterday one of Ahern’s “long-term personal friends”, Joe Burke – a builder and former Fianna Fáil councillor in Dublin, who was appointed chairman of the Dublin Port Company in 2002 – has been providing equally unconvincing answers. The absence of a money trail featured heavily. From the Irish Times [subs req]
Joe Burke, St Lukes trustee and chairman of the Dublin Port Company, said there was a meeting in the Gresham Hotel on OConnell Street, where the businessmen discussed the raising of funds to purchase St Lukes in Drumcondra. Some 24 settlers agreed to pay £5,000 each, at a rate of £1,000 a year for five years, Mr Burke said. Counsel for the tribunal Des ONeill SC, asked Mr Burke if details of the contributors had been provided to Fianna Fáil. Mr Burke said they had not. Those people who contributed at the time . . . contributed on a confidential basis only, he said.
There was no need for anybody to keep records going back all those years. But in hindsight, if we all thought we would wind up in Dublin Castle 20 years on, we certainly would have kept them. Mr ONeill said there was no evidence in the CODR account, supposedly set up to collect the money to pay for St Lukes, of annual payments over a five-year period. Some people paid it all in advance, some people paid £1,000 or £2,000 and then didnt pay anything, stopped paying, Mr Burke said. Some people . . . paid extra with the understanding that when we got all the funds in, or the funds that we needed, that we would pay them back . . .
Mr Burke said the £20,000 was withdrawn in cash to pay a builder for work on St Lukes.
Mr ONeill asked why it needed to be in cash.
The old saying is very simple, its always nice to see the colour of your money, Mr Burke said.
He held the money in his safe for two months, he said, but did not engage a builder. He then decided it should be re-lodged.
He had spent some of the original cash, he said, and may have used sterling to replace it, which he kept in his safe to buy bric-a-brac in England for his pub refurbishment business. Sterling was on a par with Irish pounds at the time, he said.
Mr Burke said he put the £20,000 in an envelope and left it to be collected by Mr Collins, who was to lodge it to the B/T account.
However, he did not tell the person he gave it to what the envelope contained.
Mr ONeill said there was no logical reason to conduct business that way and it seemed extraordinary to him.
Theres loads of things in life that are extraordinary, but I wouldnt want to explore them here today, but it wasnt extraordinary to me, Mr Burke replied.
And Miriam Lord has a wonderful description of Joe Burke’s involvement [subs req]..
Back in the 80s and 90s they went in search of a better way. It was summed up yesterday by Joe Burke, who repeatedly told the Mahon tribunal that all he ever did was to work for “the benefit and betterment of Fianna Fáil”.
He, like the rest of the tribunal undocumented, wasn’t to know that the climate would change in the new millennium and humble witnesses without their proper documentation would find themselves in trouble.
A deposit account here, a deposit account there, and suddenly, you have deposit accounts and cash coming out of your ears.
Who was counting? Who would ever find out?
Then the tribunals came along, examining banks accounts and discovering that a very personable minister for finance was taking in money far in excess of his earnings when in office. And – the cheek of them – they began to ask why.
Which is how Joe Burke came to be back in the witness box yesterday, attempting to explain how financial transactions connected to Bertie Ahern were conducted, and where the money came from.
Affronted, might be the best way to describe Joe’s reaction.
Joe has dedicated his adult life – when not running his now defunct pub refit business – to furthering the cause of Fianna Fáil and Bertie Ahern. He has been the former taoiseach’s right-hand man for decades.
Joe, now chairman of Dublin Port, played a central role in the running of Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency organisation since the early 1980s. He was in charge of a number of bank accounts and involved in the purchase of St Luke’s, the house that would become the nerve centre of Bertie’s political operation.
..before picking up some detail on another of those transactions. [subs again]
Thirty thousand pounds was withdrawn from the B/T account and “loaned” to Bertie Ahern’s then partner, Celia Larkin, to help her aged aunts buy their rented home after they were threatened with eviction. An admirable gesture, even if it came from an account which was purely for the upkeep of St Luke’s.
No documentation remains. Trustee Joe presumed solicitor Gerry Brennan looked after the interests of the trust by putting the legal documentation in place for the loan. That never happened. “I did not question Mr Brennan’s legal integrity,” Burke told the tribunal.
Unfortunately, Mr Brennan passed away in 1997. Joe never discussed the loan with Ahern, his close friend, even though the money was going to Ahern’s then life partner. “Why would I discuss it?” he asked.
But when the house was purchased, Celia Larkin became the legal owner. She is not an elderly aunt, and the “loan” was only repaid in January of this year when the tribunal began asking questions.
Before I add the final paragraphs from Miriam Lord’s article, here’s a reminder of what the then-Taoiseach previously said
Insisting that no favours had been offered, or received, Mr Ahern said: I might have appointed somebody but I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me.[added emphasis]
And those final paragraphs
Happily, Joe Burke was able to shed light on one aspect of the B/T account yesterday. Twenty thousand pounds was withdrawn from it in August of 1994, and IR£20,000 went into it in October of 1994. But a problem with damp was bigger than anticipated and he decided to hand the money back. Joe went into St Luke’s with the £20k and handed it to a secretary. He got no receipt.
But these things must be investigated by the tribunal, it was explained by Des O’Neill to an exasperated Joe. He agreed. “It is most important the public are kept informed. They are paying for it, at the end of the day.”