Bertie is sort of back. Even over the last month he’s been creeping back into our lives. The leg has healed. There’s another redundant brother standing for political office – this time hoping to join him in Dublin Central after the by-election there. At the same time Bertie is out there denying he is responsible for the recession. Not at all. He’d relish the opportunity to deal with the mess, he has been telling The Sun. He’s also been weighing up becoming mayor of Dublin if it is revamped with more power; and he’s wishing they’d implement the Kenny report taking private land into local authority ownership so it can be developed in a planned way in the public interest, but bemoaning the possible constitutional obstacles to this. Classic Bertie: He hasn’t changed a bit.
These snippets roll back the whole year (yes it’s only a year) since he shuffled off out of our lives, importing once again that mix of arrogance and humility, simplicity and deviancy, consensualism and bluff, and ultimately truth and fiction that was so characteristic and, for a long time, well-loved. Because in fact Bertie did more than anyone to facilitate what amounts to a depression, by surrounding himself with close associates who were in hock to the building industry and with second-raters like the brother; and he did everything he could to thwart the initiatives he now champions, when he had the power to introduce them. He did nothing to facilitate powerful mayors himself (he allowed Martin Cullen to bin Noel Dempsey’s proposals for them following lobbying from County Managers and councilors) and he did nothing to implement the Kenny report. Indeed the reason he gives for not implementing it is entirely spurious as a cross-party Oireachtas report produced during Ahern’s tenure expressly said it would be constitutional.
Like his friend Tony, Bertie is on the international political lecture-tour circuit. He has signed a six-figure contract with the Random House Publishing Group for his autobiography to be ghostwritten by tame UCD historian Richard Aldous. And he was recently implausibly named Honorary Adjunct Professor of Mediation and Conflict Intervention at NUI Maynooth.
Bertie hadn’t fully gone away anyway. He launched a website, www.bertieahernoffice.org, which lauds his work in the Northern Ireland peace process. It carries videos and transcripts of his high-profile speeches, including selections from Westminster and the United States Congress. His speeches are inevitably horrible. A quick search reveals him, for example, in Edinburgh lauding Dublin and equating it with Edinburgh: “There are only the resilient and the proud people of a small country and a great capital city possessed of no resource except their own talent and determination”. The great little country approach – as if the twentieth century never happened.
A four-part RTE TV documentary, “Bertie”, screened last year even managed, by coy if somewhat dated deployment of flashing lights and mad music, to make his career in Fianna Fáil over the last thirty years look interesting.
There is speculation too, that he has his sights set on becoming President in 2011. Nevertheless there is already evidence that the public are turning against him: for example in February he was forced to cancel a speech he was to have given in NUI Galway when he was jostled by students protesting over the planned reintroduction of college fees.
Whether Bertie has any political future will depend on the Mahon Tribunal’s findings. On his last appearance in Dublin Castle, Bertie told Judge Mahon of his abiding sense of traducement during its prolonged proceedings and underlined that he had never in his public life taken a bribe or a backhander. But he did accept that information supplied “did not encompass all of the material questions that had been asked of you”.
He was definitely Chairman more than Chief, though over his last few years in
power, when the idea that he might be charismatic took root, and there was even
a suspicion of a swagger, he was spun as leading from the front.
This time last year – on June 4th 2008 – Ahern admitted that he knew about sterling lodgements before the inculpatory testimony of his secretary, Grainne Carruth, but said to laughter from the gallery that those lodgements were from horse-racing winnings. The total value of lodgements and other transactions that have to date been queried by the Mahon tribunal in its public inquiries into his finances, exceeds £452,800, the equivalent of €886,830 in today’s terms. Vincent Browne wrote, “Ahern’s numbers game just doesn’t add up”.
He is famously hard-working: During the 1999 Christmas break, a frustrated constituent who left a message on an answering machine in his office in St Luke’s, was surprised to receive a return call from the Taoiseach himself about a lost Ryanair bag.
He is a world-class worker of a crowd. As Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1986-7 he broke convention and used to go to six or seven functions every evening, sometimes addressing dinners over the canapés, before hastily moving on. Typically he beavers around commending whoever he comes upon for their presumed “hard work”.
He was definitely Chairman more than Chief, though over his last few years in power, when the idea that he might be charismatic took root, and there was even a suspicion of a swagger, he was spun as leading from the front, with everyone else in Fianna Fáil part of “Bertie’s Team”. But essentially he was a facilitator rather than a trail-blazer: for example, talking to women FF candidates in 1985 he said, “We all have to swallow humble pie – and I have been doing it for years – and if getting there means selling your soul a little bit, there isn’t a profession in the world where you don’t have to change your principles”. A great man for a peace process, social partnership or some late-night collective bargaining? Certainly.
