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I am not bitter about anyone. Life is too short to be bitter, there is no point


FACE TO FACE: Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning have a chat in Fagan's, the Taoiseach's favourite pub in Drumcondra

FACE TO FACE: Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning have a chat in Fagan's, the Taoiseach's favourite pub in Drumcondra

FACE TO FACE: Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Sunday Independent editor Aengus Fanning have a chat in Fagan's, the Taoiseach's favourite pub in Drumcondra

Bertie Ahern, pragmatist, conciliator, compromiser, fixer, a man without baggage or ideology, has been consigned to history.

As he sees it, he was brought down by the chaos in his personal life after he had separated from Miriam Kelly and was in a long relationship with Celia Larkin.

He believes that the seeds of his downfall were sown in a period of 16 months in 1993-95, when his life was fraught with difficulty, and that since September 2006, he has been the victim of persecution by the Mahon Tribunal and the media.

For Bertie, the tragic period began in December 1993, a few weeks after his High Court separation from Miriam and shortly before Christmas, until 1995. He would argue that it is hardly surprising that a man working an 80-hour week in politics, Minister for Finance for part of that time, juggling the demands of his wife and new partner, and trying to create financial security for his daughters without the knowledge that they would become independently successful later on, would be surrounded by financial chaos.

Anyhow, he has paid the price, moral and ethical judgements abound, and Bertie's achievements as a healer of divisions, as an ideologically agnostic Taoiseach who led the country through a decade of remarkable prosperity, have been, at least temporarily, blown away in a torrent of scandal.

He was, on the surface, an amiable and humble man who was plainly not in politics for the money, whatever about the power. But underneath, there was a core of steel, of ambition, of the rough-and-ready instinct of a man who likes to do things rather than watch them go by, and there was a bit of anger there somewhere. Otherwise, he could not have held on for the past 18 months, he could not have endured the almost daily vilification in the media and the relentless grillings of the tribunal.

The compromiser who brought employers and trade unions together, who reunified Fianna Fail after the divisions of the Haughey years, and whose lack of baggage was important in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and a new relationship with Britain, has finally run out of road.

I met him again in Fagan's pub in Drumcondra on Friday in the company of John Hume, once the most important man in Ireland but on that afternoon, having a glass of white wine while waiting for a bus to take him home to Derry later.

For Bertie, Hume's situation might have been an uncomfortable insight into the shape of things to come.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

AENGUS FANNING: Yesterday came as a surprise to us, was it a surprise to everyone else or had you a close circle of confidants?

BERTIE AHERN: I had a very small number of people that I discussed it with. Obviously I had been thinking about it for some time, like any of these things, it goes up and down in your mind when should you go, what should you do. My overall plan was to go to the local elections, I always said 2012 but that's because it's the end of the Dail term but in my own mind, it was after the local elections in 2009.

I had been working on three separate things. I had been working on my speech for the British Irish Studies which was looking back 10 years to the Good Friday Agreement, we had been working on the speech for Congress at the end of April and we had been working on the conference on Northern Ireland.

The more I was doing that, the more I was thinking this might be a better idea. Up until Sunday, I didn't say it to anybody and on Sunday, I told my two daughters and within a day, I put together the speech myself and then obviously I got one or two of my people to help me with the editing and typed it up and that was it.

But I didn't confide at all with the political system, other than, as you would always do, I would always keep in touch with people around the country and keep in touch with a few ministerial colleagues.

As it happened, I hadn't met with my ministerial colleagues since March 11, because they had all been all over the world, so other than a few of them on their return giving me a phone call, I probably never had as little contact with my ministerial colleagues. So for them, it was a total surprise.

AF: So when did you make the call, was it Saturday?

BA: Over the Easter period, I was up and down. I don't often get time at home and I did that over the Easter period and I think I probably came to a conclusion over a number of days last week and I had my mind very settled, probably by the end of last week.

AF: And you kept it to yourself entirely until Sunday?

BA: Yes, I did. Normally I meet the girls on a Sunday and until I met them, I didn't talk to anybody.

AF: In the end, what decided you?

BA: In the end, when I looked at the diary, and having the benefit of being only the fourth person to speak at Westminster and Congress, the fact that it was the 10-year review of the Good Friday Agreement, the investment conference and the fact that this month I had President Barroso over and Chancellor Merkel over, I was also supposed to have Bill Clinton over, Tony Blair over and all the Good Friday people, George Mitchell is over, the South African vice president is over. I'll never again have such people, people I have worked with for the last 10, 15 years, all here and I just came to a conclusion, what's another year, this is a good time, 31 years after I entered politics.

