Exclusive interview with the Taoiseach by Katie Hannon
What Bertie's peers really think of him
Plus commentary by Vincent Browne
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Being Bertieby Katie Hannon
In a remarkable interview, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern answers questions about his money, his powerful friends and his intention to stand down as Taoiseach before the end of the next Dáil term.
At first you can't quite put your finger on it. Something just isn't sitting quite right. Then the realisation dawns. In some subtle but unmistakable way, Bertie Ahern has changed. He is no longer the same man who spent a lifetime honing an ordinary unassuming political persona, poured into an Armani suit, all cow eyes, humbly slumped shoulders. and dropped ts. There is a smidgen of a swagger about him now as he swings back in his chair behind a high-polished desk and talks himself up with the ease of a man who knows he has outlasted all but one Irish Taoiseach.
A quiet pride in his tone as he tosses out the names of the world heavyweights he has come to call his friends over his 10 years as chief and peacemaker.
Perhaps it is those voice and presentation lessons he has been getting from his buddy at the Gaiety School of Acting that have coaxed the once shy ego into the light. More likely he has decided that it might be timely to remind the electorate of the experience – not mention the contacts book – they are set to lose if they dare to show him the door in May.
There's no denying the new bravado. The once humble and self-deprecating Drumcondra servant is now eager to portray himself as an international mover and shaker, a man of unrivalled problem-solving ability, a man with the chutzpah to cut a dash on the world stage.
He is “confident that he could get George Bush on the phone in under half an hour”. Tony Blair would return his call in under 10 minutes. And, he reckons, most other European leaders would within half a day. Furthermore, he confides, he is still “very, very close” to Bill Clinton, who calls and sends him notes “regularly”.
He talks about his skills as a master negotiator, and the hard slog and unseen tactics that saw to it that he got agreement on six partnership deals and the European constitution. What's more, he goes so far as to state that there isn't any other politician “on either side” who has the attention to detail or work ethic required to carry on this work when he's gone.
Not that he has any intention of going anywhere for some time yet: “I'm very clear in my mind and I have been for years that I'd stay active in politics until I'm 60,” he says in response to the inevitable query. In case you can't do the sums he adds: “And that brings us to 2012.” (In fact his 60th birthday is 12 September 2011. Which means he will be 60 one year earlier than he understands to be the case during the course of this interview)
But not necessarily as Taoiseach?
“Not necessarily as Taoiseach. But if I win the next election, well, you know how it is. You wouldn't want to give it up until you got to the last day. In 2012 I'll be 60.” The last day? His successor as Fianna Fáil leader would hardly relish that appalling vista. Pushed for a date, he laughs and shrugs the question off: “Yeah, well the second last day.”
Unsurprisingly, he rates the Good Friday Agreement and all that happened in the peace process since then as his greatest political achievement.
“Even though sometimes it was stalled in the institutions, the process never stopped over the 10 years. Lets be honest, it's been long and it's been time-consuming but at the end of the day it's been more important than most other things.”
“Before I was even elected in 1977 I had a huge fascination with the trouble in the North. I used to read endless papers in ‘68, '69, 1970. I used to even cut out and keep the stories on the North. That was 38 years ago so I've always taken a huge interest in it. My view would have been very one-sided. I was republican and green. But when you get into it you realise that you don't solve anything doing that. You have to get to know the other side. And now I can most days, if I have to, ring up Ian Paisley and talk to him. Or Ian Paisley Jnr. Or other people in the DUP. And I know most people in the UUP.”
He reveals the lengths to which he went to develop a bond with the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble: “I probably shouldn't say this but I probably was one of the few people who really liked David Trimble. I did like David Trimble. And quite frankly I knew nothing about opera and probably less about the Ulster canals but I worked at trying to. They were his two interests and it wasn't much good talking about Dublin football or the All Ireland.”
So now Bertie Ahern is an opera buff? “I worked at trying to at least try to have an intelligent conversation with the man. I did. My only knowledge of opera was I went to Wexford for a night out. I didn't understand a word of it.”
