From Taoiseach to whipping boy
Is Bertie Ahern unfairly taking the flak for the nation's economic decline, asks Jody Corcoran
It is all about context, of course. For Ahern, the context seems to be that he has become a lightning rod for the people's anger.
I say "seems" because I have not yet seen the episode in which he makes this remark. I have only seen the episode to be broadcast by TV3 at 10pm tomorrow night.
That episode, a reasonable attempt, is ultimately a little unsatisfactory.
It was a rush job, broadcast ahead of a similar RTE documentary, and as such it fails to live up to its billing.
For the moment, then, that is the context.
Here is the complete quote, in a fuller context, to allow you make up your mind if he is right or wrong, substantially, or at least in part: "It's a right or wrong thing. People blame people. I know people who have very good apartments or houses in France or Spain or Italy or Greece.
"I know people who have very good houses and second houses and third houses and fourth and fifth houses in Ireland. They did overstretch themselves and I suppose it's handy enough for them to blame somebody."
From the issuance of a media release by TV3 last week, the intention to garner publicity for the documentary, it has already seeped into the public imagination that Bertie Ahern has come to regard the grassroots of Fianna Fail as "useless good-for-nothings".
In a fuller context, it is clear that he holds no such view. From the episode tomorrow night, it is clear that at a moment in time, the Seventies, he was frustrated with a Fianna Fail cumann in the Sean McDermott Street area of Dublin's north inner city.
There were about 12 members of that cumann, none from the area, or even from north of the Liffey. "They were afraid to come into Sean McDermott Street, to drive through it, never mind canvass it. So, quite frankly, they were a bunch of useless good-for-nothings."
In that context, it would seem that those cumann members, whoever they were, really were quite useless in terms of their responsibility to the party and the people of Sean McDermott Street they had undertaken to represent
Whether they were useless or not, the argument goes now that it does not become a former Taoiseach to use such forceful language, at least not on national television.
But Bertie Ahern is angry. That much is clear from the documentary and from his other public utterances in recent times.
He seems to be angry about several things, not least that he has come to be a lightning rod for the anger of the people.
In such a context, he is bound to say things that he may later come to regret.
I would say that he has already come to regret the inaccurate presentation that, preposterously, he regards the grassroots of Fianna Fail, in general, as a useless bunch of good-for-nothings when, manifestly, he does not.
His every utterance these days is pulled apart and reconstructed to portray him in a negative space. He has been here before, of course. At the Mahon Tribunal. He should have learned by now.
Take the money-on-a-horse controversy. Here is what Ahern told the tribunal: "As is well-known publicly, I am interested in horse racing and over the years I have placed bets on horse races. Over the years I have won various sums of money. Some of these would have been paid in sterling."
The sum under the spotlight was £8,000.
Now you can choose to believe or disbelieve in whole, or in part, the evidence provided by Ahern to the tribunal.
The point is, when you ask people about the substantial sums of sterling in Ahern's bank accounts, most people tend to laugh and say: "He won it on a horse. Yeah, right."
But he never said that. He said that only a portion of an £8,000 deposit was, or may have been, won on horses.
It doesn't matter, of course. The narrative has long since been pulled apart and reconstructed. He won it on a horse. Yeah, right.
No matter what he now says or does, Ahern is on a hiding to nothing.
For that, in large part, he has himself to blame. As we know, for years he got away with apparently saying one thing and possibly meaning another.
There was a time when his mangling of syntax was, actually, part of his charm.
But not now. These days Ahern has become a whipping boy for those left drowning in debt following the nation's economic collapse; many of whom -- and he is right on about this -- have only themselves to blame, but most of whom do not and rightly seek to hold him to account.
His anger at this turn of events is palpable -- on the TV3 documentary, and elsewhere. Since his departure from office Ahern has done little or nothing constructive to help rehabilitate himself, at least somewhat, with the people who gave him three terms in office.
A most recent controversy, his claiming of €270,000 in expenses since he stepped down as Taoiseach, is an example of that; his giving expression to his biggest regret, the failure of build the so-called Bertie Bowl, is another. It goes without saying that for the vast majority, there are other, greater regrets -- let us count the many -- such people who could not hope to earn €270,000 in a long time.
In a way, from his behaviour, it is as if Ahern has come to accept that he can not win; that he is, in fact, on a hiding to nothing; that he is damned if he does and damned if he does not -- and he is angry about that too.
He is still angry that he was, as he would see it, forced from office by the Mahon Tribunal, by a hostile media, and also -- as he would see it -- by certain disloyal cabinet colleagues. A most telling contribution to the TV3 documentary comes from Ahern's former partner, Celia Larkin.
