Thursday 17 October 2019

'I only want to help out locally and play my small role' - Bertie Ahern

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern tells Niamh Horan that Micheal Martin has nothing to fear as he was merely asked to win votes

Bertie Ahern wouldn’t be drawn on the presidency Photo: David Conachy
Bertie Ahern wouldn’t be drawn on the presidency Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Bertie Ahern seems tickled pink. For a man who hasn't even been in the country for several weeks, he still manages to make it on to the front pages.

As he is sitting in the Skylon Hotel, drinking tea and eating sandwiches over two hours with his good friend Des Richardson, a well-wisher approaches to shake his hand.

"That guy was assuming -like everyone I have met in the last couple of days - that I am back," he tells me afterwards. "I have only been asked to play a very, very minor role."

A short time later another man beams at the sight of the old Drumcondra native. He tells Bertie he should be Taoiseach again.

"You see this is the trouble," Bertie laughs. "Before it takes off that I am coming back as Taoiseach or President… [I want to make it clear that] all the party was trying to do was see if I would come back to help the local organisation win some votes."

Local Fianna Fail's Dublin Central activists want to win back seats in Dublin North West and Dublin Central -Bertie's local stomping ground - and they want Bertie to help. "We used to have three out of five for this area," he says after ushering me to a quiet corner of the hotel to explain the political debacle.

When you were involved?

"Yes. In my first election in this area I got two out of the three seats. All of the other elections, I headed the poll. And all that [the Dublin Central] are doing is looking at the figures and saying 'Bertie used to have 12,500 votes in one area, Noel [Ahern, Bertie's brother] had 12,500 votes in another area, they had 25,000 votes, they were there for 30 years, if we got a slice of that vote back - it would help."

Do you think you can help?

"Of course I want to see Fianna Fail win the seat back and - one way or another - I would help."

Earlier in the week, members of the Dublin Central branch had planned to write a letter to the former Taoiseach to formally ask him to re-join the party. But Bertie says Micheal Martin has put paid to those plans.

"I never got the letter because he [Micheal] stopped it."

How do you feel about it?

"Well you know the way. If you are not invited to the party by the host, you don't go to the party. That's my view on it," shrugs Bertie.

Why don't you apply for membership and let the party decide, regardless of what Micheal says?

"It has to go through [him]," he says, "This is the point. If I apply for membership apparently, apparently, it has to go back to him. I would be the only person in the organisation who joins where my application would have to go back to him," he laughs, "according to him anyway."

Is Micheal Martin's attempt to stamp out Fianna Fail's Dublin Central's plans against the best interests of the party?

"That's what he has to make a judgement on," says Bertie.

But the man who is Ireland's second longest serving Taoiseach - and one of the most popular and successful politicians in the history of the State - wants to reassure Micheal Martin "there is no big masterplan."

"My only interest, my only interest, would be to see my old constituency win seats. And if I was to say yes to an application - which I haven't got," he laughs, "but if I was going to say yes, it would only be to help in my local area and to play my small role."

On Thursday the Fianna Fail leader issued a strong statement to ensure the former Taoiseach would not come back into the fold. Newspaper reports described how Martin cast Ahern as a figure from the party's grubby past, which Fianna Fail wants to move on from.

"I don't agree with that," says Bertie. "I think Fianna Fail has been a great party for 90 years. It has been a wonderful party for 90 years. The party has had ups and downs in Dev's time, in Lemass's time, in Lynch's time, in Charlie's time, in Albert's time, in my time, in his time.

"The party goes up and down. So if you talk about the grubby past, which of them are you talking about?" he laughs. "You know? Are you only talking about my time? Were there no other ups and downs in anyone else's time?"

Still, Martin is adamant his views on Bertie's position are unchanged. In recent days he told reporters: "Nothing has changed from four years ago and I don't anticipate Bertie Ahern coming back into the party. I don't see any possibility of that".

But Bertie believes "the circumstances have changed a lot".

"Things aren't the same," he says. "There have been several court cases that have changed the circumstances. Charlie Chawke won his case. The tribunal gave in to Dermot Carew, Des Richardson had his case. All of these cases have happened, so to say it is the same - how is it the same when these cases have all happened?"

He says: "You have to take into account the cases that friends of mine took and won and those things have moved on."

On Fianna Fail's rehoned image, Bertie believes it can always be bettered: "I think there is always room for improvement with any brand and no one should ever stop trying to improve it and I think we have to try - and Fianna Fail as a political party have to try - and continue to improve the brand and one of the ways they should do that is to make sure people know all of the good things that Fianna Fail has done over the past 90 years and not be apologising for it."

Does he receive a warmer response on the streets now?

"Ah yeah, for years. That moved on... you know politics. Listen, when the economy was growing by 10pc and when the country had lots of money, or looked as if we had lots of money, and when unemployment was low, there were still people who weren't happy," he laughs, "of course when the downturn happened, I was gone. People now forget I was gone. People relate it back to some of the decisions in my time and I gave all of my evidence in the banking tribunal for hours on end on that and I think people understood my position -I am not saying everyone agreed with everything I said - so that's long finished."

On the economy bouncing back, he says: "Well, sure the country only went down in two areas. The property and the banking. Lots of other areas of the economy never went down.

"It was an international recession, some people seem to think there was only a recession in Ireland, it was everywhere in the world."

Looking ahead he says: "We have to be very careful. We did learn some hard lessons ."

But he adds: "What always annoys me is that we were building at 80,000 [units] when we should have been building at 45,000 [units]. We were building too many. So we take responsibility for that."

But, "its amazing everyone was going around a few years ago saying, 'We're building too many houses, we have ghost estates, we'll never have them full.' Now they are all gone, bar a few, and we don't have enough houses. Now we have to get the supply up again.

"The trouble is a lot of the developers who built them are gone."

At 65, he says he still has "a contribution to make".

"All I am being asked to do is to play a local role. Helping locally in an area I know inside out and back to front. But if the perception is that it is something else then that's a problem. I think that is the problem - the perception."

Before taking photos by the Christmas tree, I ask about the prospect that he will run for President.

"Michael D. is a good friend of mine. I think he is doing a very, good job and I would make no comment about that."

Would you rule it out?

"I would make no comment about that."

Again and again, I ask.Again and again he refuses to rule it out. Eventually he says: "I think it is disrespectful for anyone to talk about the presidency. He is an excellent president. And he'll probably stay on for another nine years.

"So I can't rule it out if it's not available. And in another nine years, I will be too old." He will be 74 - a year younger than Michael D. is now.

Stranger things have happened. Remember only a week ago the idea of Bertie getting back into politics was unimaginable.

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