However he says he didn't completely abandon opera when he no longer required it for schmoozing the Unionist leader. “I went ahead. It got in on me. That's why I gave the money to build a new Wexford Opera House. So that's the lasting legacy to David Trimble!”.
And Ian Paisley? “I respect the man. We've quite funny conversations. Because I would congratulate him on things and he would say ‘you don't believe one word of that!' We have good fun. We had good fun when he met me in the Irish Embassy. That was a big thing for him to come to the Irish Embassy and do his press conference standing beside the Irish flag. He did that.”
Speaking just days before the historic announcement that the DUP and Sinn Féin had agreed to share power, he predicted that Paisley would do the deal because “in my heart I really feel he wants to do this. He really wants to do this.”
And as for the relationship between the DUP leader and Martin McGuinness?
“How will the settling down relationship be between McGuinness and himself? I think Martin will work hard at that. Martin is a very good guy. I have a lot of time for Martin McGuinness. I think Martin will work hard at building up a working relationship. They're never going to love each other. But then plenty of people don't love each other in the world.”
Those who witnessed it have spoken of how Ahern's low key, laid-back style contrasted with Tony Blair's more urgent demeanor as they battled together to get progress in the peace process negotiations. Did he and Blair deliberately employ a good cop, bad cop strategy?
“I don't think we planned that. But Tony is a great guy. We did plan ‘you'll take the lead on this meeting, I'll take the lead on that meeting.' But not in terms of ‘you attack, I'll go easy. I'll attack, you'll go easy.' We didn't do that. It evolved out of that.
“We spent weeks of our lives together. We are very close. I consider Tony Blair a really good friend. I would talk to Tony Blair about everything and anything. I'd contact him, as he would me, at every hour of the day or night, about different things and different issues. The Open Skies agreement... he understood the Irish position and I explained his problem back to Bush and that was agreed today because we're buddies. And we do that on a lot of issues.
“Bush is a very different character. He's in my view a very honest, a very straight guy. If he told you he was doing this today and he promised you he would do this today in six months' time he would remember that he did that. He's very forthright. And he believes in very aggressive ways of doing things.
“I was very close to Clinton. I still am. He would ring me regularly, whenever there are any initiatives in the North. I get notes from him. I get articles from him sometimes. I would be very, very close to him. I wouldn't be as close to Bush. But I would deal with Bush in an even-handed way.
“I would know this. Say if Ireland needed his help. If something terrible happened in Ireland today and I rang the White House and said I need to speak to President Bush I would get President Bush within half an hour. I would be absolutely confident of that.
And I think I would get Tony Blair in 10 minutes. [I would get] not many more in ten minutes but I would get most European leaders within half a day.”
Junior Minister Noel Ahern once famously commented that his older brother was an impossible man to read. And Bertie Ahern is indeed a notoriously elusive character. Few political colleagues, many of whom would have worked with him for decades, would claim to have any real knowledge of the inner workings of his mind. He laughs off this assessment.
“People always say that but I will listen to what people say. I'm a good listener. I'll listen to debate for hours on end. I don't come in like some people who come in to have a debate with somebody and two minutes into the debate they'll tell you what their final position is. There's a good few of them around. There's a good few of them around the Cabinet table too.”
Tragically, he will not be drawn on the identities of the Cabinet colleagues who apparently are that fond of their own voices, but he does offer a glimpse into his modus operandi for getting the right result.
“I would have a view. Sometimes I'm criticised for not having a view. But I'll have a view. But I'll listen to the opposing sides. How would I ever have done six social partnership agreements if I came in and said this is how I see it? If I was trying to get my view across, there's other ways of doing it. You have to try to plant a view and work a view. And I do that all the time. I do that out of absolute strategy and tactic.”
So this is how he does it. He ‘plants' the solution he wants by stealth and nurtures it as it grows in the minds of the innocent protagonists?
“Well. Everyone's come to that judgment. If I was as good as that I should be running some major multi-national on a worldwide basis.
“I don't think it's cunning. Some people sometimes in articles would accuse me of it. And CJ said that ‘he was the most cunning, the most devious of them all'. But I would genuinely say that I know the ballparks of where we can go. I know where the others can go. You have to have a process of trying to bring that together in the interests of the country. I've done negotiations at European level. It's been something that I'm good at.
