Wednesday 19 June 2019

Out of his party... but still big in Iran and Drumcondra

Kim Bielenberg on post-Dáil Bertie

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Bertie Ahern is like the proverbial biblical prophet, honoured everywhere, but almost shunned in his home country. No Taoiseach in history suffered such a rapid decline in his reputation after his departure from office.

Ahern has had to go through the ignominy of being attacked physically while out and about in Dublin. Two years ago he was hit on the head with a crutch in a city centre pub, and there have also been plenty of verbal attacks.

His stature has been damaged almost beyond repair on the national stage by the crash, but the former Taoiseach can comfort himself that he remains an important figure in Drumcondra, Beijing and Tehran.

In February, Ahern turned up in Iran, sitting next to a local potentate, as if he was at a leaders' summit. According to the Iran Government News Service, he expressed his pleasure at visiting the middle eastern country.

Like one of those communist leaders in the cold war era reporting on the success of the grain harvest, Ahern told his gratified hosts that Iran and Ireland had both progressed satisfactorily in the fields of technology, medicine and nano-technology.

These topics may not have pre-occupied Ahern too much when he was Taoiseach, but he has found his voice on a range of unexpected subjects on numerous foreign jaunts since leaving office.

As chairman of the Chinese Irish Co-operation Council, Ahern is also a regular visitor to China, where he hob-nobs with Communist leaders. He was recently featured on the front page of the South China Morning Post pumping hands with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Ahern was holding forth on cyber-security at the World Internet Conference, according to the local press reports.

He was back in China last month, and received extensive write-ups in the China Daily for his pronouncements on the environment. Until now, Ahern has not been noted for his green campaigning in Ireland, but readers of the China Daily know otherwise.

Drumcondra's answer to Chairman Mao lauded the Chinese government for its strategic thinking on environmental protection and climate change.

This foreign attention must seem gratifying as Ahern struggles with his reputation at home.

He resigned from his party in 2012 after moves within Fianna Fáil to expel him in the wake of the publication of the Mahon Tribunal report. The tribunal into corruption in the planning process found that Ahern had failed to truthfully account for a number of financial transactions.

However, it did not make a corruption finding against him.

Ahern has not been written out of history by Fianna Fáil entirely, but there is no mention in his profile on the party website of his remarkable hat-trick of victories in three successive general elections

Although there are mentions of the Celtic Tiger and the peace process, the story of Ahern tails off in 2004 with Ireland's EU Presidency.

Although retired Taoisigh no longer have the perk of a Garda driver, his pension of €134,000 ensures that he should always be comfortably off. This week it emerged that the pension will rise by €2,000 over the next three years. He can top off his pension with the odd speaking engagement or corporate gig. In 2010, he was appointed chairman of the International Forestry Fund.

On the streets of Drumcondra, Ahern remains a familiar figure, still living and working close to where he grew up. There, he can still enjoy the "hail fellow, well met" banter that became familiar on the political stump during his successful years on the national stage.

The centre of the Ahern machine at St Luke's may have been sold by Fianna Fáil for €774,000, but he still operates out of a small office near the Skylon Hotel.

Although he no longer serves as an elected representative, Ahern said recently he was still "blue in the face" doing constituency work. Ordinary punters still approach him asking him to sort out their problems.

If you are having difficulty getting into hospital, who better to call than Bertie?

The chairman of Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central, Brian Mohan, says: "Because he has such experience, it is understandable that people go to him for advice."

And he still has admirers in his party. He recently joined other senior party figures as a speaker at a centenary commemoration of the republican leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin cemetery.

"He is still admired for his role in the peace process," says Mohan.

"People have their own opinions of him and I am sure we will see that when he appears at the banking inquiry."

One of his friends says: "His obsession is Drumcondra and how it has developed. He has pictures of the old village on the wall of his office.

"He takes a philosophical view of how everything turned out, and he was never motivated by greed."

Ahern remains interested in how the infrastructure which he developed in the Celtic Tiger era is being used.

Now that he has retired from politics, he has much more time for his family, and friends describe him as a "doting granddad".

"If you meet him, he is just as likely to be talking about how his five grandchildren are getting on as politics," said one associate.

His friends in Fianna Fail remain genuinely bemused that he has become the target of such criticism since the economic crash.

One close former adviser says: "I think people felt they knew Bertie personally. So when the crash came, they felt a sense of personal betrayal. They didn't feel the same towards bankers, because they were more anonymous figures."

Another friend says people were wrong to criticise him over his pension.

"He would have earned a lot more if he had gone into banking, or even if he had stayed as an accountant working at the Mater Hospital."

Will he have a strategy when he appears before the banking inquiry on Thursday?

The friend says: "He is more likely to have a strategy for Dublin playing in Leinster Football Final tomorrow."

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