AF: I remember when CJ Haughey was Taoiseach, he used to say he was subjected to a campaign of vilification, that was his term for it. In my view, what you were subjected to exceeded that.

BA: I think I had a different position from any of the other previous leaders -- Jack Lynch, because I was here in that time, Charlie Haughey and Albert Reynolds all suffered major internal problems. Thankfully that's the one thing I didn't have, I had no ripples, not to mind problems. It is very important to me, party unification. I have worked to change what had gone on from Lemass's departure in 1966 to my commencing in 1994. I managed to move away from cliques, or friction or tension in the parliamentary party to a very united party and I wanted to keep it that way. I think we did keep it that way, as you saw, [in] the unity of my colleagues.

Of course, I did have vilification from sections of the media, maybe the British-based sections of the media, but that's life. I also had strong support, at least from one section of the media [laughs] which I appreciated. At least I got fairness and balance.

But it was clear to me that if I was to continue for the year, which was all I wanted to do, it was going to continue just to be seen as a distraction from the work of government and the potential knock-on of that to the party.

I campaigned and was elected Taoiseach in the first place on the basis of people before politics. My strength, if I have any, is to be able to work with people of all sides up and down the country. My contribution in the North, to social partnership, to the unions, the employers, the farmers; my contribution to building up the economy are things that are important to me and I wanted to end it on that, that that's the way it would be, and when I had strong support on the streets.

AF: Tribunals in Irish society have assumed proportions that were unforeseen when the recent round of tribunals was set up. How do you think the tribunals will be seen in 20 to 25 years' time?

BA: First of all, I would like to say I have the height of respect for the judiciary, I want to make that absolutely clear. I know and I have worked [with the judiciary] and I have been lucky enough to be there at the appointment of so many members of the judiciary over a long political career. So I absolutely respect the judiciary. I think tribunals work differently, there is a structure of unfairness in the tribunals,

It seems to me to be unfair that counsel for the tribunals decide what evidence to bring forward and what submissions to make and when any controversy arises about this it is the tribunal that decides whether counsel is right or wrong,

I presume they consult with counsel when such issues arise. That is how they work and I think as one of the judges, or at least a number of judges have said, in various tribunals. The latest time, Judge Mahon said it to my counsel Conor Maguire, "this is how it works".

Well if it is the way it works I think it should be changed. I think the time has come to scrap them and the 1921 Act it is an act from British time, it is an act from a time when there was no fairness or justice for the small people, so it is my belief that the 1921 Act should be scrapped.

I think while respecting the independence of tribunals in making their decisions they should be accountable for their overall procedures and I think we should consider -- I put it no stronger than that -- that the members of the tribunal should be subject to a cross-party Oireachtas committee. No-one should be free from objective and fair scrutiny when they are in such positions of power. Everybody has to be accountable to somebody, so I think that is a consideration and I think a very important point. We have to learn lessons from the United States, after the Ken Starr inquisition of Bill Clinton a review of the role of independent counsel was set up by the Institute and the American Enterprise Board. In my view, the time has come for a review of important aspects of tribunals in this country.

We have now had about 10 of them in recent years. They are coming to an end and I think it is time to have the review and I hope my successor in government will do that at the earliest time.

AF: There was criticism over Grainne Carruth's days in the witness box. I believe you said something on that.

BA: I said I regretted what happened to Grainne. She is a good and loyal friend and I am sorry for what she had to go through.There was some criticisms in the media that I shouldn't have allowed that happen. If I could have taken that challenge or chalice from her I would have done so. The tribunal called her as a witness and I couldn't go in her place, all I could hope was that she would be well treated.

It is my view that Grainne was not well treated.She was harangued, which means that she was hassled, she was unfairly hassled and for the life of me I don't understand why she was called back on the second day. I don't see why it was necessary that a mother of three, who could not genuinely remember, she was paid pretty low money for doing very good work in my office, but why she had to be ... . I think, the only witness that I can recall, who had the Tribunals of Inquiry Evidence Amendment Act with the threat of imprisonment read out to her. I don't see why a colleague, who is after working for me for almost a decade, why it was necessary to say that she could be fined €300,000?

We had Tom Gilmartin down in the tribunal for months making a complete fairytale, not of Ireland, but of the world, and to the best of my knowledge, it was never read out to him. But then again, he is being treated different from everybody else as far as I can see.

AF: And what do you think is behind that treatment of Grainne Carruth?