“You try to understand what people want. And I think if you treat people fairly and honestly and not be pulling smart ones on them I thing you can bring people a long way. It's a lot of detail. But to do what I do you really have to do a lot of work. You have to read the briefs. You have to read the documents. It's a tough job. And in my view there isn't any one else around who would want to do that job. On any side.”
He believes he's the undisputed national negotiation champion? “There is nobody around that will take the interest. There is nobody around who will read the briefs on Sundays for 14 or 15 hours. [Who will do] that slog work?”
There's nobody in the current Cabinet that would do that?
“I don't think there is anyone around that will do that level of detail. I think a lot of the things I've been doing on the national plans and social partnership deals – it will be done some other way but I don't think it will be done the way I've been doing it all these years.
“It could be that they'll find a far quicker way. There are those who would say we need to find a quicker way. That last social partnership agreement took a year! So I'm not saying there isn't a better way. I'm just saying there is no-one around that will do it the way I did it.”
And to what does he attribute his extraordinary success and unusual longevity as king of the political jungle?
“A lot of that political thing is being honest and a straight dealer. If you try in politics or in life to do a bum steer on somebody it will come back at you. I've mistakenly done that at times. I hope in my life that I've never intentionally done that. But I have mistakenly given people bum steers in life and you pay for it. And you turn them into enemies. The straighter you are with guys and with politics the better. Sometimes in some circumstances that's not always possible to do.”
Political watchers would know that the former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds would not consider Ahern to be a straight and honest dealer. Many believe that the manner in which Reynolds was denied the party nomination to run for the presidency in humiliating circumstances was a defining moment for Ahern, exposing a hitherto hidden capacity for ruthless duplicity.
The man himself is still sticking to the unlikely story that he did his best by the former party leader, insisting: “I have huge admiration for Albert Reynolds. I worked very hard for Albert Reynolds. And all that stuff about the presidency. I mean I certainly meant no malice.
“The week before we didn't even have an alternative candidate. But until the end of the vote it wasn't all clear. There are those who said that I knew down to the last vote and that's why I voted for Albert Reynolds. But that wasn't how it happened. In fact on that occasion Michael Kennedy's vote was meant to be far higher. But the point is I never engaged in any intentional way to do anything other than help the man. Now I know he doesn't see it that way. I accept that.”
Others point to his decision to pack his trusty finance minister Charlie McCreevy off to Brussels to make way for a crucial Cabinet reshuffle in 2005 as proof positive of his aptitude for perfidy.
In contrast to his obvious discomfort at the dredging up of the Albert Reynolds affair, he appears genuinely delighted that the McCreevy issue has been broached. “This one I can definitely nail,” he says, sitting up straighter and launching into his story: “Charlie McCreevy came out to me on his birthday. He said to me ‘we've worked together for years. I want one favour.' I said ‘Charlie, If I can give you a favour you'll get it.' He said ‘Before you appoint anyone as EU commissioner give me first refusal.' And that's what I did and Charlie said yes. That's what happened.
It seems literally incredible that the most senior member of Cabinet would spontaneously decide on a career switch at precisely the time when the Taoiseach wanted to clear a space for a reshuffle and realign the government more to the left of centre. But Ahern insists that is just what happened.
“Jeepers you don't know Charlie McCreevy! If Charlie McCreevy wanted to stay, the last thing Charlie McCreevy would do was make it easy for me or anybody else. That's not how Charlie operates.
“When Charlie came out to me that night I thought he was on about some bit of financial chicanery we had to deal with or something. I did not know what he was coming out to discuss. And across the table he put it to me and I said ‘yes Charlie'.”
As the Taoiseach prepares for the forthcoming election, he must know that even if they limit the leakage, the party cannot hope to match its 2002 performance, when an overall majority was tantalisingly close. If they had made up the numbers and could have dispensed with the Progressive Democrats back then, what would be different about the country now?
The Taoiseach responds in a flash. “I think the national stadium would be five years on. It would be nearly finished in Abbotstown.”
