Thursday 20 June 2019

As Bertie faces Banking Inquiry, the Drumcondra Mafia will root for him

Some who know Bertie Ahern say he is embittered at his treatment. But says Shane Coleman, Ahern still has the support of his old lieutenants

Liam Cooper, Paul Kiely, Bertie Ahern and Chris Wall at St Lukes on the occasion of Bertie announcing his retirement. Dec 2010
Liam Cooper, Paul Kiely, Bertie Ahern and Chris Wall at St Lukes on the occasion of Bertie announcing his retirement. Dec 2010

Shane Coleman

It was almost like old times for Fianna Fail in Dublin Central. They gathered last Monday week at Glasnevin Cemetery's Republican plot to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa.

The chieftain of the legendary Drumcondra cumann that bore the name of the fabled Fenian was in his element. They had come in their hundreds. He and his entourage could still draw a crowd.

As Íar-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern addressed the throng, he looked out at many familiar faces. His brother Maurice. Chris Wall. Liam Cooper. Paddy 'the Plasterer' Reilly. Des Richardson.

Together with the likes of Tony Kett, Paul Kiely, Daithi O Broin, Brian Curran, Dominic Dillane, Tim Collins, Joe Burke and Dominic Caulfield, these men had built the most formidable constituency machine the State had ever seen.

Older Fianna Fáilers still talk in hushed tones about Neil Blaney's constituency organisation. But they didn't put their man in the top job in the country. The Drumcondra Mafia, as Ahern's band of brothers were dubbed by Charlie Haughey, had done precisely that.

The story goes that shortly after Ahern became a TD in 1977, a small group of his supporters - Kett, Kiely, Burke and Paddy Duffy - met in Malahide, after which a document titled How to Become Taoiseach in Twenty Years was produced. Twenty years later, Ahern duly became Taoiseach. And for his 11 years in office, some of the Drumcondra Mafia were arguably as influential as Cabinet ministers.

It was quite a night in Glasnevin. After the formalities in the cemetery, the group ended up in the Brian Boru pub - one of Ahern's old stomping grounds. It was a reminder of those glory days. Almost like old times - just not quite.

Too much had changed. Ahern and Fianna FAil have long since parted company - the former leader beating his party to the punch, resigning before he was pushed, in the wake of the Mahon Tribunal findings.

St Luke's, the Drumcondra Road powerbase - as pivotal as Government Buildings to the running of the State during Ahern's tenure at the top - was firstly wrestled back by party HQ and then sold.

Some, though by no means all, of Ahern's old comrades have endured difficult times.

And then there's Ahern himself. In his prime he ranked alongside Daniel O'Connell, Eamon de Valera and Jack Lynch as one of the greatest vote-winners in Irish political history, but he is now something of a pariah. He's a target for public hostility as much for his perceived role in the economic collapse, as for the embarrassing revelations about his personal finances at the planning Tribunal.

It was at that Tribunal seven years ago that Ahern last ran the media gauntlet. It proved a deeply unhappy experience for him. Mahon ultimately found he had failed to account for over IR£165,000 (€210,000) which had passed through bank accounts connected to him in the early and mid-1990s. His legacy was in tatters.

His appearance before the Banking Inquiry next Thursday is likely to be a good deal less dramatic. His two Finance Ministers Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen have been there before him. For all the advance hype, neither man shipped a significant punch at the hearings.

Ahern's experience is unlikely to be much different.

Much though will depend on his approach and his demeanour. There was an extraordinary moment late in proceedings at the Inquiry last Wednesday when Brian Cowen revealed he asked himself privately every day whether there was more he could have done to avert the crisis. It was a rare, poignant, insight into the burden Cowen carries.

Ahern to date has shown no such signs of contrition or humility. His utterances during the economic crisis were along the lines of 'if I was still in charge, I'd be knuckling down now to sort it out'. Understandably, that didn't play well with the general public.

From the outside, Ahern gives the impression of a man who is somewhat aggrieved at his lot. That is confirmed by some who know him who say he has not been in good form lately and is somewhat "cranky" and even "embittered" at his treatment.

"He needs to leave that aside and give the best account of his stewardship," one former associate said.