BA: I don't know. She finished up her evidence, she said she had a difficulty because it was mid-term, to the best of my knowledge because I haven't been talking to her since. While I don't know, the only thing that I can say is that her evidence was given in a short period the following day and the only answer that makes sense to the people I have talked to is that whether it was meant intentionally or not, the effect of it was that it created in the media a cliff-hanger so that all this speculation would be around to give the impression that this mother of three would crack under pressure.

I said that Grainne was harangued and the tribunal transcript showed that this was the case, but that may be just my point of view. I am not going to go on forever about it, but let me say from the back of my heart that if I could have done anything to defend Grainne's good name, I would have done so. She is a good person and she was treated unfairly.

AF: And was there nothing you could have done at that point?

BA: Nothing, absolutely nothing. I consulted with my legal people at the end of the first day and they told me I could do nothing.

AF: And do you see that couple of days as a tipping point in public opinion?

BA: No, I don't actually, it had no influence on me. The only thing it did was upset me that a friend who worked for me almost a decade ago was getting a tough time. And, in fact, she didn't work in St Luke's a decade ago, she worked with me in Opposition in Kildare House, so she hadn't worked in St Luke's since back 12 or 13 years ago.

AF: You have the longest unbroken period in the highest office in the land, 11 years.

BA: The longest may be de Valera, but it's the longest unbroken one, the second longest overall and the second longest run as a leader of Fianna Fail and you have to go back 50 years to 1959 for that. For anyone winning three terms, you have to back to 1944. So in terms of modern day records in the last 50 years, I don't hold them as records, I hold them as an honour and a privilege to serve the public. To be able to work to improve the lot of the Irish people was a huge privilege. And, of course, to work on the Northern questions and what we have done on the economy.

I have been the architect of social partnership and all the groups have given me the credit for that since 1987. It might not have solved every problem in the country but it went a long way towards giving us sustainable growth, strong employment and a strong economy.

One of the things I am particularly proud of is the work that we did in bringing Science Foundation Ireland, bringing in proper research so that we will invent products and innovations for the next generation which will keep employment strong in this country. When I took over as Taoiseach, there was no research budget, there was very little science budget, we weren't into the area of innovation but, as Hugh Brady said in UCD, we are now a country that is strong in that area and I am glad I have been able to give the leadership in that area for the last 10 years.

AF: That is one side of the economy but particularly in the context of a Fianna Fail government, the construction industry is one of our mainsprings of economic growth, and that is in a very sorry state.

BA: Yes, we built from a Fianna Fail point of view. We built the construction industry up to a massive strength and it was playing a huge role in the economy. It really was the strong point, but not the only point in the economy, in the last 10 years, with the pharmaceutical industry, the medical appliance industry, the financial services, the whole information technology sector, but the residential construction has gone down.

There is a number of reasons for that; the international situation, the fact that we had built at such growth for 10 years that you do reach a saturation point, but we have to continue to try to stimulate the residential market. I think the changes we made in the last budget on stamp duty, the fact that the rise in interest rates has stopped, the fact that the US market in construction is beginning to lift. I think at this stage there is hope, it is an area to which I have been giving huge attention since last autumn and I think the new Taoiseach and government will have to as well.

Construction is hugely strong and hugely important for this country, Despite the fact that there are so many detractors about developers in the construction industry, they are wrong, in my view. You need these people, you need them investing. When they are investing in other countries, what happens in this country is that you get unemployment. The unemployment of the last few months is because domestic construction industry has declined so we have to work to get that back, maybe not to the heights of 80/90,000 [new house starts]. I don't think we have to be building at that level, but we do have to get up 50/60,000.

AF: I am always reluctant to accept these things called 'corrections' in Ireland. Your job was to get votes, I have to sell newspapers and I wouldn't allow anyone to say to me we sell too much here and shift a bit to the other. You take the growth you can get, I am a very simple man.

BA: I think that is a good way. I think sustainable growth gives us sustainable employment and gives us a strong economy. You get sustainable growth and you get a strong economy because there are investors and if you haven't got investors or developers, whether it is foreign direct investment or indigenous investment -- the construction industry is an important sector in Ireland and we have to work with them and for them to make sure that we can continue to create employment.

AF: The climate in the last few years, with tribunals, judgemental media, a level of scrutiny and criticism that seems every decade to reach new heights, who in their right mind would go into politics and aspire to get to the very top as you did?

BA: I was talking to Kofi Anan an hour ago and, as you know, Kofi got into a lot of trouble in his last few years in the UN, and he said to me that in the modern world, there are those who don't respect or maybe understand the value of public service.