I am reminded that as I walked into his office I interrupted the Taoiseach asking his staff if there was any word through on the Lansdowne Road planning approval. Could he be secretly hoping that it would be turned down, thus re-opening the possibility of his dream stadium in Abbotstown?
He insists that he is now fully behind the Lansdowne Road project. “Well now I want to see that done because we've put €190m into it. And it will get planning permission. What I want to do in Abbotstown now is to turn it into a centre of sporting excellence. The FAI wants to move there. The GAA are moving there. A lot of the national sporting bodies are moving there. It won't be the national stadium. If it happens now it will be a time long after we're around here.”
Apart from that, he admits that not much else would have been different if Fianna Fail had governed alone. “I don't think it would have been much changed on tax or welfare or any of those issues. There would have been some issues. Along the way you have to make compromises. I think in the overall sense of things there would not have been enormous differences.”
He is less sure when asked to consider how the experience of being a two-term Taoiseach has changed him personally.
“Personally, I don't know if it's changed me. You gain huge experience. You're far more knowledgable because you're at it all this time. I like reading. I like studying stuff. But it's hugely demanding. If you said would you do that for the next 20 years I'd say you'd jump off the top of a building. I mean for me that's not the case now. I'm here for another four or five years. But it's a huge discipline. How does it change you? It makes you ferociously disciplined.”
The Taoiseach has spoken in the past about the huge pressure the political life put on his marriage. With his second relationship now long over, how much more pressure does holding the office of Taoiseach put on his personal life?
“Yeah. There's no doubt about it. The way I do the job. Now other people may do it some other way and the best of luck to them and I'm not in any way critical of that. In fact I think whoever is in this job in the future should find a better way of doing it. But to do the job the way I do it is very demanding. And it's personally very demanding. You really have to give your life to the job. When I leave Kerry every year and the girls will say to me when is the next holiday and I'll say next August. And that's the way it is. This year I only got to the one English soccer match and a few rugby and Gaelic matches. It just gets more demanding.”
Is he close to anyone politically or personally now?
“Well anyone who's close to me either politically or personally gets buried by your colleagues in the media. If you're close to me, if you go to a match with me, if you're seen with me, if you go for a pint with me, if you walked up and kissed me in the street, you're a target. It doesn't help I can tell you. If anyone who is in anyway close to you is just savaged. Which is very upsetting. Not to me because I hurt for them. Because it hounds them. Their wives and kids hate it.
“You saw the nonsense this week. Paddy Reilly goes to a match with me and he does what he's done for 35 years – he helps out in Iona – and all of a sudden he is painted up as national news. I did an interview on Northern Ireland and I get page 17. Paddy Reilly puts up a few posters for me and gets page one.”
Does he now accept that the revelation that a group of Manchester businessmen gave him money when he was minister for finance was a legitimate issue for the media to be asking questions about?
“What I believe about it is that you're asked to co-operate about one thing and a story comes out on another thing. I mean it was legitimate to ask me did I get money from Gilmartin or O'Callaghan or did I do something on rezoning on Quarryvale. They are all legitimate questions. My defence to show that I didn't do anything there was I gave all the personal details of my life and between both tribunals I gave everything about everything for about 20 years. And then somebody just takes a few bits and gives them out. Once it came out it was legitimate and I had to answer and I did.”
Here the Taoiseach's press secretary intervenes to make it clear that her boss will not be entertaining further forensic questioning about his personal finances at this point. However he agrees to clear up the matter of exactly where he squirrelled away the now infamous £50,000 he says he managed to save in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
“There is no great secret about that. When I was separated I wasn't using my bank accounts because Miriam had the bank accounts. So I just saved it in a safe.”
So it was in a safe then?
“I just saved my money. It was no big deal. I just saved it.”
So now you know.
So, what next? He approaches the question with caution.
“Is this when I'm 60?” he stalls, before realising that he really doesn't know.
He admits that he was briefly tempted to go for the EU presidency but the reality of the life changes that would come with the job brought him back to his senses overnight.
