I NEVER believed Bertie Ahern was corrupt. If I thought he was corrupt, I would never have stayed with him as long as I did. The Bertie I knew would never have been a puppet politician, or beholden to anyone.
Fianna Fail might as well have yellow crime scene tape around it at the moment. The media are doing inquests with as much enthusiasm as if the party was dead. Which it isn't. But -- having been the then Taoiseach's partner, at the cusp of what was going on for the first eight years of Bertie Ahern's term as leader of Fianna Fail and a party activist since 1976 -- I'm being asked questions.
What went wrong, who was to blame? Was it Brian Cowen or Charlie McCreevy or Bertie Ahern?
I was wary when approached by TV3 to participate in their documentary The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fail, the first part of which goes out tomorrow night. However, it made me reflect on the individuals I knew, what I saw as their strengths and weaknesses, on the events of the past years and how they related to the rise and fall of a great national movement. I was there, I observed.
Bertie Ahern resigned as party leader in May 2008, his position having been overshadowed by the Mahon tribunal for well over a year. Party members were exhausted by the constant barrage from the tribunal. I always believed that Bertie stayed in office too long. I often gave him an earful of what I thought -- much of which he ignored, and rightly so. It's a Taoiseach's job to weigh one bit of advice against another and come to a decision they are comfortable standing over. I did, however, give Bertie one unsought piece of advice that went nowhere and that might have saved him from several bad years and the destruction of much of his reputation and legacy.
"Don't stay in office too long," I said on the week he became Taoiseach and repeatedly, in his early years in office. "It's wrong to stay longer than a term and a half."
The only leader in modern times who actually left office at the right time, voluntarily, was Sean Lemass. The problem about the reluctance to relinquish power is that every extra year is another swipe of the reputation eraser. And concentration on retaining power reduces concentration on what legacy the leader wants to leave when they do, eventually, leave office.
I had hoped Bertie would set an agenda for himself, execute it and get out. I believe in planning all the way to the end and then stopping. Of course, the stopping bit is the difficult one. For Bertie, his whole life was politics, it dictated his every move. Apart from spending Sunday afternoon going to lunch and football matches with his family, he was consumed by politics. He spent every waking hour reading briefs or knocking on doors. That was who he was. He sacrificed everything for politics.
As Taoiseach, he worked hard and constantly. His forte was negotiations. As an Irish woman, I will be forever grateful to him for his part in negotiating the Good Friday agreement. He was the right person in the right place with the right skills to negotiate peace in the North. That will be his legacy. It would be a more clearly visible legacy if he had left power quickly thereafter.
Much has been said about the genius of Bertie's negotiating skill. In fact, it was very simple. He had no fixed bottom line. You could find yourself leading a charge on an agreed agenda and discover the general was missing. Having seen the futility of a particular line of compromise, he could change tack in a heartbeat. It worked superbly in the peace processes. After all, anybody who could get Fianna Fail people, especially me, to vote for the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution could move mountains. But it may not be a good approach in other fields.
The popularity he secured following the Good Friday Agreement and his subsequent success during Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2004, I'm sure, made it all the more difficult for him to walk away from power. Interestingly enough, the end of the EU Council presidency in 2004 marked the end of a term and a half in office for Bertie. The point at which he should have gone.
Staying too long in the top job under normal circumstances is one thing, but once the tribunals started, it took everybody's eye off the ball. No individual can do justice to defending their name and running the country at the same time. Something suffers. The country is more important than any one individual. The country should have come first.
Bertie, like countless other political leaders throughout the world, found it hard to let go of power -- even if he hadn't wanted to be in office for a record length of time, leaving office at that point would have been extraordinarily difficult. It would have been like admitting guilt.
The tribunals have yet to come to their judgement, however, based on the knowledge that I had at the time that I was with him, I never believed him to be corrupt.