Monday 14 October 2019

Bertie: reeling in the years

He was Taoiseach for 10 years, 10 months and 10 days and at the end of it we still didn't know who Bertie Ahern was. Next week he appears before the Banking Inquiry. Will we be any wiser after

Teflon Taoiseach: A billboard in St Stephen's Green in the run up to the 2002 election but Ahern front and centre.
Teflon Taoiseach: A billboard in St Stephen's Green in the run up to the 2002 election but Ahern front and centre.
A younger Bertie Ahern with daughters Georgina and Cecelia during his time as Lord Mayor of Dublin
With Charlie Haughey, who famously described Bertie as 'most skillful, most devious, most cunning'
Man about town: Bertie pictured on Dublin's northside in 2011. Photo: Mark Condren
The former Taoiseach in an ill-judged ad for a newspaper column
Political moves: Ahern with Brian Cowen in 2009
John Downing

John Downing

Bertie Ahern's last major national exposure had him sitting in a kitchen cupboard advertising his new sports column in the now defunct News of the World newspaper.

A cheeky, cut-down Bertie was drinking a cup of tea, surrounded by ginger-nut biscuits, onions, bread, yellow and green peppers and other groceries. "I never thought I'd end up here," he said.

By now, Ahern's words in that epically ill-judged television advertisement of October 2010 seem strangely apposite for his next big national outing, which finally happens next Thursday.

At his long-awaited Banking Inquiry appearance he will at last have to confront the public's view that he led the nation from phoney boom to ignominious bust. The latest of these "reeling in the Fianna Fáil heyday years" at Leinster House, which already featured Ahern confederates Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen, has reached its high-point.

McCreevy had been banished in September 2004 for apparently being too frugal. Cowen was effectively given a crocked economy when he took over in 2008. But Ahern was the central figure through all.

In recent weeks, Ahern has prepared assiduously for his day in the spotlight.

"He has been reading up for weeks. He gives the impression of a man very keen to get in there and set out his version of events after four years of vilification," one friend has revealed.

Ahern had left the post of Taoiseach and the Fianna Fáil leadership when the Irish bank system fell asunder and the economy swiftly plumbed the depths. But for a long time in the public's mind he attracted much of the blame for this national catastrophe.

Rightly or wrongly, in that public view, the economic crash sprang from Ahern and his colleagues' failure to regulate the banks, and their reckless public spending, funded by temporary tax revenues from an exaggerated building boom.

True, the international economic crash lit the Irish economic fuse. But Ireland's inability to mount an effective and timely economic correction was born of the way our banks and economy were in such disorder. Things were not helped by the perceived unhealthy blurring of boundaries between developers, builders and the politicians in power.

Fianna Fáil's hospitality tent at the Galway Races was a creation of the Bertie era, and it became emblematic of that dubious politician-businessman nexus. Exaggerated politicians' pay and perks built up during the Ahern years rounded off a potentially explosive cocktail for an already beleaguered and embittered people. Anti-Ahern and Fianna Fáil anger has abated somewhat in the years since then. Bank Inquiry testimony in the past by two weeks from McCreevy and Cowen has built on arguments that Ireland's economic down was a bit more complex and multi-faceted.

But Ahern's testimony on Thursday will be crucial. It also brings back one of the most intriguing politicians of his generation, the man who remained enigmatic for all of the 31 years he figured in Irish politics.

The seven TDs and four Senators, led by impressive chairman Deputy Ciaran Lynch of Labour, have been honing their questioning techniques. They have eschewed partisan politics - but they will give Ahern absolutely no quarter.

Bartholomew Patrick Ahern served 10 years, 10 months and 10 days as Taoiseach, from June 1997 to May 2008. On his last day in office, May 6, 2008, he joined then-Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley to open an interpretative centre at the site of the Battle of Boyne.

The presence of the North's long-time 'Dr No' on that day spoke volumes about the transformation of Northern Ireland on Ahern's watch. He was not the only one who worked for peace in that era - but his signal contribution should never be undervalued.

On Ahern's last day, Paisley, who lavished praise on the outgoing Taoiseach, was asked what he believed Ahern should do next. "I think that, after all he has done, he deserves to be president of the country, if he so desires it," came the reply.

An Ahern stint in Áras an Uachtaráin was quickly ruled out of the question by Ireland's economic fate. And those intervening seven years have not been kind to Ahern's reputation with the Irish public.

He has at times been accosted, and even assaulted, in pubs and often barracked and abused at visits to matches involving his beloved Dubs. Hard to imagine that this man was known with affection the length and breadth of the land as simply "Bertie" and that he won an extraordinary three back-to-back general elections, with campaigns often heavily based on his personality as the energetic and clubbable leader who, by conservative estimates, personally met one third of the electorate.

Descriptions of Ahern as the "Teflon Taoiseach" were in fact a huge understatement. Towards the end of his second government term, in autumn 2006, it emerged that as Finance Minister in 1993 and 1994, he received between €50,000 and €100,000 from businessmen. There was consternation inside his own Fianna Fáil and dismay among his coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats.