He claims he hasn't given much thought to the prospect of bagging an international job as a sinecure and imagines that he won't be inundated with offers of after-dinner speaking engagements when the time comes.
“I don't know. I love gardening. I love horticulture. I love trees. I love national parks. I love all that sort of stuff. I mean everyone thinks my interest is just sport but I love nature. And of course sport. I'd love at that stage to just be out of the scene.”
Katie Hannon is a reporter with RTE's current affairs television programme, Prime Time
Next page: They speak no evil of him, by Vincent Browne
They speak no evil of himBy Vincent Browne“Anyone who says they know what in Bertie's mind is a fucking liar,” said one. “Even those who are really close to him. There is a logic to how Bertie thinks – but it's a Bertie logic.”A cabinet colleague on the TaoiseachSeveral of his senior colleagues agreed to be interviewed for this profile. But all of them demanded absolute anonymity. Most spoke of their party leader in highly complimentary terms. On several occasions I wondered why they would not want their boss to know the sheer depth and breath of the esteem in which they held him.That wasn't it, they responded. They feared that some other, less effusive, quotes might get attributed to them. And if it was known that they had spoken at all, there could be serious repercussions in this sensitive time in the run up to a general election. In any case, most protested that they barely knew him. That beyond the mundane day-to-day cut-and-thrust of the political arena, the man was basically a mystery to them.
A Fianna Fáil veteran
“He's extraordinarily shrewd. His detractors would call that deviousness. But to some extent everybody in political life is shrewd. He'll have about 40 plots going on and not one of us would know. He'd have five or six irons in the fire. You would go off thinking ‘I've been sent off to sort this out. I'm very important.' And then you'd find there were five or six guys on the case from different angles.
“He's able to take tough decisions when he really has to. When it's five to midnight. He'll take it. He won't take it at a quarter to midnight. He'll take it at five to. Because he knows he has to go out that door in five minutes. When he's down to the wire he does take the hard decisions.
“What he will do then is ring the shaftees within a half hour and there will be coffee flowing and he'll be going ‘sur I had to do it... you know yourself... but here's a project you could handle...' So he does what he has to do but he goes around with the mopping cloth very fast.
“Listen. He's an impossible man to dislike. He's extremely shrewd politically. That is the bottom line. I've had my days with him and had reason to dislike him. But how can you dislike a guy who insists on talking to you every day and asks you how're you getting on and eventually you say ‘I'm not talking to you for some reasons that I've forgotten.' He doesn't do grudges.
“He's so long doing this. We all know he's the best shot we have. Whatever the issues are he's our best shot. The public know all his foibles and they still like him. They know he's got a tough job and if you have to be shrewd or even devious then you have to be shrewd or even devious. The punter knows that.
“He is our best bet. Even his biggest detractors will tell you going into a general election he's the best shot we have. Even backbenchers who mightn't fancy him too much will say he's the best bet we have.
“If you want the downside of the guy he is very devious and the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. All that stuff is there and everyone knows it. The whole country knows that and everyone who deals with him knows that. But you kind of learn to live with that because he makes it work for all of us. And for the country as well in a way.”
Stephen King (adviser to former UUP leader David Trimble during the early peace process negotiations)
“There was a private, secret meeting with the Ulster Unionist leadership at the border in 1996 and 1997. We had had one of these meetings (years earlier) with Albert Reynolds in Dublin. He blabbed about it and that really sours things. Ahern kept them watertight. That really developed the trust with Trimble.
“Ironically he [Trimble] quickly developed a better relationship with Bertie than he had had with John Bruton – even though Bruton was more on our wavelength.”
Former civil servant:
“He won't take a decision until the very last minute. Particularly if that decision is going to upset somebody. The media call it dithering but as a tactic it has served him well. You let people dangling. And nine out of 10 times you can get out of it without a row.”
“He hates to make enemies. And he'll go a million miles to reduce a wound somewhere. He really does. Talk about prodigal son stuff. He'd have a houseful of prodigal sons if he was left to himself. He goes out on the wing and pulls back people who are hurt. He's very good at that. It's not put on. It's in his make-up. He doesn't like to fall out with people. He tries not to.”
