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Martina Devlin: Bertie – a man of huge talent but with a stain that will never wash out

NO need to schlep all the way over to Egypt if you want to look at a Sphinx, because we have one of our own in Drumcondra. Even the Mahon lawyers couldn't crack him.

Bertie Ahern is a human cryptogram. Churchill could have been predicting his rise to power, instead of Russia's, with that memorable reference to a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".

Even after the exhaustive Mahon Report, we understand this complicated, secretive man no better today than we did during his three terms as Taoiseach.

Still, some facts we know conclusively now, whereas previously they were only suspicions. For example, the tribunal concluded he told a string of lies about his personal finances, including the ownership of his house, and friends backed him up by parroting the same far-fetched version of events.

But here's where the Bertie enigma steps out of the shadows again. Although the report found he made false claims about his tortuous financial arrangements, we are supposed to believe him when he says he did no favours in return for large sums of cash. They were unsolicited gestures of friendship which he regarded as debts of honour and fully intended to repay. Eventually.

The Mahon judges found his financial arrangements fishy. The Irish people find them fishy. Fianna Fail members are in denial if they don't find them fishy. But in Bertie's parallel universe, it's plausible. After all, his word should be enough. Despite his word being tainted. I daresay he feels wounded, after all he's done for the ungrateful Irish people, that we should question his bona fides.

Walled up in his alternative reality, no doubt claiming a vindication from Mahon because it only -- only -- calls him untruthful and doesn't make a corruption finding against him, Bertie remains a puzzle.

A complex individual, during his political career he had a talent for presenting himself as a simple man of the people. His anorak, pint of Bass and Bertieisms all contributed to that humble, well-meaning, slightly bumbling image -- a welcome contrast to the excesses of the polished Squire Haughey.

But what we thought we knew of Bertie was a carefully constructed facade. Behind it was a cagey, ambitious and unfathomable human being. Bit by bit, the false front has crumbled -- but we still struggle to make head or tail of the wily man behind it.

We had our doubts about the polar sides to his nature when listening to his bizarre evidence at the Mahon Tribunal. A finance minister with no bank accounts; a senior politician whose friends gave him large cash "dig-outs" and wanted nothing in return -- not even repayment.

Since the bust, the extent to which he occupies a parallel universe has become more apparent. Perhaps the most striking example occurred last year, when he shared his greatest regret about his time in high office -- not the economic collapse but the collapse of his pet Bertie Bowl project.

There is no doubt Bertie possesses many skills: a peacemaker, a talented politician with the capacity to get things done, a natural-born negotiator.

But what a waste. What a waste of all the time and energy he devoted to making convoluted, cryptic financial arrangements and covering his tracks afterwards. What a waste of all the mental effort he expended, keeping one step ahead of the Mahon lawyers.

If he'd given up the ducking and diving, the conniving and double-dealing, he could have helped to deliver world peace never mind peace in the North. Raising a few pounds and hiding it from his estranged wife or the taxman? Big brain, small goals.

Still, let's pause to remember some good news amid this deluge about corrupt politicians, from the inimitable Pee Flynn to Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor.

Bertie's pivotal role in the State's economic Armageddon dissuaded him from running for the Aras, so he's not admiring his view of the Phoenix Park today as we digest the Mahon Report. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, liar, is a little more palatable than President Bertie Ahern, liar.

Now the bad news. He was too devious and cunning for the best legal brains in the country. He ran rings round them. They have called him on those porkies about cash lodgments to various bank accounts, and on that yarn about a Manchester pal owning his house. But they couldn't prove corruption -- that he did favours in return for payments.

"I have broken no law, I have broken no ethical code, I have broken no tax law," he told RTE's Bryan Dobson, in that infamous interview in 2006 when he was still Taoiseach, and grew moist-eyed at intrusion into his personal business.

What a loss to the Abbey Theatre. I watched his performance again yesterday and marvelled.

So, not corrupt, according to Mahon, but a consistent liar on the subject of his finances.

That's damaging: a "damned spot" on his reputation which will never wash out. Does he care? He must.

Apart from their pensions, political leaders rely on their legacies for comfort.

It's not the only taint. There is one on the party which continued to support Bertie, even as questions about his integrity mounted -- even at the recent ard fheis.

And another on the ministers who sat in Cabinet with him, who either buried their heads in the sand or tried to undermine the tribunal by poisonous attacks.

But there is a blot on all of us, according to Mahon. It criticises not just "rampant political corruption" so entrenched it became "an acknowledged way of doing business", but public apathy toward it -- a lack of pressure for reform.

So Bertie, and those cast in his image and likeness, behaved the way they did because we tolerated it, we are told.

I'm struggling there -- suspicions are one thing, proof is another.

Besides, it smacks of that highly dubious line we were spun by the last government about how we all partied during the boom.

In the final analysis, Bertie hasn't cleared his name. Still, it may be some small consolation to him that most of his skeletons remain locked in a cupboard.

Irish Independent