He preferred to have people in the tent. That‘s why he could put together a coalition of opposing ideologues (Green and PD) and supplement them with a bunch of parochial anti-ideologues in a coalition so solid it survived his passing with barely a backward glance.
Still, his consensual diplomacy has its detractors. Stephen Collins noted that, “none of his colleagues is really sure whether he is possessed of all the deviousness and cunning attributed to him by Haughey, or whether he simply suffers from chronic indecision disguised as political shrewdness”. His most recent biographer, John Downing, concluded more ambiguously that, “his conciliatory strengths are also his weaknesses”. His attitude to US extraordinary renditions carried out through Shannon was, for example, spineless.
He was something of a jack the lad in his long-haired crookedy-faced twenties. Perhaps we can recognise an incipient flexible approach to governance and the public interest in some of his early attitudes, attitudes that he learned in his middle years to suppress. As a young accountant he said, “after paying for books, extra tutorials and so on there was next to nothing left. I lived on nixers, doing the books of pubs and shops. I was part of the black economy”. In the 1986 interview with Hot Press he implied he drank and drove. “If there is Bass around I’m immune to the bloody stuff regardless of the breathalyser. I enjoy a few jars”. The callow Bertie diced with indulgence of vigilantism – in 1983 he controversially noted in an interview with John Bowman on RTE that following some kneecappings in his constituency, “very severe action was taken against known criminals and the area has almost cleaned itself up since”. In the same 1986 Hot Press interview he advocated giving power to Gardai to “box the ears” of offenders. In 1987 Bertie still felt there was more to his ambition than politics and soccer, “I would still like to go into business and who knows, maybe I will” . Tax-consultancy to doctors was the unlikely and somewhat greedy choice of alternative career for someone who so loves his public.
Still he always had good mates. In the Bertie documentary, the boys in the Drumcondra Mafia excitedly suggested they had rolled out a 20-year master plan to make him Taoiseach. Nobody questioned this over the exhilarating soundtrack.
He was regarded as a bit slovenly during his first decades in public life – the anorak years. By 1989 he was employing a grooming consultant. Celia also groomed him. But even still, during an interview with the Sunday Tribune’s Kevin Dawson in 1991 he dropped butter on his shirt and removed it from his tummy with a knife. The Evening Herald once poked a camera into the Mayoral limousine to find scattered Taytos and strewn Caramilk wrappers. But by 1997 he was being voted best groomed man in Leinster House by women TDs and Senators. The anorak was sold for £2500 to raise funds for his old school. In the last few months he wore a lovely new grey coat to the races at Fairyhouse and some sort of a matching hat, which he wisely seemed to hold in his hand for most of the time.
Bertie’s former Deputy, Mary O’Rourke commented that his only real friend is himself: “he’s friendly but he’s not warm. I got to know him – and still I didn’t get to know him. Sometimes I had the feeling that I met nobody”. Charlie McCreevy said he knew 25% of the man and that was twenty four percent more than most. Funny then that you and I both thought that somehow we knew him.
For a long time and all through his golden political years, the only times he had ever been unkind in public was when he told Gay Mitchell he was a “waffler, a waffler and you’ve always been a waffler” and after Ray Burke’s ousting, when he blamed “John Bruton and his likes”, saying that he hoped “he was proud of his handiwork and that he never comes to an untimely end”. Latterly however, he coarsened, starting towards the end of the last Dáil. He told (then rival) socialist TD, Joe Higgins, “You have a failed ideology, you have the most hopeless policy [on housing] that I ever heard pursued by any nitwit …You are a failed person…now go away”. When asked who leaked the story about his Manchester whiparound to the Irish Times he postured, “I’d love to know. And I’d bury them. But I don’t know. But somebody does”. Bertie also revealed hidden fangs to poor Scott Millar of The Sunday Times who dared to ask him about the dollar values of money received relating to his house, cautioning him threateningly how far he would have got twenty years ago with such questions. Moreover, the antagonism intensified after his general election victory in the run-up to his demise. He infamously slagged off the media the day he was re-elected, and it was war from then until he resigned. When FG TD Leo Varadkar compared the tainting of his legacy to the tainting of that of other international statesmen Bertie was, for some reason – perhaps because he was beginning to take his own publicity about hidden statesmanship seriously – particularly furious, and we got a look at something edgy: “I’m big enough to take it, but when you hear a new deputy who isn’t a wet day in the place not alone castigating me, but castigating Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, I wish him well. I’d say he’d get an early exit”. There’s that untimely-end/early-exit theme again. And it will be interesting how Tribunal Des has digested Ahern’s dismissal of his barristerial approach to Ms. Carruth as “low-life”!