“Maybe not revealing himself is to do with keeping your options open. I suspect that's the real agenda. If you talk to 20 people you have to be careful what you tell 19 of them so they don't all talk together and you have a mess on your hands. He dances over a lot of the stuff until he finds out where the whole thing is moving.”
Joe O'Toole (currently a Senator, former head of INTO):
“He has a way of dealing with all industrial-relations issues. He allows the issue to ripen beyond the time when everyone agrees that something has to be done. Then he gets the parties to bang heads. At the last minute he sees what's between them and he offers a compromise that will save face on both sides. Watching him in a lot of deals over 30 years, he always kept his word. But while he certainly has been a straight dealer, there are corners there too”
Another former colleague
“Say if you had an Aer Lingus strike – he'd have a line into someone manning the security gate and he'd have a line into the boardroom. That's how he worked all the angles. He wears everyone down. He will stay up later. Talk longer. Listen longer. Until he's the last man standing.”
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former communications guru
“A top bloke, a very clever guy. I found Bertie so easy to get on with. It was impossible to fall out with him. It was so clear from the word go that Tony and Bertie were on the same page. Bertie is a bit more understated than Tony in terms of demeanor and rhetoric. But I think that was what made them a good double-act in dealing with all the ups and downs of those negotiations. Tony's drive and zeal and determination to make sure it happened. Bertie had the same drive to get the result but he was much more understated about it. Although he can have a flash of temper – which is all the more effective for being so rare.
“For several periods his role seems to be to just sit there and take lots and lots of criticism from whoever was upset with the way things were going and he would just sit there and soak it up. But I can remember a situation when Adams and McGuinness had been really pressing for something and Bertie had been trying to work with them. Then they moved the goal posts and, well, he had a way of speaking when you knew he was not going to be pushed any further.
“During a lot of those all-night sessions when nothing much is happening, you get to spend a lot more time talking. He and I used to talk about football all the time. He's good at talking about people too.
“When I resigned in 2003, one of the nicest letters I got was from Bertie. I've always found him really easy to talk to. When I'm asked at talks now which politicians did I like best – it's a toss up between Clinton and Bertie. The human bit is strong. You're never far away from seeing a very human politician.
“In the end he is a politician. If you're in power and you want to stay in power part of your mind had to be calculating at all times. But when Bertie looks in his shaving mirror in the morning, I don't think he's ever lost sight of why he's there.”
“He's a classic chairman. He's not a chief. He chairs the country. He does it extraordinarily well. He wouldn't be a chief in the classic chief in the Dev mode. He doesn't do Martin Luther King stuff. He doesn't drive forcefully on towards the vision and try to convince all sides that's where we have to be. He would have a broad set of goals that he wants to get to. He knows where he wants to get to on Northern Ireland. He knows where he wants to get to on the economy. He knows where he wants to get to on his famous socialism. He knows where he wants to get to on most things. But he doesn't get hung up on the pace of getting there. Or on the methodology.
“He likes to keep his options open so he doesn't burn his bridges or go down cul-de-sacs. He likes to keep open roads. If ever there was someone to epitomise the word ‘political' it has to be him. Since they wrote the Prince, it has always meant getting yourself, the country, your mission and your project, getting all those things to where you want to get them. And he keeps his eye on where he wants to get to. And doesn't shut down options. He shifts things until they get there. And it does work. Because very often then you are the only one left standing.”
Maurice Ahern (Bertie's older brother and Dublin City Councillor)
“Nobody ever falls out with Bertie because he never says anything that would give them reason to. He's good with everyone because he says nothing that could come back to bite him.
(Maurice described how he had been out with his brother on a canvass the previous week and how Bertie looked over his shoulder to be sure that no-one was listening before literally whispering what he had to say to him into his ear.) “I never ask Bertie anything over the phone because I know he won't ever say anything over the phone. He would say it right in my ear – that's how Bertie tells you things.
“He keeps a lot to himself. Whatever he thinks – he never says anything. He would never speak ill of people – even in private. If he doesn't like someone he would never say it. Nobody would know.
