The moment Bertie came in from the cold
We wanted Bertie to be the ultimate Inquiry villain, writes Donal Lynch, but instead he salvaged his reputation
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
It was the moment, we thought, when those who had long since been lulled to sleep by the Banking Inquiry would be shaken awake. And it would also, many suspected, be the moment when Bertie would do the State a final piece of service: cutting through the boredom of this long-winded political theatre with a thrilling display of witness-box hubris. The whole problem of the Inquiry has been that the blame has been so unsatisfyingly dissipated. Here, finally, was the king of hearts, the most likely candidate of all to be holding its smoking gun. And from Ahern's few irascible utterances of the last few years, it sounded like he would come out fighting.
There was a reason to look forward to this. Political hate figures are important for a nation; through their own intransigence they absolve us of our electoral sins and serve as a repository for our regrets. Britain has Blair, America has George W Bush and we have Bertie. We voted him into power three times, the last one against all better judgement, when he was already engulfed by his own financial scandal. But it's much easier to blame him for all that rather than ourselves.
The script was pre- ordained: He would arrogantly, if entertainingly, deny his fault in the whole thing, we could reassure ourselves that this proved that it was all his fault and then we could all move on for good - which is surely another point of the Inquiry.
In the end, Bertie failed us, even at that, but his performance was its own kind of masterclass all the same. The persona on display was the perplexed Everyman we saw at the Mahon Tribunal (at Moriarty, by contrast, he projected barely concealed anger). Throughout his evidence he appeared thoughtful, vague, contrite, selectively rueful. He had a slightly constipated grimace he wore when he heard something he didn't like. He spoke of the financial carnage that engulfed the country with a shrugging detachment, even while claiming that it broke his heart.
A few times it appeared that his fuse surely had been lit, but the drama petered out before it had begun. Pearse Doherty was in straight away, pointing out that most of Bertie's opening statement was culled from his self-serving autobiography, but the former Taoiseach amiably agreed with this observation. When Joe Higgins accused him of being a "sponsor" of light -touch regulation, he wore a slight snarl as he accused the Socialist Party TD of being "misleading" in his questioning ". . . either intentionally or deviously", but otherwise there was precious little combativeness. The media image of him over the last few years has been one of a man painfully adjusting to his pariah status, but here he sounded like someone at peace with his legacy.
At filibuster length, he explained that he is an optimist by nature and that this was a necessary characteristic in his line of work. If you had believed every economist crying wolf throughout the Nineties and Noughties you wouldn't get very much done, he said. In Ahern's experience prior to 2007, each mini-crisis petered out relatively quickly, and his overly optimistic public prognoses, which were put to him time and again, could be put down to his natural optimism and his professional inclination to talk Ireland up on the world stage. At times it felt like he might start whistling Monty Python's Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.
He defended his record, saying he presided over record growth, and that in his time as Taoiseach we actually recorded surpluses in 10 of our 11 budgets and he didn't see the danger coming because he was more interested in "the supply side" of things, which seemed like it was rollicking along nicely.
Roger Ebert, the late, great film critic, once said that a necessary characteristic of a star was "just a pinch of self-doubt". Bertie is prob-ably the political star of our time - only de Valera served longer as Taoiseach - and his defensive humility has always served him well. When it was put to him by Eoghan Murphy that the Irish crisis was - as described in the Nyberg Report - "in all essen- tial aspects home grown", Bertie responded: "Yes, I read that. I'm not sure. I'm not sure." As Joe Higgins once said of jousting with Bertie, it was "like playing handball with a haystack".
Naturally, Bertie was questioned about the links between Fianna Fail and property developers, and his December 2007 speech at Treasury Holdings HQ was cited as well as the infamous Galway Races tent. In response to a question from Senator Susan O'Keeffe about developers "paying for access" to the Taoiseach, he replied: "If you go down to, you know, the Fianna Fail chicken and chips do in Bally- dehob, and you pay in because there's some member, I mean, is that access?" The tent, he added, was just a bit of "craic". People's motivations for getting into it were more down to the weather and the potential for romance, he added. "Some people met their wives to be, and things like that, at it," he quipped (Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea were among this illustrious dating pool; they met in the tent).
Bertie sounded disingen- uous when he spoke about the Mahon Tribunal, telling the Inquiry: "I kinda ignored the Tribunal - to my own detriment later - because I didn't realise what the game was down there, but it didn't affect my job." The Tribunal was front-page news for months and hugely damaging personally. The notion that, in an election year, he put it to one side didn't ring one bit true.
His general generosity in his evidence was surprising. Now long since having resigned from Fianna Fail, it was expected in some quarters that Bertie would throw a few of his former colleagues under the bus. But he told the inquiry more than once that Cowen and Lenihan did a "good job" and, even though he noted that he had precious little opposition in 2002, he still singled out Kenny and Noonan for praise. When it was put to him that there were valid concerns in Europe that his budgets were reckless and that he ignored censure from the Council, Bertie repeated a phrase that came up a few times in his evidence - "hindsight is not foresight" - and said the whole thing was part of European realpolitik. A few years later when Germany was "over the line" (in its own budget), the then-Chancellor told him "keep your mouth shut, Bertie", he said. The former Taoiseach insisted that "despite the recession, a lot of this progress is still there, benefiting thousands of our citizens".
Will we give him that? Some, like Alastair Campbell, have insisted history will judge Bertie kindly, that he's a "winner" and the progress he oversaw, as well as his leading role in the Peace Process, will be viewed as a counterbalance to the mistakes he made in ignoring warning signs during the Celtic Tiger years.
During his opening statement to the Inquiry, Ahern said the gains he made during his time as Taoiseach have not entirely been "wiped away". If we're honest, he's right there. It's indisputable that we are better off than we were in 1997; incomes are higher, living standards are higher, nobody would want to turn the clock back. Unemployment is lower than it was in the year before Ahern became Taoiseach. He can't take all the credit for the progress that happened during the boom, nor all the blame for the crash that followed, but he did lead pro-business, pro-jobs governments (with much credit to the PDs) in the decade that followed and, realistically, the oft-criticised social partnerships, through which millions of votes were bought, might have been even worse under a Labour-Fine Gael coalition.
There is a bedrock of wealth in Ireland, held mostly by people of Bertie's age, to be fair, that didn't exist before he took office. His Inquiry performance may be just that, a performance, but it has also, if anything, slightly re- habilitated his reputation. We still might not want him for president, but he's not Blair or Bush either. And last week might mark the first moment when we begin to take the long view of Bertie.