The media now is different to when I started in politics and maybe a lot of the things have changed and that's how it is and we are openly scrutinised. What I think is unfair is that you are not allowed in Irish law to have retrospective legislation, but it seems as if you can have retrospective standards. So if a new law comes in 1995, in any other walk of life from that day on, you have to follow the new rules. I did that. But all the judgements about me were about standards that were not there at that time.

The reality of my situation is very simple: because I was separated, I was not using the joint accounts in my wife's name and because I was not doing that, I had an option to open other accounts or to operate in cash and, right or wrong, I operated in cash from the period from '87 to '94. Secondly, because I was separated I had to rent a house and ultimately buy another house which I wouldn't have done if I wasn't separated and, thirdly, because I was separated friends of mine tried to help me. That is all that happened.

If I had been doing anything sinister would I have asked my secretary, or would I have walked across the road myself, firstly into the building society across the road from me or secondly into the biggest Allied Irish Bank in the Main Street of the capital of the country which has the biggest staff of AIB anywhere? I don't think I would have done those things, so I was hiding nothing. I think I was then asked to apply the standards. Clearly my accounts were messy, but they were not corrupt and I think that is where I was unfairly treated.

AF: Did you ever do a favour of any kind in return for personal or political donations?

BA: No, never. Not alone did I never do it but I was never asked. The only time in my life that I or a group of politicians had anything insinuated against us was when I took the tough stand back in 1985 to ban the gaming machines in Dublin. I took a very tough line on it. There were suggestions from people in the industry to try to get payments to us, it is well documented at the time and we refused. But I never have been asked by any business person or quasi business person or anyone else to do anything, nor have I for payments.

AF: Taoiseach, I see you, if I may say so with respect, as a man addicted to politics the way I am addicted to newspapers. People ask me, do I like my job and I say, it is not a question of whether I like it or not, I am addicted to it. Would you agree with that presentation of it?

BA: Yes, I think that's a fair presentation of me. I have been an elected politician for 31 years. I am working 40 years next year. To be honest, that is why I wanted to stay on to the local elections because that would have been the anniversary of being 40 years working. I started working in June 1969 after I did my Leaving. I would say on average but certainly for all of the Nineties and for this decade, because I used to keep a record of hours worked in the office, I would have always worked plus 70 and minus 80 hours except in August. So I can't defend myself and say I haven't been addicted to politics.

AF: I heard them saying in Fagan's last night, Bertie was out at six o'clock in the morning delivering leaflets. Is that true?

BA: That's true. I would have at different times, particularly in the brighter mornings, we would have been out and about.

AF: So have you any idea how you are going to replace that?

BA: No, I haven't. I talked recently to Pat Rabbitte, a good friend and a person I admire, and Pat had a very busy life as a trade union official and then he went into politics and was very active as a parliamentarian. About four weeks ago, when I was on my sounding phase, I asked him how did he find it and he said he found it very hard to adjust. He found it very hard to move from the very busy and demanding life to a more normal one.

I am not sure how I am going to adjust to that. But for the next month it won't be like that, for the next month it will be still the 80 hours and then I'll have to adjust to that.

AF: Would you ever marry again?

BA: Sure, who'd have me? [laughs]

AF: What did you think of the opposition's reaction to your decision?

BA: What Eamon Gilmore said outside the House and inside the House was very fair and I appreciate that. What Enda Kenny said inside the House was very fair but I think what he said outside the House, I wouldn't have said about him on the day, that's all I want to say about that.

I have a lot of friends in politics. Charlie McCreevy and I were very close through all the years. I have worked very closely with Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern, Micheal Martin, all these people are very close, all my ministers have been very close. All of the women in the parliamentary party are all good friends, and I always had a liking for Mary Coughlan and Mary Hanafin and Mary Harney -- all the Marys ended up in all the jobs.

On the opposite side, Pat Rabbitte, when I was Minister for Labour, he was spokesman for Labour and when I was Minister for Finance, he was spokesman on Finance, when I was in opposition, he was a minister I was regularly dealing with across the floor and, of course, when I was Taoiseach, he was either spokesperson or opposition leader so I had a lot of dealings with him.

Richard Bruton is another person I have worked with over the years, I have a lot of respect for him and Gay Mitchell, even though he and I had some crossed-fires which everybody noted, but I always liked the Mitchells. Jim was a good friend and a constituency colleague and Gay and I would have been good friends. I think I have managed to keep good friends across party lines.

Tony Gregory and Joe Costello in the constituency have always been good friends and people I have never fallen out with, even though we have been working the same constituency for 30 years.