“I remember when Bertie would come home for his lunch before he was married. My mother would be going mad about Garrett [Fitzgerald] and Bertie would be saying ‘ah sure he has to say that – he's in opposition.' Bertie was always like that.”
The third mystery of FatimaBy Vincent Browne
Charlie Haughey used to talk about “the third mystery of Fatima” in explanation for Bertie Ahern's success as Taoiseach. But there is no such mystery. It is his extraordinary work rate. Pouring over papers from the Taoiseach's office, hour after hour and over weekends. Usually at his lair in St Luke's, Drumcondra. In the interview with Katie Hannon he said nobody would ever emulate his work rate. He is probably right.
And there is another explanation.
He listens. Listens to cabinet colleagues and backbenchers. Listens particularly to the Secretary General of his department, Dermot McCarthy. Listens to people he meets in the myriad functions he attends and trips around the country. Listens to a plethora of people he sounds out on the phone, trade unionists, business people. Listens to his own coterie of friends, to Sean Dorgan, the party general secretary, and PJ Mara, who is back advising on the election campaign. Even Seamus Brennan, whose political antennae are well regarded.
And yet a further explanation. He is a nice man. Polite, considerate, self-effacing (although in Katie Hannon's interview he seems a little short of self-effacing). And niceness matters in politics. His niceness accounts in large part from his huge popularity and for the ease with which he has been accepted among the parties in Northern Ireland and among government leaders in Europe and elsewhere. He is the most popular politician here since Jack Lynch, another nice man.
His assault on syntax, grammar and meaning may also have helped. The inarticulacy contributes to his unthreatening personality and demeanour. It establishes him as “ordinary”. It also helps him obscure much he wants to obscure.
Probably the inarticulacy is now instinctive and, no doubt, he would wish at times it wasn't so pronounced, especially during the more tortuous Dáil exchanges. He is very much less inarticulate in one-to-one meetings and very focused in negotiation.
His achievements have been significant.
He was part, an important part, of the governments that ushered in the Celtic Tiger. It was he at the Department of Labour who masterminded the national partnership deals between government, business and the unions that were an important part of the economic success. He was minister for finance at a crucial time in 1993 when the Irish punt was devalued and that contributed hugely. He was out of office when the Celtic Tiger took off – the Celtic Tiger emerged while the John Bruton-led Rainbow government was in office from December 1994 to June 1997. But back in office for the long haul of economic success over the last decade, interrupted briefly by the hiatus at and immediately after the last election – a hiatus carefully disguised from the electorate.
He is trusted with the management of the economy and, because of that, he will escape retribution for the list of reckless shouted promises at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis.
His presidency of the European Council in 2004 was a triumph for him and for the EU. He brokered a deal on the new EU Constitution after others had failed and it was not his fault it foundered subsequently. As he conveys in the interview, he could have had the EU Commission presidency then (in 2004) for the asking.
He was central to the rapprochement in Northern Ireland. He was able to gain the trust of David Trimble and later Ian Paisley in ways no previous Taoiseach could have contemplated.
Having come into politics, as almost everyone in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael do, without having thought at all about the point of public office, he has become the creature of the prevailing orthodoxy. Appropriated by the Department of Finance when he was minister there (as is Brian Cowan now), focused on economic growth as an end in itself, impatient with the “carpings” of the left about inequality, impressed by the “movers-and-shakers”, the big boys who have made millions and some of them billions. Most of the pals are or want to be in that cabal. None of the close pals, incidentally, are themselves politicians.
It seems probable he will be Taoiseach after the election, hardly in coalition again with the PDs, more likely with the Greens, Labour of Sinn Féin (the pretence that there is an insurmountable incompatibility between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil on economic policy would swiftly dissolve in the reality of an election outcome that enabled such a coalition but that prospect cannot be conceded now).
But there is trouble ahead.
First over his departure.
It is difficult to discern why, on being asked by Katie Hannon if he still intended to retire by the time he is 60 (this will be on 12 September 2011, not in 2012 as he claimed in the interview, a characteristic piece of confusion). It ordains that a year into the next Dáil, questions will arise about the date of his departure, as they have with Tony Blair. Leadership fever will enter Fianna Fáil again – a condition he has succeeded in immunising the party from since his own election as leader in December 1994.
