Saturday 20 July 2019

James Downey: This was a different Bertie - this was Bertie the statesman

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who appeared at the Banking Inquiry yesterday, and ‘from the beginning he was completely in control – in control, especially, of his own emotions

James Downey

Bertie Ahern gave the performance of his life at the Banking Inquiry yesterday.

Before the event, word had gone about that he would come out fighting. So he did. But he fought in a manner vastly different from the one familiar to those who had studied his actions and his manner for most of their lifetimes.

The former Taoiseach is notorious for Delphic utterances, evidently designed to conceal and not enlighten, and for mangling the English language. Yesterday, we saw him in a totally different mode.

For hours on end, he spoke clearly and with authority. He had all the facts at his fingertips. He remembered almost everything, down to who attended which meeting and the figures for every Budget since 1998. He seemed to have forgotten only one date, that of the Kenny Report on land prices in 1971.

And the account he gave of his tenure of office and the calamity with which it ended was a tour de force.

In the first place, it was accurate. Many of those involved in the boom and the bust have described it in colourful terms, usually from a partisan viewpoint.

Nobody can doubt that Bertie Ahern is a colourful character and well able to engage in partisan argument, but yesterday we heard and saw a rare Bertie: Bertie the statesman.

It was a model for the way Irish politics should be conducted, a world removed from the circus we too often see on the floor of the Dáil.

Everybody spoke quietly, and directly to the point. The chairman, Ciaran Lynch, had no rows to quell or unacceptable statements to be rebuked.

The proceedings were very serious, but little glimpses of gentle humour made their appearance from time to time.

One would have expected him to be nervous. Here was a man who had achieved some of the highest honours but who has been blamed for almost all the woes of Ireland for the last decade.

But from the beginning he was completely in control - in control, especially, of his own emotions.

He seemed relaxed, and now and again even enjoying himself.

The Bertie we all knew best had a habit of reacting too quickly and too sharply. On the most notorious occasion, he said he wondered why his critics did not commit suicide.

Yesterday, he apologised for that remark. He apologised also for a great many other things, but they resembled harmless quips and not outbursts in some bitter dispute.

Now and again he uttered them in an unnecessarily low voice. One of the best (which really deserves shouting from the rooftops) came when he was asked if the opposition in the Dáil ever demanded that a government should spend less.

He said opposition deputies were more likely to demand that it should spend "three times more".

But by far the most impressive part of the proceedings was his outline of the boom and bust. Nobody who has studied the question could deny that it was accurate.

Not only accurate, but blame-free - and generous. He went so far as to praise the current Government for its contribution to the economic recovery.

And this, plainly, was not just good manners. It reflected a long period of agonising over his mistakes while in office and pondering the question what he should have done instead.

He spoke, without rancour, about the agonising and made no attempt to spread blame.

As a result, we got as good and as objective an account of events since the birth of the Celtic Tiger as those we have heard from acknowledged experts.

His story began early, with the "dotcom meltdown" of 2001-2003. The world recovered quickly from that event, but its effects, though not highly visible, were long-lasting. Wise governments took action to prevent something far worse from happening. Ireland continued on its merry way on the road to ruin. At the time, and for the rest of that decade and longer, Ahern's narrative described in large part governments obsessed with issues of building and construction - though not in the manner familiar to us of late.

He said, several times and in a variety of ways, that the objective of Fianna Fail-led governments was to bring about a housing stabilisation - not of prices but numbers.

They aimed at a total of 55,000. Eventually, during the boom, we built far too many. Then the industry crashed.

In some ways this was the least satisfactory part of the proceedings, with too many figures and too much complexity. And Ahern seemed reluctant to link the housing and property boom with the faults of banks and governments.

But he made up for that by the clarity with which he discussed the crash and the events which led up to it. Nobody could have expected him to be a totally objective observer, but evidently his long agonising had borne fruit.

He gracefully admitted his own mistakes and apologised for them. From time to time, the committee members asked him what he should have done instead. Sometimes he answered immediately, sometimes after a little reflection. Each time, he answered in a manner which evidently derived from careful thought.

Those answers will not please everyone. Some will think that he let the banks off too lightly. A more valid criticism might be that he failed to link sufficiently the behaviour of the banks, the consumer spending spree and the housing and construction bubble.

Critics may also feel that he did not give sufficient force to the issue of regulation.

Again and again, when he referred to his personal mistakes, he took responsibility for them.

But he refused to take any responsibility for another important factor in the disaster, the failure of regulation. He blamed this on a change within the Department of Finance a decade ago.

But one might have expected him to denounce more forcefully the absurdity of "light-touch" regulation and explained why nobody in authority seemed to realise the harm it caused.

All in all, however, these proceedings were a brilliant piece of theatre as well as politics. But will the performance have any tangible effect on public opinion? Specifically, can it fire Fianna Fáil into life?

The claim that the crash was caused by an "axis of corruption" between Fianna Fáil and Anglo Irish Bank has long looked rather weak. A fair-minded consideration of what Ahern said yesterday should finish it off.

The crash had many causes, not all related to one another. But the public have grown tired of the subject.

One day's work in a committee room will hardly have any tangible effect on the election result. But it could have an effect on Bertie Ahern's reputation.

And it might even encourage some other politicians, serving or retired, to think of emulating it by conducting public affairs in a manner which respects the public and, above all, their right to hear the facts.

Irish Independent

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