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Monday 18 February 2019

Cowen snub to Bertie's TV life story

Taoiseach feared taking part would feed the conspiracy theory that he pushed Ahern out

JODY CORCORAN and JOHN DRENNAN

The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, refused to take part in the eagerly anticipated television documentary about his predecessor, Bertie Ahern, because he feared his participation would only lead to increased speculation that he forced Mr Ahern from office.

Steve Carson, executive producer of Mint Productions, makers of the series, told the the Sunday Independent: "We were snubbed by Brian Cowen."

Mr Cowen turned down repeated requests for an interview after he judged that the programme makers would primarily focus on two crucial meetings he had with Mr Ahern in the week before the former Taoiseach announced his surprise decision to resign -- a year before he had intended to.

The new Taoiseach has acknowledged speculation about his involvement in a conspiracy to force his predecessor from office, as controversy raged over Mr Ahern's finances.

Following months of damaging testimony to the Mahon Tribunal, last March and April, Mr Ahern's authority was said to be draining within Fianna Fail and Mr Cowen -- the heir apparent -- was being urged by some of his supporters to move against the Taoiseach.

But Mr Cowen has denied speculation that he actively forced Mr Ahern to resign and has declared that, at the time, "I was supportive of my Taoiseach."

Mr Cowen's "snub" to the makers of the four-part series, Bertie, the first installment to be broadcast by RTE tomorrow night, has fuelled speculation among associates of Mr Ahern that Mr Cowen did, in fact, exert some form of pressure on Mr Ahern to step down before, humiliatingly, he would be publicly pushed.

One of Mr Ahern's close associates yesterday told the Sunday Independent: "Look, both Bertie and Cowen are smart operators. They both knew what was going on here."

He added it was his personal opinion that a degree of "animosity" had developed between the two men since the critical days before Mr Ahern announced his decision to resign.

Mr Ahern is conscious that Mint Productions has a reputation for producing definitive political documentaries and he is, therefore, worried that the series will be dominated by the controversy relating to his financial affairs.

Although he had absolutely no influence over the making of the series, he had secretly hoped that his former Cabinet colleagues -- including Mr Cowen -- would participate to ensure a more rounded portrayal of his 30-year political career.

The Sunday Independent has seen the two opening hour-long programmes in the series. The Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan; Foreign Affairs Minister, Micheal Martin; Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern; Health Minister, Mary Harney; Defence Minister, Willie O'Dea and European Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy all co-operated, and offered a balanced assessment of Mr Ahern's career.

But despite repeated requests, the Taoiseach refused to co-operate, apparently declaring to the programme makers: "It would not be appropriate."

As Mr Ahern's anointed successor and deputy leader of Fianna Fail during Mr Ahern's tenure, Mr Cowen was uniquely placed to offer an illuminating insight: he was Minister for Finance during four years of the Celtic Tiger, and Minister for Foreign Affairs during four years of the peace process -- two of the successes of Mr Ahern's career.

His refusal to participate has prompted members of the so-called Drumcondra Mafia to claim that there is substance to unconfirmed reports that Mr Cowen effectively pushed Mr Ahern, and that animosity has since developed between the two men.

The first programme presents a fascinating, some would say chilling, insight into how Mr Ahern was first elected to the Dail in 1977 and, with close associates, how his rise to the top was plotted.

In the second programme, to be broadcast on Monday week, it is also publicly confirmed for the first time that Mr Ahern's former partner, Celia Larkin -- she did not co-operate with the programme makers either -- was a source of tension within the former Taoiseach's inner circle.

Mr Ahern's former special adviser, Paddy Duffy says: "The majority of us wouldn't have been mad about her... In the social circle, it was quite difficult and tense."

The first programme, compulsive viewing, centres on how Mr Ahern came to consolidate his grip on power in his Dublin Central constituency, exercising influence through his closest friends and associates -- a group of men loyal to him first and foremost, and to Fianna Fail thereafter. This cadre came to be known as the Drumcondra Mafia.