But within weeks, his political opponents, including Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte, dialled down their scathing attacks and probing detailed questions. Opinion polls revealed that almost two thirds of people thought Ahern was wrong to take that money. But support for Fianna Fáil actually rose by between 4pc and 8pc in a slew of opinion polls over those weeks.

Ahern's determined ordinariness and his ability to catch the national mood had won through a very tricky patch for himself and his party. The public, hugely influenced by a tearful interview on RTÉ1's Six One News with Bryan Dobson, gave him something of a "fool's pardon".

The popular understanding was that this was a man going through an expensive marriage break-up and supported by his pals with a "dig-out". Barely 10 years after the nation had voted for divorce by the slimmest of slim majorities, the punters understood the cost implications of divorce for a regular guy.

The general election which followed in May 2007 was truly a strange affair. The previous two Fianna Fáil election wins, in June 1997 and May 2002, had been largely built around the bouncy, likeable image of Ahern.

More revelations spilling out from the Mahon Tribunal probing his affairs stalled Fianna Fáil's third such campaign in 2007. The Taoiseach was forced to call a campaign intermission to make a detailed statement containing extraordinary further revelations about money given to him by Manchester-Irish businessman Michael Wall for the refurbishment of a house Ahern would subsequently buy.

A huge campaign intervention by his deputy leader, Brian Cowen, helped rescue things just as it looked Fianna Fáil would lose. Ahern's own very assured performance and apparent economic nous in a television head-to-head with Enda Kenny also proved crucial.

Ahern's Fianna Fáil won 78 seats, only three fewer than it did in 2002, a remarkable achievement given the huge question marks about the party leader. He surprised everyone again by including the Green Party in a coalition with the depleted Progressive Democrats and friendly independents.

Ahern was, however, on borrowed time. Elected Taoiseach for a third time on June 14, 2007, his government was quickly deprived of all energy and focus by the "Bertie Tribunal story", harking back to the early 1990s and his period as Finance Minister.

There were a series of tribunal reports spanning months about large cash sums being swapped between safes at his offices in St Luke's, Drumcondra, and in the Finance Department. The explanations became more and more tortuous and climaxed with the assertion that he won some of the cash "on the horses".

The popular image of a frugal, hard-working 'Mr Everyman' took a battering as the drip-drip and sometimes risible revelations made his position untenable. The final straw, which saw his former loyal secretary Gráinne Carruth reduced to tears in the witness box, is revealing of the Ahern character, which has remained something of an enigma for the past four decades.

Ms Carruth had been recalled and felt obliged to correct earlier evidence she had given about bank transactions she had carried out on behalf of her old boss. The episode was of itself hugely damaging to Ahern's immediate and longer-term reputation.

But in his 2009 memoir, prepared in collaboration with UCD historian Richard Aldous, Ahern squarely blamed the tribunal lawyers.

"All they had to do was write to her and ask her to clarify her earlier evidence. They threatened her with jail. And she cried on the stand. It was real low-life stuff," Ahern wrote.

Such hubris and querulousness were attributes not often ascribed to Ahern as they were rarely seen in public. He could be given a pass for an incandescent Dáil outburst in December 1994, when he angrily rounded on Fine Gael TD Gay Mitchell, saying: "You're a waffler, a waffler and you've always been a waffler."

At the time, Ahern had just been deprived of the office of Taoiseach, which went to John Bruton of Fine Gael, at the head of a Rainbow Coalition in the most surprising and extraordinary circumstances.

A more damaging example of the Ahern mask slipping came in July 2007, when he addressed the economic naysayers at the ICTU conference in Bundoran.

Departing from his script, he said: "Sitting on the sidelines or on the fence cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. In fact I don't know how people who engage in that don't commit suicide."

The expected backlash from mental-health campaigners was considerable and the Ahern apology on the day was abject. But his invincible belief in Ireland's soar-away economy persisted.

"The performance of our economy remains the envy of Europe, not least in the context of jobs and growth. Unemployment was remaining at a low 4.2pc, while GDP grew by 5.4pc with further increases projected for the years ahead," Ahern averred in a formal economic statement later that same month.

This and other such claims will be dissected during his Banking Inquiry inquisition next Thursday. And the biggest question will be about how he can deal with the questions after seven years away from the hustings.

Reverting to his old formula of mumbling reams of statistics, which served him so well through 11 years of Leaders' Questions in the Dáil chamber, is absolutely not an option. The man Charlie Haughey once admiringly dubbed "most skilful, most devious, most cunning" will be playing uphill.

Did he and his Fianna Fáil colleagues just use the boom to create election-winning war-chests? Or, were they just too inept to pick up on the warning signs of a downturn?

It is not hard to predict what, in essence, Ahern will say. Announcing his departure in April 2008, he said: "I have always placed the interests of the Irish people above my own."

Next Thursday, Ahern must prove that assertion through hostile inquisitors to a sceptical public. Like his stint in the grocery cupboard, he may well reflect: "I never thought I'd end up here."

Irish Independent political correspondent John Downing is author of the Ahern biography Most Skilful, Most Devious, Most Cunning, published by Blackwater Press 2004.

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