Friday 18 October 2019

Bertie back in the spotlight, but a political resurrection is probably not desirable or even likely

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern arrives to address the Seanad Select Committee on Brexit at Leinster House earlier this month Photo: Tom Burke
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern arrives to address the Seanad Select Committee on Brexit at Leinster House earlier this month Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

He has been booed by Dublin fans in Croke Park, received a rope knotted in a hangman's noose through the post, and was even battered with a crutch in a pub.

Still, Bertie Ahern has intrigue for the public.

"Mention his name to party members and the conversation goes on quite a bit. They don't all love him - but there is considerable affection among some members. Above all he still has impact," one Fianna Fáil backbencher confided.

But the Fianna Fáil link remains problematic as he was forced to quit in 2012 following Mahon/Flood Tribunal findings.

On Thursday night, he addressed a party meeting in Athlone, hosted by Councillor Aengus O'Rourke, the son of his former deputy party leader Mary O'Rourke.

The Athlone meeting revived party tensions triggered last November when Mr Ahern's supporters in his old Dublin Central bailiwick called for his readmission.

That drew a very blunt "no" from current party leader Micheál Martin, who would like us all to forget that he was an acolyte of Mr Ahern for more than 13 years.

Mr Ahern's post-Taoiseach media forays were not always the best judged.

There was the television advertisement in 2010 as sports pundit for the now defunct 'News of the World' newspaper, when he was portrayed speaking from a kitchen cupboard.

But he later maintained a more dignified code of media omertá for more than two years after his forced resignation in 2012 from the Fianna Fáil party, which he had led for 14 years. In mid-2015 a series of media outings began to slowly build.

Now, aged 65, he is back in the public spotlight.

National and international experience mean he has worthwhile things to say about Brexit, and about the recurring logjam in the North's peace process.

Does this mean a sort of political resurrection beckons? Is he a Fianna Fáil runner for Áras an Uachtaráin in October 2018? Or, is the prize some kind of public reputational rehabilitation?

Mr Ahern's EU credentials mean he has valuable insights to offer on Ireland and Brexit.

He first attended high-level meetings in Brussels in 1987 as labour minister and, bar the 30 months of the 1994-1997 Rainbow Coalition, he attended and frequently chaired the widest range of EU meetings over 27 years, as finance minister and later as Taoiseach.

Heading Ireland's EU presidency in 2004, he delivered a new European Union constitution. That considerable achievement was later overshadowed by the project being torpedoed by French and Dutch voters.

His prowess as a conciliator/negotiator, honed as a trade unionist and minister for labour forging social partnership, is considerable.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was high among the biggest political achievements since Irish independence and he played a signal role in it.

Even when his public reputation was at its lowest ebb, nobody could take his achievements on Northern Ireland away from him.

As a Fianna Fáil leader his electoral achievements are unparalleled in the modern era. Through very skilful vote management, to three consecutive general election wins in 1997, 2002, and 2007.

But his continued inflation of public spending, and support for "light-touch regulation" of banking and financial services, was reckless in the extreme.

Mr Ahern is partly to blame for the loss of economic sovereignty in November 2010, and the subsequent return of emigration and unemployment.

But let's also recall that none of his political opponents had ever shouted "stop". Fine Gael and Labour unsuccessfully tried to out-bid him in voter bribes.

Mr Ahern told people what they wanted to hear to twice achieve re-election. This raises questions for every Irish voter.

Dovetailing with those economic allegations, was the fallout from the findings of the Mahon/Flood Tribunal in March 2012. Mr Ahern has always rejected these tribunal findings that he had failed to truthfully account for a number of financial transactions.

The tribunal did not make a finding of corruption against him.

But it emerged that he had got rid of his bank accounts immediately following the breakdown of his marriage in 1987 and dealt only in cash for several years.

During this time he was a minister in government, and minister for finance from 1992.

The tribunal concluded that he "did not truthfully account" for the origins of IR£165,000 in lodged accounts held in his name, the name of his daughters, and in the name of his then partner Celia Larkin between 1993 and 1995.

Mr Ahern had offered various explanations, like savings from his salary, "digouts" from pals, fundraising functions, and even wins on the horses.

After Dublin Central Fianna Fáil's move last November to welcome him back to the fold, Mr Martin was emphatic that it was not going to happen.

"Bertie resigned four or five years ago after the Mahon Tribunal. He's retired, effectively, from politics. I don't see him coming back into the party, I don't think that's a prospect," Mr Martin said.

He also said the "central allegation" against Mr Ahern was not sustained. But the evidence confirmed by the tribunal and its comments relating to him were extremely serious.

Mr Martin is in a tricky position in all of this. But he is also probably right.

We should listen to Mr Ahern on Brexit and the North, and he could have a formal advisory role alongside people like former Fine Gael taoiseach John Bruton, a former EU ambassador in Washington, and former head of the World Trade Organisation Peter Sutherland.

Beyond that, a Bertie Ahern political resurrection remains unlikely and is probably not desirable.

Irish Independent

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