The second programme closely examines Mr Ahern's fundraising operation in Drumcondra, leaning heavily on evidence heard at the Mahon Tribunal.

Yesterday, one of Mr Ahern's close associates told the Sunday Independent: "I would say there is animosity there, between Bertie and Cowen. From things I have picked up, when Cowen came back from Vietnam, something happened. Bertie was gone within days.

"If I was a betting man, and I am, I would say something happened at that meeting. We all think that, but the Boss (Ahern) refuses to talk about it, or hasn't said anything about it yet anyway -- but that's Bertie, that's the way he is."

In a recent biography, Brian Cowen the Path to Power, with which he co-operated, the Taoiseach chose to address the issue. He returned to Ireland on Wednesday, March 26 last, following a short family holiday in Vietnam after his St Patrick's Day duties in Malaysia.

Later that evening he telephoned Mr Ahern "to discuss some important issues concerning the financial markets", according to the biography. The two men agreed to meet the following day at Mr Ahern's home at Beresford, in Drumcondra, off Griffith Avenue -- his purchase of which featured prominently in the Mahon Tribunal's investigation of his financial affairs.

After their business, the biography states that Mr Ahern "discussed things generally, including the worrying allegations brought up at the Mahon Tribunal".

Mr Cowen is quoted in the biography: "I said that these were matters for himself. I know everybody has been speculating on our private conversation, but I put no issue to him . . . I said he had my support in whatever he wanted to do."

Mr Ahern telephoned Mr Cowen the following day and they discussed the tribunal again. At this stage, according to Mr Cowen's biography, he had "no idea" that Mr Ahern was considering stepping down. It was not until the following Tuesday -- almost a week after Mr Cowen's return from Vietnam -- that Mr Ahern asked Mr Cowen to visit him at St Luke's, his constituency headquarters.

Mr Cowen is quoted: "He told me in confidence of his intention to announce his stepping down." The following morning, Mr Ahern announced his intention to resign on May 6.

Yesterday, a source close to Mr Cowen confirmed to the Sunday Independent that Mr Cowen did not co-operate with Mint Productions as "he felt all the focus would be on did he push Bertie". According to this reliable source, Mr Cowen felt the interviewers would "try to trap him and Bertie" in their separate interviews, when, in fact, the scenario as outlined by Mr Cowen in his biography was the truth.

But associates of Mr Ahern, speaking without the former Taoiseach's imprimatur, said Mr Cowen would have nothing to fear if he had given an interview to Mint Productions detailing the scenario as outlined in his biography.

More generally, there is said to be "disappointment" within Mr Ahern's close circle that the Taoiseach did not avail of the opportunity to laud Mr Ahern's handling of the peace process, in particular, and also of the economy. "If anybody could do The Boss a favour on this, then it was Cowen," one associate said.

Yesterday, another source close to Mr Ahern was anxious to play down suggestions of a rift between the men. He said: "His main concern is that the programme will take in the bigger picture and look at his historical record, including 20 years work on the social partnership, and 15 years on Northern Ireland." This source insisted Mr Cowen put no pressure whatsoever on Mr Ahern to relinquish the Taoiseach's office.

Mr Carson said that when he initially made a "serious approach" to the Taoiseach to take part in the production, Mr Cowen "did not commit to doing anything", but gave the impression that he was "actively considering it."

He said the main obstacle, at that stage, appeared to be "more of a diary issue where Mr Cowen wanted to clear Lisbon, and that we should come back to him in June. He certainly did not turn us down".

But when Mint Productions returned to Mr Cowen, they were rejected. In a terse conversation with a representative, Mr Carson was told it was felt the Taoiseach's participation "would not be appropriate". Mr Carson, who is the husband of Prime Time presenter, Miriam O'Callaghan, pointed out that other ministers were participating, but he was told: "Look that's it"; and, "there is no point in going back he's made his mind up".

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