Bertie Ahern can talk with battle-hardened eloquence about the economy but ask him to discuss whether he still loves Celia Larkin and he comically clams up.
We are upstairs in St Luke's in Drumcondra. Sandra, his assistant for 25 years, brings him a cup of Bovril. From the look on his face when I raise the topic of 'Celia' and 'love' you'd think it was a poison chalice he was being handed to sup from . . . "Do I still . . . love her? You know," he says nervously, "I don't think any less than I did of her."
Does that mean you still love her?
"Er . . . we would be still very good friends at this stage."
Is that a yes? Cue absolute blind panic in his blue eyes.
"It is not to be taken as a yes or a no."
When you look into your heart, is something still burning for Celia?
"Ah . . . yeah,'' he says, shifting edgily in his chair like he was suddenly in front of the Mahon Tribunal, "I still very much like and respect her, but I think at this stage when you're not in a relationship it is a different thing.
"Now we are very good friends."
You do know you can go from being in love to just loving someone, Bertie. (I can't believe I am giving the country's former leader a crash-course on the vicissitudes of l'amour.)
"Well, then! I love a lot of people! Including her," the former Taoiseach says, suddenly turning into a character from The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Asked if he is a romantic man, he replies with needless caginess that he is "not an unromantic person but I don't consider myself a totally romantic person. I don't think I ever was. That was probably one of my problems," he laughs.
Whatever about matters of the heart with Miss Larkin, Bertie Ahern is quite forthcoming when asked about his role or otherwise in our economic downfall.
"I can honestly tell you that all of the time that we were dealing with the property issue, Charlie McCreevy and myself always thought it was manageable to bring it from the high down to the medium without it being a disaster. But what happened was the financial crisis came in and the world trade collapsed. All those external shocks coming together made it impossible to manage the position.
"The banks were irresponsible," Bertie admits now. "But the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator seemed happy. They were never into us saying -- ever -- 'Listen, we must put legislation and control on the banks'. That never happened."
He denies that he was distracted by the Spanish Inquisition-like attentions of the Mahon tribunal which, some theorised, led to him being preoccupied at a time when Ireland was facing into a recession. "The tribunal was only at the end of my period, so no," he answers.
"My conscience is a million per cent clear. I just work week-by-week because that's the way it was. I didn't have any money. I still don't have any money.
"I have a house that when it was bought, was bought for 170 grand,'' he says. "I haven't a share in anything. I have not got an investment in anything. I don't own this place," he says in reference to St Luke's. "That was proved. That was one good thing about the tribunal. It is owned by Fianna Fail nationally. It is held by the party locally."
What feeling do you think the Irish public came away with when they read stuff like 'Michael Wall allegedly gave Celia Larkin £30,000'?
"I still think I was treated very unfair . . . I don't believe there was ever evidence -- and still isn't evidence -- that I ever got one shilling . . . Then I hear: 'Who's in that bedroom?' [he means St Luke's] And then I was asked who fell out with me when my marriage broke up?"
Hounded by the lawyers, harried by the media: Liam Collins on Bertie AHERN Pages 14 & 15
I ask him how difficult it must have been to keep his temper down during the Fianna Fail leadership contest in 1991 when someone in FF said the nation wanted to know where a future Taoiseach was sleeping at night. "It upset me. It did upset me. And it was as much . . . in fairness to Albert at the time, he said he never said it."
So, who said it?
"I don't think it ever came out, but Albert denied that he said it. I didn't look at his book to see what he said about that. But it did annoy me because I thought it was a bit much. And anyway, at that time, I was here," he says meaning St Luke's, "and everyone knew I was here."
Ahern denies the rumour that won't go away -- that when Albert Reynolds ran for the presidency in 1998 he mustered all his Machiavellian dark-magic to make Albert's chances for the Park vanish. "I did meet him and I did talk to him," Bertie says now, "but what happened was that Mary McAleese came in and she was a very good candidate. But there was no sense that I shafted him. At the end of the day they made a big thing out of the fact that I voted for him and showed him the vote."
Is it true that when word came out that you were voting for Albert, someone said to him: "You're fucked now, Albert"?
"That is true! That is true! It was Brian Crowley. Listen, Mary McAleese, as she has proved since, was a formidable candidate. If Mary hadn't come into the race Albert would have been the candidate. I was sorry for Albert."
You, sorry for Albert? I don't believe a word of it!
"Ah, c'mon," Bertie smiles, "he lost being Taoiseach and he lost being president."
Bertie lost his mother on April 6, 1998. The 87-year-old's sudden passing is still a source of lingering regret to him over 10 years later. It was during the week that the Good Friday Agreement was signed -- a defining moment in Irish history and Ahern's legacy. On the Saturday evening he came back from England where he had the talks with Tony Blair. "I could have called in later that night. I was starting very early the following morning -- I had a meeting here," he says. "So then I was to go up to government buildings for meetings and I had an official function on the southside. So when I went into the meeting I was told that my ma had taken the heart attack. I did the function then I raced back to the Mater. It was in the Mater that she died at six o'clock in the morning on the Monday. I talked to her but she was out. She was unconscious. So that was the killer thing for me, that was the hardest thing for me, the fact that I hadn't called in on the Saturday.''