AF: What is your greatest regret in politics or in life?

BA: In politics, it is very easy: I was expecting someone to ask me this and you are the only one who has asked me this. I am deeply upset that I didn't achieve the development of a national stadium for the country and that is my biggest regret. The country needed it, the country required it. Lansdowne Road was put in the wrong place, we deserved a national stadium.

I am glad that I did so much to make sure that Croke Park is a great stadium and I did that despite all the criticism I got. I am glad I went along with the compromise of Lansdowne Road as a stadium, but the fact is that I failed and failed totally to give this country a national stadium. I regret that. I hope some day it is addressed.

I wish there hadn't been so many detractors. It is the old story, it was all right to spend additional billions on health and education and on this and that and the other, but not to give the country what was a true national stadium.

AF: And who do you think blocked it?

BA: There were lots of people so I won't get into it. But there are always small-minded people and there were a lot of them but it was a mistake and I regret it.

AF: And in life?

BA: In life, I suppose you always like to think that your life was totally orthodox and everything was perfect and that it was all, what is it, honey pie and happiness. It would be nice to think it was like that but my life was slightly more complex, but that's life. If you asked me to live it all over again, I might have done things differently, but that would have made it even more complicated so ...

I am not bitter about anyone. There are a few people that I wouldn't love and there are some people that I dislike, but I am not a bitter person. Life is too short to be bitter and there is no point.

AF: You have always been a conciliator. You presided over 11 years of unprecedented economic prosperity. These would be your big achievements.

BA: The reality is that what I tried to do in life was to make things happen and to try and convince people to [agree] to an agenda where you can achieve things. In Northern Ireland, I could have taken sides, but would I have ever achieved anything?

In social partnership, I could say the same.

In trying to heal my party, all I ever tried to do was work for middle grounds, admittedly compromises. I know some people, whether from the right or left, will say you could have achieved more if you had just decided to force it through. You might achieve it on day one but they'd get you on day two.

So I think the fact of the peace process and the nice things that David Trimble in particular said, and I appreciated, that helped to build the confidence that I understood the problems of unionists and loyalists. Of course, I am a nationalist and of course I am a republican but you have to understand the issues.

On the economy, I have been part of six national agreements. I negotiated five of them and I implemented the sixth, so for 21 years, I think, in those three areas, the economy, the North and the party.

I remember the party when it was a third, a third and a third. A third were on one side, a third were on the other hand and a third didn't know what to do and that's the way it was in Fianna Fail. It was that way from the end of 1966 and I always said that if I ever got a chance, and I did get a chance just short of 30 years after those divisions started, in 1994, I was very proud to be able to see all my colleagues there, total unity of the parliamentary party.

So even though some elements of the media spent the last six months running up and down the country trying to find someone to have a go at me, I think that they only found a few people who said maybe he should do this or that, they could have said less but they wanted to get their names in the papers and I understand that. But the party was so totally united, I am deeply grateful for that.

AF: You are leaving office with Fianna Fail having achieved 41 per cent of the first preference votes.

BA: Fianna Fail are in government until 2012. We have the Greens in government, the Progressive Democrats, and I would like to think that Fianna Fail can develop a strong relationship with the Labour Party into the future. A lot of the views that people have in Labour equate with my views, there can be certain relationships built up that will keep Fianna Fail centre stage, which is vitally important.

The other thing I would like to say is that it is very important for the party and the country to prepare for 2016. It is a hugely important date for Ireland, for the island, for the Irish diaspora around the world. It is only eight years away. I have started a committee. I have discussed this with President McAleese. We don't need to lose any time preparing.

AF: In your recent 10 months as Taoiseach, you were in coalition with the PDs and the Greens.

BA: I have very good time for Mary Harney and John Gormley. It was very difficult for John Gormley to settle in to government, coming from opposition, having never had experience of it. The Greens are doing good, in my opinion it is a joy to work with John Gormley and Eamon Ryan. Both have big briefs, but both have been very responsible, both have been pro-enterprise, pro-employment, both are going down well in the US, contrary to what people thought about them. Trevor Sargent is working very hard, they have been good colleagues with me.

There is no reason that this government shouldn't go its full term course and my wish would be that they make sure that they work together in the same kind of atmosphere that I built up. I acknowledge also the support of the independents who are backing us, from Michael Lowry, who has been a very staunch and good supporter, to my great friend Jackie Healy-Rae, to Beverley Cooper Flynn, and my good neighbour Finian McGrath.

AF: Thank you.

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