Regrets, he's had a few . . .

Sat, Oct 10, 2009, 01:00

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: From the old fashioned sitting room of St Luke's, wielding homemade buns and disarming charm, Bertie Ahern vigorously defends his legacy - but if he had his time again, he'd do a lot of things differently.

IS THIS WHERE it ends? In a small upstairs sitting room in St Luke’s that has seen better days? The generously swagged curtains, the old-fashioned, pale-gold three-piece suite, the pieces of dark furniture all once aspired to a kind of glamour. Now they vie with a low sofa shrouded in a sheet, accessorised by a couple of fat, furry toys decked out in Dublin jerseys alongside their donkey pal in blue knicks with a soccer ball. Bronze figurines (the “appreciation” of choice) also feature in industrial quantities: wiry fiddlers, cheeky urchins swinging off lamp-posts, a busty Molly Malone wheeling her wheelbarrow towards the gas fire.

A crystal trophy marking Bertie Ahern’s Person of the Year 2005 award from the Sunday Independentand Irish Nationwide takes centre-stage above the mantel. On the walls hang a large portrait of himself and a pretty rendition of National Botanic Gardens glasshouses. A side table is colonised by a replica of a Chinese emperor’s bronze chariot, leaving just enough space for a respectable book – Patrick M Geoghegan’s Robert Emmet– and a pile of Cyprian Brady’s calling cards, a timely reminder that this is notBertie’s sole domain, but a Fianna Fáil partyhouse.

But take a look through the beige horizontal blinds. Catch the view across the busy airport road to the sweep of the canal, Fagan’s pub, Rosmini Gaels GAA club. It could only be one man’s territory: “Drumcondra,” he writes. “It’s where I’m from. And it’s who I am.”

But who is he? At the end of a 353-page autobiography that carries his authentic voice, the people’s Bertie remains profoundly unknowable. His economic legacy is shredded, his tribunal appearances sparked derision and, finally, contempt. Detractors even disparage his remarkable mediation skills – and, by extension, his towering role in the Belfast Agreement – as the traits of a man with no convictions to call his own. A harsh judgment – but is it fair?

You turn up, battle-ready, with pages of talking points for the allotted hour. Ahern lumbers in like an amiable teddy bear in a suit, looks up doe-eyed from beneath his lashes – shades of a confessional Diana – and murmurs, “tanks for comin’, Katty”. Thereafter he uses your name in almost every sentence. It’s just Bertie and you in this quiet, intimate setting, he helpfully positioning your tape recorder at his elbow; Sandra Cullagh, his long-time secretary, serving up good coffee and home-made buns made by Marion down the road . . .

It is disarming, but only a naif would have failed to anticipate it. The best of Bertie Ahern’s legacy will lie in his contribution to peace on this island and anyone attempting to catch him out should remind themselves of the natural gifts and modus operandi – the Machiavellian cunning, the deep reserves of patience, the willingness to absorb the punches, the ability to plant ideas in protagonists’ heads which they come to believe are their own – that hefted him on to that plinth of honour.

Is he a good mediator because he has no convictions of his own? “It’s totally wrong, but it’s been said about me all the time . . . I hold the view – and it’s a proven fact in world politics and leadership – that the easiest thing to do is come in and preach your aul’ gospel, rant on about your views and convictions according to whoever you are, and then expect everyone else to do it. But it won’t get you anywhere. You have to carry people with you. And in the modern world, people will not be lectured to or talked down to . . . So what you have to do is try and pull people together, and sometimes you have to persuade them of your things but you almost have to make them feel that they’re saying them rather than you’re saying them . . .”

His defence of his legacy is conducted in similar style, patiently, exasperation kept to a minimum even in the face of blatant conflict.

So for example, while his economic legacy may well be the perceived ATM facility he presented to the public sector, as well as Fianna Fáil’s enchantment with house-building, he cannot see a downside to either. Yes, he was shocked to read how the public sector had raced ahead of the private in average incomes. The thing is, he doesn’t believe it. The authors are not comparing like with like, he says, “since private sector people get VHI, car allowances . . .”