The one constant women in his life was gone. Asked why his romantic relationship with the other woman who was constant in his life for 20 years -- Celia Larkin -- ended, he clams up again.
"Ah, it just came to an end. We are still very good friends. There was no row, no mill. She lives in the country now. I live here. We still keep in touch. I have huge respect and regard for her. And if I was asking for advice today, I'd still ring Celia."
I'd say his phone was hopping in Ms Larkin's direction when he watched Miriam O'Callaghan's documentaries on RTE recently and listened to the comments made about Larkin by some of the Drumcondra Mafia. When Chris Wall was asked on the documentary whether he felt Larkin was in any way important to Bertie's operation, he replied: "No."
Bertie is quick to defend his former partner: "Well, lots of people say different things about Celia. In my view Celia is a great person and she was hugely helpful to me and hugely supportive of the operation."
In the same programme Paddy Duffy added that "the majority of us wouldn't be that mad about her. In the social circle it could be quite tense and difficult. She staked her claim, it was her space and people had to skirt around that".
Bertie says: "My thing on that is I defend her totally. She was very important to my operation. She worked harder than anybody. She gave huge hours, and apart from the fact that, of course, we were in a relationship, during all the years from the start to the finish, she was hugely supportive."
It was an alleged lack of support by Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern and Michael Martin prior to Bertie's leaving office last year that has entered into legend. He denies that messrs. Cowen, Ahern and Martin met up with him and said to him he should resign. "It just isn't true," Bertie says, "and the proof of that is the morning I had been live on Sky News six hours earlier where I said I am going to put a comprehensive statement of my finances out in the public domain in about a week when I gather them all. I did that. People keep on saying that when I went into Government Buildings -- which didn't happen until 3pm -- at that meeting the boys told me I had to do it. How could they tell me something that I had announced on Sky News that morning. It just didn't happen. There was no question that the boys said to me that you have to do a statement and you have to go. It never arose."
He doesn't try to conceal his pride at the time back when he "stood his ground'' over Celia when, in May 2001, the Irish Catholic Church expressed displeasure at Celia's name on an official invitation to Dublin Castle.
"That was when the Cardinal [Desmond Connell] was appointed and I stuck to my ground on it. It was upsetting. I knew putting out the name that that would happen. I had done it several times at different functions but they made an issue of it. In fact, the Church of Ireland guy made an issue of it and then it made it different for the Catholic Church. But I stuck to my guns. That was the one that caused the problem.''
Paul Durcan on Pat Kenny's radio show in 2001 said: "We should be grateful to them for setting such an open, honest, brave example" for Ireland. "I think we did, and we didn't change. There was a lot of pressure on us."
They helped remove some of the stigma of a person out of a failed marriage in new relationship and made it easier for similar people in Ireland. "At that time there weren't very many high-profile people, but we stuck to our line."
Bertie Ahern is very good at sticking to his line. A question as to whether his alleged girlfriend Anna Bogle was at his recent 58th birthday bash in Fagans pub is met with more sticking to his line caginess: "You keep writing on about her. Anna Bogle is one of my very good friends and has been a friend of mine since 1978. She is a great person. We do go out together and we have been seen together. There is no secret about that."
Is it more than a friendship?
"No, no, it is not."
So, it was never a relationship?
"No but I still go out with her and be seen with her. She has her own life. She is part of our group. She does a bit of work for me. She wouldn't be part of the so called Drumcondra Group but she would help out."
Is your heart a closed book then?
"Ahh, you never know. At 58, who'd want you? But I have good friends and I do go out with people. If you go for a jar . . ."
Would you ever get married again? "No. I don't think marriage will arise in my life. I don't think so."
Is that because you think Irish people will think less of you for getting a divorce from Miriam to marry again?
"Not really. You live in the bubble of politics for 20 years where everyone is watching your every move. And even though I'm gone 18 months you think people forget about you but they don't. It makes it difficult to build strong relationships."
It is safe to say that Bertie Ahern has not been quietly forgotten. "I don't know why, even when you're gone 18 months, so many people get excited about me. Usually they forget you. You can assume that they are afraid I might surface somewhere else."
You mean like the Park?
"I genuinely haven't made up my mind," he says in reference to running for the presidency.
"There is no contest for over two years. It has never happened in this country that a presidential campaign happens until the last six months." In the meantime, he is flying to New York on Tuesday to meet Bill and Hillary Clinton to talk about Co-Operation Ireland. He is also busy on the World Economic Forum On Conflict Resolution with among others, former President Mary Robinson.
Celia Larkin told me over lunch one day in Town Bar & Grill in 2005: "I'm sure Bertie will find something that will occupy him very well. I'm sure he won't retire to sit on his couch." How well she knew the love-shy northsider who has worked indefatigably for over 30 years for Ireland.