“Bertie had no room for anything long-term, for planning, for the environment, for big ideas, for morality, for Vision.”
The curious mix of solicitous decent fella and cad emerges too in a certain lack of gallantry. He had a tendency around the time he was breaking the news of his marital disharmony to refer to Celia as just another friend. For example: “I’d probably be with somebody more than others, yeah, but it’s very much a group [of friends]…we hang around as a group – but when I’m going to a function, like anybody else you don’t want to be on your own when everybody else is with somebody”.
I met him a couple of times and he was outstandingly pleasant. He would jovially cut a comment like, “Still battlin’ away?”, implying that he’d love to be battlin’ with me. But I was battlin’ AGAINST him. A lot of people were. He didn’t realise that with power came responsibility. In his case he was around long enough that he’s responsible for the whole lot. He was for eleven years Ireland incarnate, and Ireland is Bertie writ large. A year ago I wrote, “if you like Ireland today you’ll like Bertie”. I believe that is still true. The Village poll suggests he is currently a justifiable victim of national self-loathing. He is a nice man but that was not nearly enough.
He was a socialist: “I am one of the few socialists left in Irish politics and I have a very socialist view on life”.
He said, “I’m not big into ideology because I think that people that are into the ideology spend their time talking about it rather than doing it”. His philosophy, as revealed to Hector O hEochagáin is, “ye have to roll outta bed in the morning and say ‘listen here, here goes’”.
His entry into politics was on a relatively narrow platform. In 1983 Gene Kerrigan noted in Magill that the only thing that really exercised the future Taoiseach at the time was internment. As government Chief Whip in the early eighties he was closely involved in the withdrawal of the whip from Dessie O’Malley who, crazy liberal that he was, wanted condoms legalised and so was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming” by Fianna Fáil and expelled from the parliamentary party. And he wasn’t very gay-friendly. He hadn’t yet met any homosexuals and wondered a little old-fashionedly, “Does anyone go near them?”. However, in a practical lesson in where a bit of knowledge and an absence of ideology can take you, in February 2009, Gay Community News was rating him as one of 21 gay champions. It was the political equivalent of having dumped the old anorak.
By 1994 he was already able to tell The Sunday Tribune, “I’ve probably more deep views than most people”. Other people “throw white elephants and red herrings at each other”. But, he implied, he never would.
He thinks of himself as an environmentalist but created a carbon-squandering monster, planning anarchy and a visual slum. In 2003 he told the Dáil that opposition to motorways was about “swans, snails and people hanging out of trees”. Most likely he listened to the business lobby and has never really bothered to think about it for himself. He read Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” not once but twice. It recommends sustaining the sense of community that is in precipitous decline. Perhaps he should have read it again.
Since there’s no end to his political range there has been absolutely no need for consistency or seriousness. For example, there is absolutely no reason not to be a socialist, environmentalist or communitarian. As well as republican, of course. Especially since, as far as he is concerned, no-one notices or cares.
Many have had a go at preliminary findings on his legacy. Michael O’Leary noted in a radio interview that Bertie “squandered the wealth of a generation and I think in time it will be proven he was a useless wastrel”. Historian John A Murphy wondered, “Did Ahern, in his eleven years of power, make the most of this unprecedented prosperity for the public benefit? The answer can hardly be positive, given the present state of health, education and infrastructure, generally”.
Bertie Ahern didn’t believe in anything except listening and being nice, so he was great at establishing the consensus. The problem is that he got the consensus among those influential enough to make themselves known to the Taoiseach, which means the most vociferous vested interests in the land. And I mean the land. He represented the sort of people who made a killing in the boom – in property, in selling sites; and above all in building and providing services such as banking to builders – the mohaired bowsies in the tent at the Galway Races. For Fianna Fáil (and Fine Gael) and Bertie these were the people who could not be ignored. His close coterie of associates with links to the building game made it impossible that he would ever back reform of the planning or financing of this country so that it would come to serve the public interest and the national quality of life. But of course they were drunk on easy materialism. It was clear at the Mahon Tribunal that he was unusually impressed by a room full of businessmen in Manchester because they were all worth tens of millions. Though he’d never agree, clearly Bertie’s head was half full of money and the moneyed. No room for the idea that these people would bring down the country with their laissez-faire selfishness. No room in Bertie’s head for the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill, students, immigrants, prisoners, those without a voice.
No room for anything long-term, for planning, for the environment, for big ideas, for morality, for Vision. If you combine that with a tendency to graft, recklessness and a lethal regulatory incompetence you have someone who we can already definitively say was, simply, unfit for office.