By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The Irish government is facing a deepening crisis as the row about sleaze allegations and payments to politicians sharply worsened this week and embroiled the taoiseach for the first time.
Backroom tensions in the minority coalition government of Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats flared into the open and Tanaiste Mary Harney described the position of Euro-Commissioner Padraig Flynn as "impossible."
Her comments follow a spate of new allegations by Sligo-born, London-based property developer Tom Gilmartin that he gave Flynn a political donation of £50,000 10 years ago when he was Environment Minister and Fianna Fail treasurer.
In Brussels, Flynn has defiantly snubbed opposition resignation calls and so far has not responded to suggestions by both Harney and Ahern that a statement of clarification from him would be helpful. In an interview Tuesday in Brussels, he said he would be making no further statements and would cooperate fully with the Flood Tribunal looking into the matter.
Asked if the sleaze allegations had the potential to split the government, Harney replied, "I just don’t know what’s going to happen."
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
In weekend interviews, Gilmartin raised the temperature of the controversy and turned the focus of attention on Ahern for the first time.
He claimed he met Ahern on at least four occasions and phoned him once when he was Labor minister in Charlie Haughey’s government, that Ahern had sought a political donation from him and that he had told the taoiseach about the alleged Flynn payment in the late 1980s.
Initially responding on Monday the taoiseach said he had met Gilmartin once but had "no recollection" of other contacts. He strongly denied he had touted for a donation or knew of the alleged Flynn payment.
However, the cabinet meeting was dramatically delayed on Tuesday as checks of office diaries and other documents promised by Ahern revealed he had met Gilmartin at least three times.
The political heat will build further this week with the Dail returning after the Christmas break.
The Moriarty Tribunal is due to begin public sittings and expected to reveal it has discovered further payments that may have gone to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey from businessmen.
Burke’s lawyers counter
Meanwhile, the Flood Tribunal investigating alleged planning corruption is continuing with claims that former Foreign Minister Ray Burke could have received up to £110,000 in donations from companies and property developers when he was an influential member of the Dublin County Council.
Burke’s version of events, however, has yet to be heard and lawyers have described the Tribunal’s elderly witness, James Gogarty, who is making the allegations, as a "malicious and artful liar."
Sensing blood, the Fine Gael and Labor leaders are in close pursuit in the growing sleaze row, issuing new statements as the situation develops and keeping the pressure on the government.
John Bruton and Ruairi Quinn — who is at the head of a newly amalgamated Democratic Left and Labor — obviously hope that they can finally make an impact on Ahern, who has become known as the "Teflon Taoiseach."
So far Ahern has maintained his huge popularity and approval ratings despite the sleaze allegations surrounding his party.
Both opposition leaders will seek a suspension of Dail business to debate the growing controversy and Bruton said his front bench would be considering making a motion of no confidence in the government.
Harney has made no secret of her deep unhappiness about the welter of allegations. She said it was essential that Flynn urgently make a full statement of clarification.
"It is not good enough that he remains silent," she said. "It is not good for the country. It’s not good for Mr. Flynn. It’s not good for politics. I think his position is impossible, quite honestly."
She described Gilmartin’s claims as "very devastating as far as the commissioner is concerned".
Harney said it was "highly improper" if Flynn had approached the property developer last September when details of his claims to the Tribunal first became public.
"If that happened, and Mr. Gilmartin says it did, and I have no reason not to believe him, that was highly improper in my view," Harney said. "We cannot interfere with witnesses that will go before a tribunal or seek to do that. We need to hear from Mr. Flynn. They are very, very serious allegations."
Ahern admits to 3 meetings
On Monday, Ahern initially said that he met Gilmartin in Drumcondra 10 years ago to discuss his plans for a £500 million city center development.
"I have no recollection of meeting Gilmartin other than once," Ahern said. "Thankfully, in this job I meet hundreds of people each day. I could well have run into Mr. Gilmartin a hundred times, but I have not recollection of it."
Ahern also said he never sought a political donation in a phone call. "If a person that I would hardly know, I certainly wouldn’t ask the person for money," Ahern said. "Certainly, if the person said that they gave a colleague £50,000 then I think I would have remembered."
However, in a statement 24 hours later, after an "exhaustive" check, Ahern issued a new statement saying that checks of records and diaries had shown he met Gilmartin three times.
"As I have pointed out before, I am quite certain that I would not have solicited a donation for Fianna Fail from Mr. Gilmartin," he said in a statement. "I have no recollection of any reference made by him to an alleged £50,000 given to the party treasurer Mr. Padraig Flynn in June 1989."
Quinn warned the inaugural meeting of his newly merged party that a general election could come quicker than anticipated.
"Put simply, a cloud of suspicion cannot be allowed to hang over the taoiseach and his office for weeks and possibly months," Quinn said. "It appears likely that the taoiseach will have to be called to give evidence to the Flood Tribunal — another Fianna Fail taoiseach before another Tribunal."