It is unlikely the economic success will endure undisturbed over the next five years. There could be a property-price collapse, a sharp drop in the growth rate because of the ending of the property and building boom, and a problem with competitiveness.
And then there is the Planning Tribunal.
The decision of the Supreme Court on 30 March to permit the tribunal to pursue its hearings into the Quarryvale/Liffey Valley development potentially could prove both distracting and difficult for Bertie Ahern.
At the heart of these investigations, as far as Bertie Ahern is concerned, are claims by Tom Gilmartin that the Cork developer, Owen O'Callaghan, paid a number of payments to Bertie Ahern in 1992, 1993 and 1994 in return for various favours. It was in connection with its investigations into these claims that the Planning Tribunal, chaired by Judge Alan Mahon, sought and eventually obtained information from Bertie Ahern concerning his personal finances and it was the disclosure of information concerning this that caused the “Bertiegate” controversy of last autumn.
Undoubtedly, the tribunal discovered the following:
• That Bertie Ahern had £50,000 in early 1994.
• That he received a further £22,500 in December 1993.
• That he received £16,000 in October 1994.
• That he received £8,000 also in or around October 1994.
A total of £96,500 (€122,555), a very considerable sum in 1992/93/94.
From the disclosures he made himself in a series of interviews in September last, he claimed that the £50,000 was money he had saved himself over the previous six years while he was in litigation with his then wife about a marriage separation. In the interview with Katie Hannon he said he kept this money in a safe.
He said he received the £22,500 in December 1993 from eight friends: Paddy Reilly, Des Richardson, Pádraic O'Connor, Jim Nugent, David McKenna, Fintan Gunne, Mick Collins and Charlie Chawke.
He said he got the £16,000 payment from another group of four friends: Joe Burke, Dermot Carew, Barry English and Paddy Reilly.
He said he got the £8,000 from a group of unnamed acquaintances in Manchester after he had addressed a function there as minister for finance.
Almost certainly he gave the same information to the Planning Tribunal in answer to its questions concerning payments made to him during the period he was minister of finance and during the period that, according to Tom Gilmartin, Owen O'Callaghan made payments to him. It remains to be seen whether the tribunal considers such explanations plausible.
On the question of the largest amount at issue: the £50,000 he had “saved”, questions arise about the purpose of any such saving. Why would he not have placed this in a bank account of his own at the time, if not to deceive his wife and the family courts about the monies he had at his disposal?
There are also questions that arise concerning the renting of the house off Griffith Avenue from one of his Manchester acquaintances, Míchéal Wall, and which, subsequently, he purchased from Míchéal Wall. And in that connection, there is the curious co-incidence that when Míchéal Wall was first viewing that house off Griffith Avenue, he was accompanied by Celia Larkin, Bertie Ahern's then partner.
The renting and purchase of that house is one of the most curious aspects to the controversy surrounding Bertie Ahern and his finances. According to a statement given to this journalist in 1997, he obtained an option-to-purchase at the time he first rented the house in 1994. It seems curious therefore that, according to him, the vendor made a profit of 33 per cent on the purchase and sale of the house when the option-to-purchase arrangement would have been made at a time when the explosion of house prices could not have been anticipated.
There are also questions about his handling of the Ray Burke appointment as minister for foreign affairs in June 1997 (why did he appoint Ray Burke minister for foreign affairs in 1997 knowing (a) that he had received £30,000 in 1989 from Joseph Murphy Structural Engineering (JMSE) and (b) that JMSE were denying they had given him money?) And questions about his handling in 1996 of complaints from the developer, Mark Kavanagh, about monies he (Mark Kavanagh) made to Charles Haughey in June 1987 (how was it that he never enquired of Mark Kavanagh what amount of money was involved in 1989 – had he discovered that in 1996 he would have questions to answer about why he failed to act on the information).
These questions are unlikely to trouble him in the coming election campaign but they are not questions that are going to go away.
Additional research by Tom Rowe