By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — After a row about the Sheedy drunk-driving affair almost triggered a general election last week, the country may be facing yet another expensive sworn tribunal to try to get to the bottom of the controversy.
When Taoiseach Bertie Ahern failed to disclose he made representations about possible day release for the convicted architect Philip Sheedy, the row spiraled into a showdown with his Progressive Democrats partner, Tanaiste Mary Harney.
PD spokespersons made clear Harney had advised him on two occasions to go public about his involvement in the affair.
When he appeared to suggest this was untrue by saying, "I don’t think Mary Harney did that," there was a standoff and an unprecedented boycott of a cabinet meeting by PD Ministers.
Angry PDs regarded Ahern’s statement as calling Harney a liar and suggesting she had been complicit in a coverup. Only a climbdown in the form of a public "clarification" and a statement last in the Dail by Ahern saved the country from facing a June general election as well as the scheduled Euro and local elections.
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The two-year-old minority coalition has been left reeling by the impact of the rows. Backbenchers and ministers are shocked by how an apparently peripheral affair can suddenly mushroom into a bitter deadlock that almost engulfed them.
For nervous backbenchers, it also has haunting echoes of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’s warning. When his coalition with Labor collapsed, he said it was the little things that bring down politicians and, often by extension, governments.
The row has already led to a constitutional crisis and the resignations of two senior judges and a law officer.
Sheedy had been given four years for a drunk-driving accident that caused the death of a mother of two. He was freed after a year in highly unusual circumstances, but has voluntarily returned to jail since the details became public.
Everyone involved — and all have connections to Fianna Fail — have denied any wrongdoing. The party maintains it has all involved a series of coincidences.
Harney, who sat stone-faced beside Ahern in the Dail during his statement last week, described the row as "very unfortunate" but said she accepted his clarification.
"Clearly we would not remain in government if we hadn’t got confidence in the government of which we are members," she said.
She said the row was the sort of issue that "could have made it impossible" for the Progressive Democrats’ four TDs to stay in the coalition.
"Clearly, there always has to be trust between the parties in government," Harney said. "People have to be told the truth and people have to be prepared work with each other, and when agreements are reached they have to be honored."
Ahern told the Dail that he had done the "minimum of what any TD does in the circumstances" after he got a letter from Sheedy’s father seeking a day-release program for his son.
In the face of strong opposition-party pressure and accusations that he tried to conceal his involvement, the taoiseach said he did not fear an election.
Fine Gael’s leader, John Bruton, said many questions remained to be answered and explanations about the matter were full on contradictions. Hr said it was clear that Ahern and Justice Minister John O’Donoghue "contrived to keep the information hidden" about the taoiseach’s involvement.
Labor leader Ruairi Quinn said Ahern had again brought the government to the brink of disintegration.
"His conduct has been at best dishonest and evasive and at worst untruthful and contemptuous of the Dail," Quinn said. "Following these events, the political reputation and integrity of the taoiseach is in tatters and the cohesion and stability of the government has yet again been stretched to the breaking point."
Attempts to use an all-party Oireachtas committee to try to find out just why Sheedy received special received special treatment are at an impasse.
Former Supreme Court judge Hugh O’Flaherty, who wanted to meet the committee before he resigned in the face of impeachment proceedings before the Dail and Seanad, has now turned down an invitation to appear before the Committee. He said it would be unconstitutional; judges and retired judges cannot be compelled to attend.
With O’Flaherty’s refusal, it is unlikely that the second former judge involved — High Court judge Cyril Kelly, who actually freed Sheedy — is also unlikely to attend.