Does he regret unwinding some of the Bacon recommendations in 2002, a move which Peter Bacon himself believes led directly to the calamitous bubble? “I really resent some of the things that are said, including by Peter, who’s a good friend of mine,” Ahern says with unusual spirit. “There was a consensus that we had driven the investor out of the market and that, by doing that, we had totally escalated the rental values . . . He was totally in favour of reversing that . . . The only way to reduce the price of housing was to do our damnedest to build more houses. Ultimately, supply has to equal demand and the price has to fall – and that was our logic.”

But the exact opposite occurred? “No, it didn’t, no it didn’t,” Ahern insists. “We got supply up to 80,000.”

The plan was to pull back over three years, but “everything crashed . . . If we saw what was going to happen . . .”

But some people saw, didn’t they? “Well, I have yet to find where they wrote it.”

Were they not the people you suggested should go off and commit suicide at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) conference in 2007? “That wasn’t about a boom-and-bust issue . . . It was trying to get the Ictu to hold their nerve and keep productivity high.”

Anyway, it was the collapse of Lehman Brothers that did the real damage, Ahern insists. “That decision will in history be written as the biggest mistake that American administration ever made, because Lehmans was a world investment bank. They had testicles [sic] everywhere.”

AHERN ACCEPTS THATthe Mahon tribunal was entitled to look into his affairs, but – as we know too well – he bitterly resents the interrogation about his marital separation, his daughters, his bedroom. Yet wasn’t it Ahern himself who first introduced all of these issues as the reasons behind the various dig-outs he received? “I had answered the stuff in the letters,” he says with a heavy sigh. “It was all in the letters . . . I wouldn’t have been renting a house or buying another house if I wasn’t separating, ’cause I would have been living in my own house.”

But what were the dig-outs forwhen he already had a loan to cover his legal fees and vast wads of money stashed away? (And no, it was notbecause he was concealing his income from his estranged wife, Miriam, who was heading for the High Court.)

“I’ll tell you in two sentences,” he says. “Buddies of mine saw that situation, that I was living here, and they said . . . Listen, they knew I had a legal bill coming up and they said: ‘Listen, would you not just bloody get yourself a house, get yourself right and don’t allow yourself to be sniped at as you did in the previous year, in the leadership thing?’

“Listen, if I could do it again, Jesus, would I . . .”

It’s no answer, of course. With a minister’s salary and cash reserves, he could well afford a decent house for himself. So why? And why would he shred his hard-won reputation by using the old rogue’s excuse for unexplained money, that he’d won some of it – “about £3,000 over five years,” he says blithely – on the horses? He doesn’t see the problem. Apparently.

As for the terrible distress and humiliation of Ahern’s former secretary, Gráinne Carruth, that was the tribunal’s fault, he says. It could have called for her clarification by letter, he says. The tribunal might respond that this was serious stuff, with the potential for perjury charges to arise. Hadn’t he been informed that Carruth was being recalled?

“No I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” he says. “Gráinne got this letter warning her not to tell anyone she was called, and she dutifully did that.” But you had been informed? “I don’t know when I actually knew,” he says with a flash of exasperation. (In fact, the tribunal had informed him, 11 days before Carruth’s recall).

He apologised to her afterwards. Might someone else have lodged the sterling it was claimed she had lodged? “She didn’t remember,” Ahern says. “I haven’t a clue. It could have been anyone . . .”

The years up to late 1995 – when the frenetic financial transactions came to an end and the Ethics in Public Office Act came into being – are painted as dark days of personal and political turmoil. Yet, in the meantime, he had become one of Ireland’s most powerful men – minister for finance and leader of Fianna Fáil – and, by his own admission, was long into a committed relationship with the “witty, highly intelligent, stylish and very good-looking” woman “I loved”.

