In the first part of a major two-part interview, Bertie Ahern gives Ronald Quinlan his verdict on Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the threat to the peace process as the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches.
On standing down as Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, his departure from politics and from Fianna Fail.
Before you stepped down as Taoiseach, you described Brian Cowen as your natural successor. Was he your successor by choice?
“Brian had been there a long time. He’d been there through several ministries.
He was in Labour, he was in Foreign Affairs, he was in Finance. He’d been able in them all. Brian was different to some of the others. He had huge natural ability. He mightn’t have been the earliest starter in the morning, where McCreevy would be, but he had a lot of ability; but the way it [the economy] fell for him was rough. I’d have a lot of sympathy for him, the way things worked out. And I wished I had of been there, with the two of us working in the same capacities, and I often think Brian would have wished that too.”
You were a member of Fianna Fail for 40 years. How did it feel to leave the party in 2011?
“Obviously it was a very hard thing to do. If you were to put in the hours that I put in and turn it into a working week; while it was 40 years, it was probably 80 years of working weeks. You don’t really separate yourself. I still believe in Republican Fianna Fail ideology, in the socialist Fianna Fail and in the Fianna Fail I grew up with. I hope the party will continue to be that, and I would still be close to most of the people in the party.”
You were disappointed in the end.
“Of course. It was upsetting. The reality is I had defended these guys through thick and thin, but they just weren’t supportive. But that’s reality and that’s life.”
Would you have liked your Fianna Fail colleagues to have shown you the kind of discipline and loyalty Sinn Fein has shown Gerry Adams?
“Maybe the same kind of discipline I showed for them.”
You said at the time of your departure from the office of Taoiseach in 2008 that the matters being investigated by the Mahon Tribunal were distracting from the business of government. Those issues had been around since September 2006 though with the publication of an article on the tribunal’s investigations of your financial affairs by the Irish Times. Had it not been a distraction since then?
“No, it was only in the later times when it had started affecting my colleagues. My colleagues were going out to press conferences [and facing questions on the tribunal It’s second nature to me to deal with these kind of things. I only made up my mind literally in the latter days.”
Who do you respect out of those you worked for and within politics?
“I obviously worked with Charlie Haughey. But I worked very closely with Ray MacSharry because we were involved in the programmes for governments together. When we were doing the 1987- 89 period, I worked daily with him so I’ve huge regard for Ray. He’s a very hard-working person.
“I got on really well with Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney. They were two good, loyal colleagues, very loyal people. I was always very close to people like Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey. And Mary Hanafin has been a great personal friend of mine through all my political life, as far as I can go back. I’d be very close to the Lenihan family. I still keep in touch and I’m very close to all of them. Brian Cowen and myself would be close too. We keep in touch.”
Is there anyone from the other parties who you respected?
"Sean Barrett, the Ceann Comhairle. I got on well with Liam Cosgrave and Garret FitzGerald. By and large I had huge respect for them all. I must say I enjoyed Joe Higgins. We had great cut and thrust with Joe, a decent, honourable man from the Dingle Peninsula. Whenever I was bored in the Dail, Joe would lighten it up with the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’. I only made him speechless once when I told him I was the only other socialist [besides him] left in the Dail!”
Do you think there’s a gap in the market or a market in the gap for a new political party?
“I think for the next general election, it’s too late. To try and form a party and to get it up and running, and to finance and structure it, get candidates in place in what’s roughly a 12-month period, to me doesn’t sound doable. In the longer run, God knows. The make up of the next government could be the cause of causing a party. Are we heading to where we were in 1981 and 1982; God forbid. “If you were to get into the instability and let nobody say it isn’t instability, if you get into a government, it could be Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, or Labour, Sinn Fein and about 40 Independents. It could be a rainbow but we’d need to add a few colours on to what we call a rainbow, and I have to say I don’t feel enthusiastic about any of those things. The present Government don’t have the numbers. If you look at the figures today, the broad grouping of Independents and Sinn Fein have 50pc of the vote. If they were to transfer correctly they’d nearly have a government between them.”
Can you remind people about that 18-month period in 1981 and 1982 when there were three general elections?
“I was government whip and had to go around trying to get votes. I had to go to Sinn Fein or the Workers Party or whatever they were called, they had so many names I can’t remember what they were called, I had to go to them and tell them what we were trying to do. I had to check who was in hospital to keep the government hanging in, and after all of that we only lasted nine months. Then the others were in and they only lasted seven months. The reality of this, and this is what people have to think about, is all that instability of 1981 and 1982, we didn’t get out of it until 1987. We didn’t get out of it until 1987 and we had a higher debt to GDP ratio than Ethiopia, and there was no world recession.