She discloses that she had advised him to step away from power halfway through his second term, perhaps, although this was unstated, after his most notable achievement -- the successful conclusion of the peace process.
For me, the most interesting quote in the programme relates to the peace process when Ahern states: "There is a time for physical force, there is a time for politics and there is a time for reconciliation."
He might have added that there is also a time to step away. But Ahern, like most if not all politicians, could not step away from power; he had, in fact, come to regard the achievement of power as "notches on a bedpost", as Celia Larkin rather colourfully puts it.
To my mind, it is not co-incidental that the political life of Bertie Ahern began to unravel as his relationship with Celia Larkin began to fall apart and come to an end.
In most ways she was good for him; better for him than people tend to acknowledge.
Politics was his life, a conclusion which is more than a bit sad for a man facing 60, which coincidentally is the birthday he will be celebrating when the second episode of TV3's documentary is shown.
Hence, all of that money -- the sterling, dollars, punts and euro -- which were sloshing through his safe at St Luke's in Drumcondra and eventually through his bank accounts, were used by and large, (although not entirely) to fund a life lived in politics, to achieve and to retain power.
All other aspects of a life more fully lived fell by the
ARROGANT BERTIE IS MORE LIKE LEMASS THAN HE THINKS, BRYCE EVANS, PAGE 30
wayside in that relentless pursuit; his marriage, family life, certain friendships, such as they existed, and, eventually, his relationship with Celia Larkin.
It is no life, in fact, but it was the life he chose above all else, a life in politics.
Now he finds himself flailing in the wilderness.
In Fagan's pub in Drumcondra last Sunday, shortly after Dublin had reached the All-Ireland final, an occasion which, on another day, he would have relished, not least for the politics of it, Bertie Ahern stood, pint in hand, surrounded by a group of six, maybe eight men.
From the body language on display it was obvious that nobody was required to approach him, even to talk about the match.
There is a story doing the rounds that, some months ago, Ahern was accosted by an angry member of the public, in Fagan's or in one of the other such establishments he is known to frequent, which may account for the body language. Whether that story is true or not, he cut a somewhat pathetic figure last Sunday, a former Taoiseach seemingly hiding from the people he once thought he knew so well.
It is not difficult to imagine Bertie Ahern now, alone in that house in Drumcondra where he had set himself up with a suitcase of cash following the breakdown of his marriage.
When you live alone, in such a circumstance, you sometimes find yourself talking to yourself, if for nothing else just to hear a human voice. It is always a disconcerting moment, when you realise, and you wonder if, in fact, you have not gone a little mad.
Bertie Ahern may occasionally wonder if, indeed, he is not going a little mad. Whatever about that, it can be said with certainty that he has not readjusted well to a life more ordinary -- his day of reckoning, if you like.
So when a microphone is put in front of him now, when a camera is rolling, his obsessions have a tendency to come pouring out.
In the second and third episodes of the documentary we get to hear some of those obsessions, reined in a little, of course, but no less illuminating.
Out of context then, here they are:
"I think in our set-up, former leaders are only used by the Council of State and by the President. We tend not to be used by the political system. In my judgement, that's a mistake."
Ursula Halligan: "Did Brian Cowen never try and contact you?"
Bertie Ahern: "No -- I don't think I had communications on any serious issue, but I think that's the same in other parties . . . The funny side of that is that other prime ministers from other countries would regularly contact me."
Other Taoisigh successfully readjusted to a life without power. Liam Cosgrave comes to mind, Jack Lynch, even Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and, so far, Brian Cowen, who did not grant an interview for this documentary.
But Bertie Ahern is on hold. He awaits the report of the Mahon Tribunal, thought to be imminent.
The report will not be positive, even if it does not conclude that Ahern had acted corruptly. Its mandate was to establish whether a property developer, Owen O'Callaghan, had given money to him for a favour sought and granted.
There is no evidence upon which such a conclusion can be made.
There is evidence aplenty, however, to conclude that Bertie Ahern raked huge sums, the vast majority, though not all of which, went towards funding a life in politics -- the pursuit of those "notches on a bedpost".
Such a finding, if it is made, will do nothing to help to rehabilitate the former Taoiseach, although you can expect he will seize upon it, nonetheless, to state with all of the certainty he can muster that he was not corrupt, that he is not corrupt.
To be allowed to state that, without contradiction, may make him feel better, but it will not change much. For now at least, and into the forseeable future, the people have made up their minds: Bertie Ahern is to blame.