Will he be able to do that? Probably. Ahern, with the exception of his infamous "waffler" outburst at Gay Mitchell back in the mid 1990s, was adept keeping his cool. But the frustrations of the past six or seven years may be hard to keep in check.

Those closest to him say that while it would be a stretch to say Ahern is looking forward to his appearance, he will be well prepared and views it as an opportunity to put his case after all the criticism

They also play down the notion of Ahern being persona non grata with the public that formrtly adored him.

They claim that, aside from taunts "from the occasional idiot", he has "come through" a period of abuse which culminated in 2013 when he was attacked in a city centre pub by a man wielding a crutch.

They paint a picture of a man at peace with his new incarnation. A man who is very involved, they say, in conflict resolution in a number of locations around the globe - utilising his unquestioned diplomatic skills and considerable experience he built up during the Northern Ireland peace process to good effect.

He has done some public speaking and consultative work but, even with trips to the likes of China, Dubai and Iran, life is a good deal quieter these days. As is it for many of the Drumcondra Mafia.

Tim Collins, who was a key figure at the Tribunal, has faded from the scene. Bad health necessitated him giving evidence to Mahon by commission rather than in person back in 2008. Joe Burke, the Donegal-born builder who had been dogged by problems in his personal and business life, has been working in Britain in recent years.

Paul Kiely was in the eye of the storm during the Central Remedial Clinic controversy last year, enduring a torrid time before the Public Accounts Committee over his chief executive's retirement package.

Tony Kett passed away in 2009 after a short illness.

Ahern has remained very close to Des Richardson, former fundraiser for Fianna Fáil and Ahern's constituency. According to the version of events given to the Tribunal, he was the chief organiser of the famous "dig-out" for Ahern, although Mahon found that the payments didn't happen.

Richardson travelled with Ahern to China in recent years and, as this newspaper reported at the end of 2013, to Dubai where the two men dined with Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum, a member of the Dubai ruling family. The meeting was arranged by another participant in the 'dig-out', businessman David McKenna

Dominic Dillane, the numbers whizz with a PhD in statistics, who was treasurer of the Dublin Central constituency organisation, also travelled with Ahern to China back in 2011. He still lectures in DIT Bolton Street, but party sources say is no longer involved in politics.

Celia Larkin, of course, was never fully accepted in the boys' club but, though some of them might be reluctant to admit it, she played a key role in Ahern's rise to the top. Larkin departed the scene when her relationship with Ahern ended in mid-2003. She has moved to Killaloe, Co. Clare. She was awarded with a first class honours degree in Politics and International Relations from the University. of Limerick two years ago.

No surprise there - many in politics believe Ahern wasn't the same politician without her by his side. After graduating from Limerick, she began studying for a masters in politics in London

Chris Wall, Liam Cooper, Paddy Reilly and Maurice Ahern, loyalists to the end, are still active in the constituency.

The O'Donovan Rossa cumann still has around 100 members - not bad for Fianna Fail in Dublin. But the once mighty political machine is no more.

In last year's local elections, the remains of the Drumcondra Mafia threw their weight behind Brian Mohan for the North Inner City Ward, but he couldn't win one of the eight seats on offer in what was once Ahern heartland.

Some of the old gang still meet in the Beaumont House, but Camelot is no more.

The days of the annual dinner that assumed almost mythical proportions, and 'ward bosses' carving up the constituency to canvass and act as Bertie's eyes and ears on the ground are long gone.

The new system of one member, one vote in Fianna Fail has also meant that cumainn such as O'Donovan Rossa no longer wield the same kind of power.

Perhaps the disintegration of the feared and ruthless political operation isn't so surprising.

Even aside from the collapse in support for Fianna Fail in Dublin, many of those in the Drumcondra Mafia gave their loyalty more to Ahern than to FF or even the local cumann. It was never going to last long beyond Ahern.

They were Bertie men, first, last and always. And for the longest time, they worked their magic not just in Dublin Central but the whole country. They won't be by his side on Thursday but they'll be watching, rooting for their man.

It was always thus. It was never just Bertie Ahern. It was always Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra Mafia. Always will be.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on newstalk.com at 10am and is the co-author, with Mick Clifford, of 'Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra Mafia'.

Sunday Independent

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