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Sunday 20 January 2008

If Bertie thinks he has it tough, he should try public life in UK

Compared with the accusations flying in Britain, the Taoiscach is having it easy, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

BERTIE Ahern should stop moaning about the impertinence of the Mahon tribunal and think how much worse things could be if he lived in the United Kingdom, where it sometimes seems as if everyone who ever had a serious job is under pitiless scrutiny.

Just to take a handful: the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been devastated by the criticisms of a senior judge when he declared Sean Hoey not guilty of the Omagh murders; politicians and soldiers live in fear of what might be concluded by the inquiry into Bloody Sunday; Cabinet Minister Peter Hain is being pushed towards the gibbet over his failure to follow proper procedures in declaring donations to his campaign to be deputy leader of the Labour Party; and at the Royal Courts of Justice – at the behest of Mohamed Fayed, the controversial Egyptian who owns Harrods – pretty well the entire British establishment, including the Royal Family, is accused of having murdered Princess Diana for the crime of having a penchant for dusky Muslim men.

Last week was a vintage one for the Diana soap opera. It began with press interviews with Dr Hasnat Khall, the cardiologist whom Diana had wanted to marry, now living back home in Pakistan, separated from his wife of 18 months and wishing he could be left alone. Having helped Lord Stevens's enquiry into Diana's death, he's decided against exposing himself to the horrors of the inquest and gave the interviews to explain why. Refusing to speak about their relationship except in the most general terms, this dignified man did his best to dampen interest in him, and possibly succeeded: to the deep disappointment of the tabloids, the dashing-looking, moustachioed romantic figure of the 1990s is now so bloated he's bursting out of his unfashionable clothes.

However, his intelligence and decency undermine attempts of the Fayed crew to claim the coke-sniffing, playboy air-head that was Dodi Fayed was Diana's true love.

Some of the witnesses particularly those of the psychic bent – have been so loopy that any sense of reality seems often to have disappeared from the courtroom. So bizarre has been the coverage, that when my Google Diana alert, which flags up relevant articles, presented the headline 'Diana to testify at own inquest via College of Psychic Studies videolink', it took a moment before I realised it was a spoof.

Otherwise, last week was dominated by Paul Burrell, Diana's butler, and Michael Mansfield QC. Burrell is a greasy character whose claim to have been a discreet and loyal servant was somewhat undermined when it emerged at the inquest that, when working for Diana, he'd been copying some of her private letters and stashing them away.

Now the possessor of around stg£7m earned by exploiting his late employer and his status as an erstwhile royal servant, he lives in Florida and fronts such products for the nouveau riche as the Paul Burrell Furniture Collection, with its English country house theme, Royal Butler china and the Royal Butler Wine Collection.

Burrell's love of public exposure brought him voluntarily to the inquest, where he probably provided new money-earning possibilities for himself by alleging that Frances Shand Kydd, Diana's mother, had called her daughter a "whore" and complained of her messing around with "effing Muslim men".

However, although he came across as the self-aggrandising peddler of old secrets that he is, he stood up to Mansfield, refusing, for instance, to agree that Prince Philip was likely to have called Dodi "an oily bedhopper" or that dark Establishment forces plotted to rub Diana out.

Rich and famous Mansfield is well-known for his penchant for taking on the state in high-profile cases. His clients have included the Angry Brigade, the Price sisters (IRA bombers of the Old Bailey), the Birmingham Six and families in the Bloody Sunday inquiry. He will lead in a civil case against the RUC taken by a widower who alleges they should have stopped the Omagh bomb.

In representing Fayed, an ostentatious billionaire, Mansfield sees himself as spokesman for an outsider determined to expose the truth about the dark forces of the Establishment.

During the inquest he hit headlines by accusing Lord Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at the time of Diana's death, of being part of a criminal conspiracy to conceal the truth that Diana had been killed by agents of the state – something Condon found "totally abhorrent, offensive and [that] would actually mean that I'm a murderer in essence, part of a murderous conspiracy". It was, said Condon, "a disgusting suggestion".

Stop whinging, Bertie. Compared to this, Des O'Neill SC is a pussycat. You're having it easy.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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