Tell me about 1987 and Fianna Fail’s decision to go into coalition with the PDs.
“I remember having to go out to Charlie Haughey to say ‘listen I think we’re going to have to go with the Progressive Democrats because I had done out the figures and the charts, and that wasn’t a pleasant experience to go out to Kinsealy to convey that. I think I was thrown out, but I was called back in the next day as often happened. I was doing a mathematical exercise. He wanted to be Taoiseach and had to do a very different exercise, but it worked out after myself and Albert Reynolds did the negotiations.”
The latest Sunday Independent opinion poll showed Sinn Fein with 26pc support. Do you see them in government any time soon?
“Do I see Sinn Fein in government after the next election? Do I see UKIP in government in the UK? Youturn on British TV and you’d think UKIP are going to touch the Labour Party and the Conservatives in the next election; nonsense. It’s dangerous to make predictions but check back with me in five months and if UKIP get more than 10pc, I’ll buy you a drink.”
So what do you think will be the outcome of the next election?
“God knows what will happen. I would hope Fianna Fail will revive themselves, and I think they can. It might take a bit of time. The electorate will decide but Sinn Fein have gained mainly on the back of Fianna Fail being in government at the time of the worst economic crisis in 100 years internationally, in addition to some of our internal problems which were not international.
“Labour and Fine Gael are now involved in what they [Sinn Fein] would see as the present difficulties for a number of years, so they have created this establishment parties versus the revolutionary parties, and they’re joined by some of the socialists as well, and they’re gaining off the back of that. It’s not unlike what’s happening in a lot of European countries where there is an anti-establishment thing happening. It’s the job of the establishment parties to fight that down.
“I think the main establishment parties might be leaving the streets to Sinn Fein. This is a difficulty. We are living in the age of the internet, but there still is a role to be close to people. I think people still like to see people on the ground. I’ve been told by people all over the country that during the local elections, they had no call from anyone other than Sinn Fein.”
So why won’t the opinion poll support for Sinn Fein be reproduced in an election?
“I think the people have questions about lots of things. Where do they stand on the multinational companies we succeeded in bringing into this country? Where are their plans on current budget deficits as well as spending all the money? There are lots of things. They’ll want to see their commitment to all sorts of issues. At the moment all they’ve seen is a party who have been relatively successful in opposing everything. There’s a difference between opposing everything and actually having to do something. It’s a very different role.”
The centenary of the 1916 Rising is approaching. Will Sinn Fein claim ownership of it?
“No, I hope we all can celebrate it. The great leaders of 1916 joined two parties, James Connolly was in the Labour Party, Countess Markeviecz chaired the first meeting of Fianna Fail, and de Valera and Lemass and Clarke were all Fianna Fail. The custodians of 1916 are Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail should make more of that, they shouldn’t remain silent on it. They won’t be thanked by the leaders of 1916 if they do.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams made a speech in New York recently in which he sought to draw a link between himself and Michael Collins. What did you make of that?
“I think we should all get real. Let’s try and concentrate on the things that are good, and on the other side, on moving as far away from the violence of the past as we possibly can.”
In the same speech, Gerry Adams made remarks in relation to an historical incident in which the editor of the Irish Independent had been held at gunpoint and the newspaper’s printing presses being destroyed. What did you think of that in view of the fact that two INM journalists — Veronica Guerin of the Sunday Independent and Martin O’Hagan of the Sunday World — were both murdered in the course of doing their work?
“Some of the issues in America made no sense to me at all. It’s a long time ago since a Fianna Fail politician [the late Michael Ahern, TD for Cork North East] spoke about bags of guns, and I think he was ridiculed for 20 years in Dail Eireann. I think it’s amazing what some people get away with. I think whenever you’re talking about violent acts and democratic politics, they don’t mix well.”
Sinn Fein raises vast sums of money in the United States of America, largely by highlighting its role in the peace process. Should Fianna Fail be in the US telling people about its own role in bringing peace to the North?
“Well, we tried that and we got ridiculed for it. We got attacked. At our height, I think we had two functions a year in the US. It’s like the ‘millions’ we allegedly used to make in the Galway Tent and we got attacked for that. Unfortunately, if you’re a mainstream party, you get hammered for these things. If you’re Sinn Fein, you go up in the opinion polls while you’re making ginormous amounts of money in the US.”
Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein have been highly defensive in relation to allegations made by Mairia Cahill with these kinds of things. that they sought to cover up her abuse at the hands of a prominent figure in the IRA.
What are your thoughts on the matter and Sinn Fein’s handling of it?
“Normally what happens when a big political issue comes up in any other political party, you have to outline the full circumstances or you’re called into a Dail committee to do it. They will say they outlined everything in the Dail but I don’t think this is going to go away on them. I think some of this seems to be internal and I wouldn’t be surprised if issues from the past continue to cause problems for them [Sinn Fein].”
How would you have handled Mairia Cahill’s allegations if you were Taoiseach?
“I won’t comment because I haven’t really followed the events or the debate. But I did see Lucinda Creighton on the TV and she did make the point the Dail shouldn’t turn into judge and jury. I thought that was a fair point. I’m glad they’ve come to that conclusion now. It didn’t seem to be the circumstance when I was around.”
Are you concerned Sinn Fein don’t understand the democratic process yet? They are perfectly capable of attacking others, but when they come in for criticism or questioning, they seem to resort to victimhood.
“I have to say I spent over 34 years in the Dail, and I never recall a situation where people from the start of business in the morning to the end of the day refused to deal with the business of the Dail. Of course people fight with the Ceann Comhairle, but it’s usually resolved very quickly. Gerry Adams said he didn’t have confidence in the Ceann Comhairle. I don’t ever recall somebody doing that outside the chamber [as Gerry Adams did].”
Isn’t there always the underlying threat with Sinn Fein in terms of keeping the peace process in the North together? It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it?
“It’s a delicate balance. I wouldn’t get into the criticism game, because obviously political parties see Sinn Fein at 26pc, and obviously wherever they see an opportunity, they hit them. But that’s the order of the day, Sinn Fein are masters at doing it to others. They have to take that. I took it for years when there were big events or issues, people looked for small issues to have a go at you. Sinn Fein can’t complain about that. That’s politics.”
Can Sinn Fein move on from their past while Gerry Adams remains their leader?
“The more people call for it, the less it’s going to happen. It’s not the way those guys work. Gerry Adams and the general wider leadership have said he’ll be there for 2016. It’s not like it is in Fianna Fail, or in Fine Gael or in Labour. The centralised control is different. That centralised control Sinn Fein had in the Troubles has carried on into democratic politics. You can call it discipline or control, but it’s not a healthy thing.”
When the remains of the Disappeared, who were all murder victims, are recovered, doesn’t it serve to remind people of Sinn Fein's links through Gerry Adams to a very violent past?
“Of course there are issues around that and the violence. In terms of the peace process though, I think in fairness we have to give credit to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness for managing to carry the republican and militant republican groups with them. It’s good to see that work done and for them to cooperate, and they should cooperate. When I was in office, I used to have this running battle with Gerry Adams; that he was never in the IRA. I’d say ‘well I was never in Fianna Fail either’.
Those things don’t serve him well. It’s like me going out tomake a speech to say between 1971 and 2011; I was never in Fianna Fail. We should be real.”
Shouldn’t Gerry Adams just confront the truth in terms of his role with the IRA?
“He won’t. It’s just his style.”
Your predecessor as leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, died recently. Many of the tributes credited him for his role in bringing peace to the North with the Downing Street Declaration. Do you feel those tributes downplayed the major contribution you made to the peace process through the Good Friday Agreement?
“When people die, we have a good tradition in this country of showing respect. I’ve always said Albert’s work on the Downing Street Declaration was very important. It did lead to the IRA ceasefire of August 1994 and the loyalist ceasefire of October 1994, and that was an important phase. But it’s sometimes forgotten those ceasefires broke down and that we had to go back and start again when Fianna Fail got into power in 1997. “Some say I was just lucky to be where I was, and that it all fell into my lap, but for the record, the lap it fell into, there was no ceasefire. The violence was on; we had the bombings in Canary Wharf and Manchester and killings in the North. It was extremely nasty.
“We had to start all over again with a ceasefire, party talks, the Good Friday Agreement and all the phases of reform that followed, the decommissioning of arms, the establishment of the institutions and the St Andrew’s Agreement, and I had to get Dr Ian Paisley inside the tent. We managed to do that by being good friends. I don’t think any of that was easy or that it fell into my lap.”
There are those who say the Irish people had to ‘swallow’ a lot in signing up to the Good Friday Agreement. Did they?
“I don’t think people swallowed anything. We changed our Constitution. I think the people voted by 96pc to 4pc to do that. All the other things were to have peace on the island [of Ireland]. A lot of the suggestions in the Good Friday Agreement were actually John Hume’s. What people were really voting for was to get a long-term peace, which we have. But we can’t become complacent when it comes to peace. The work is far from complete.”
So you feel there is complacency surrounding the peace in the North?
“I do feel in Ireland, and in the world in general, we’ve become complacent about maintaining peace. When I finished [as Taoiseach], I immediately started working with Christopher Moran at Co-operation Ireland. I spent four years with him. I put a lot of effort in. The biggest thing I got out of that is that if there’s a conflict, or a march or violence or a bomb, governments don’t have any problem spending money. They’ll spend money on overtime for 30,000 police. When there aren’t bombs and bullets and you’re trying to build on the peace, it’s very hard to get money. My advice is don’t wait until there’s something big.
The foundations of all these things are small money to put into communities to take away sectarianism, bitterness and hatred.
“I was at the launch recently of the Government campaign to commemorate 1916 along with the Taoiseach Tanaiste and the Arts Minister [Heather Humphreys]. It was an important night and an important commemoration. It’s important to have a dignified remembrance of 1916. There was a small group of very determined protesters heckling, roaring and shouting through megaphones and banging on the windows of the GPO trying to disrupt what was a very important event.”
What was your reaction to that?
“It had an impact on me. Listening to the news on the radio on the way home, I heard the detention of a large group of dissidents, ranging in age from 75 down to their 30s, who had been arrested in a house in Newry had been extended. It just shows there are a large group of people who on the one hand don’t remember the Troubles which were largely in the North, but also in the South; and then there are others who don’t like the progress that’s been made.
They’re small in number but vociferous in nature and they don’t want to see peace or progress being made. That is all the more reason why everybody should be anxious to see the outstanding issues [in the North] being dealt with.”
Have you ever been contacted by the Irish government since your departure from politics with a request for your advice or help with the Northern peace process?
“No. Our system seems to be when you’re gone, you’re gone. If I ever could be of any use or help, of course I would. When Richard Hass was appointed, I was in America at the Clinton Foundation. Some people approached him and said if it was any use, I would be available. That offer was never taken up and the only contact I had was a week before it [the talks] all collapsed, the day before Christmas Eve .”
Can you explain the significance of the Hass Report and the recommendations the parties in the North put into it?
“The parties had their discussions, and they were designed to bring forward long-term sustainable solutions for a society which would make peace more resilient. The Hass document was part of a commitment to deal with the legacy of the past and create a modern compassionate society. Their view was, if they did what was in the Hass Report, the problems wouldn’t be so bad and they would be able to work in agreement on their other problems.
“Now, they proposed all this last year, but it hasn’t been heard of since.
“This work needs to be done. They said it. The parties in the North said it. Hass said it. The Government said it, but it won’t happen without nurturing and encouraging it. And if it doesn’t happen, it bodes badly for the people of Northern Ireland.”
What if the Hass Report isn’t implemented?
“It’s clear the vast majority of people of the North want this. It’s also clear there’s another group that don’t want it. Some people see the Troubles as the ‘terrorist years’, others see it as the ‘freedom-fighting years’. That’s a challenge of reconciliation.”
Is there a learned dependency amongst the North’s political parties where they don’t really want full responsibility for their own affairs; that they always want to have the support, financial and otherwise, of the British and Irish governments?
“I think, in fairness, the institutions are good, but they have to be worked to their maximum. The challenge to the parties in the North is to ensure the institutions win favour with their collective electorate. Because it’s an administration elected by the d’Hondt system, it’s not government and opposition, and it’s a relatively small place, but they have a lot of positives. They have a big subvention from the British which, from everything I know, will not always be there, so they need to make sure they have maximum efficiency and support from the public going forward. That’s not always easy to do. I wish them well with that and with dealing with the legacies of the past and the things that might come out of that. The signs are going both ways on that and they need to work very hard.”
You mention legacies. Only two weeks ago the remains of another of the ‘Disappeared’, Brendan Megraw, were recovered. What were your thoughts?
“I think the work on the Disappeared is good. People coming forward, not with amnesties, and giving information that allows people the opportunity to have decent Christian burials for their loved ones.
“One of the things that was a horror story for me was to think the Dublin Monaghan bombings of May 1974, that the file was closed in August 1974; I still don’t believe it. That’s why I did so much to help the relatives, as best as I could and as far as I could. I know the inquiry didn’t solve everything. In the North there were thousands of cases that weren’t investigated at all.
“Now, it can’t go on forever so I think that the Hass Report, on their [the parties in the North] words, they have to be dealt with. That’s what the panel of politicians in the North said.”