He first got to know Celia Larkin in 1976 when she joined Fianna Fáil in his constituency of Dublin Finglas. She came to work for Ahern in Government Buildings in 1982 and remained working for him until 2000. His 11-year marriage to Miriam had finally reached an end in 1986 when he moved to the Mansion House as lord mayor and when, in his words, “Celia and I were spending even more time together”.

He takes full responsibility for the marriage break-up, blaming his multi-jobbing political lifestyle but also admitting that he chose to spend more time socialising than with his wife and two small daughters.

“I was still only in my early thirties, having got married at the young age of 24,” he says. “I wanted to blow off steam and the pressures of the job. But I was behaving as if I was young, free and single . . .”

What does that mean? “Well, what happened was when I was working late. I should have just gone home when I was finished early in the evening, but I didn’t . . . I was out having a few jars, but I didn’t go to dances or discos, never did that in my life.

“But I stayed here and we went to some of the GAA clubs . . . I was in my thirties, and one thing led to another . . . You end up going to a few parties, and a few nights you didn’t go home . . . I just made a hash of it.”

Is this an oblique way of saying there were other women? “No, not at that stage,” he says. “I never went to nightclubs, I wasn’t that kinda guy . . . though I better not say never, ’cause there are a few pictures of me in a nightclub . . . I’ve analysed it to death . . . Miriam just got fed up, and I can’t say I blame her. I could have avoided it, but I didn’t.”

But it wasn’t really about pressurised high politics then, it was about you having a high old time with the lads? “No, no – because now you haven’t listened to what I’ve said. I said that it was the odd night that I was out . . . That’s a woman thing, you see. You, from a political family, should know that – it’s all go, go, go and go. And I wouldn’t just go in and wing it on the briefs, so I’d read, read, read. Then you’d get a night off . . . I told a lot of the fellas coming up behind me in battles with their girlfriends, battles with the department, battles with everything, I’d say: ‘I’ll tell you what to do: don’t do what I did.’ I’ve given good advice since, but I’m afraid I didn’t give it to myself.”

It was Miriam who wanted out in the end, he says, confessing that he was “stunned” when she told him. He lived on in the Mansion House while she stayed in the family home in Malahide.

Whatever arrangement the couple reached has clearly borne fruit. His enormous pride in his daughters is evident, and references to gatherings that include “Miriam and Terry” suggest a mutually affectionate bond at this stage.

But it all leaves Bertie Ahern, at nearly 60, living a solitary existence. There are the outings with Anna Bogle, the widow of one of his “best friends”, but “I’m not sayin’ anything about that. I go out with her, but I’ve other friends I go out with. That’s it. That’s my life now. I’m not going to get myself married again . . . No. I’m happy now. I’m not a bad cook. I’ve good friends that are very close to me – fellas and women – and I’m happy that way.”

But meanwhile, his life’s raison d’être, the political stage for which he appears to have sacrificed so much, ended recently in a kind of humiliation, when after a campaign spearheaded by Bertie, his brother Maurice was rejected in both local and by-elections by Bertie’s own people. Was it the end of the Ahern “brand”, as some suggested? He never thought Maurice could win both, he says, picking out the positive, that with 35 per cent of the vote in the local election, Fianna Fáil “got the best vote in Dublin . . . We should have walked it, with two seats . . . Unfortunately, the Fianna Fáil transfers went haywire. I was sorry for Maurice because he worked so hard as a councillor . . . And of course the whole thing that was thrown at him right through the campaign about his age, which I thought was very unfair. If it was about his sex or sexual orientation, the media’d go mad, but it was all right saying he was an old man.”

Meanwhile, he is giving his time to Club de Madrid, devoted to conflict resolution, and to Co-Operation Ireland’s work on sectarianism in the North (“It’s the dangerous bit that’s remaining”). He has travelled to make “a fewspeeches . . . not many, though every time I do one, everyone plays it up as though I’m getting a fortune on it”.

SO WHAT LIESahead? “The presidency I wouldn’t get now. I was in a really good position, but it’s five and a half years ago – that bus is gone. I’m not in that league now. I’d love to see Blair get it, though not sure he will – not because of Blair but the EU-Brit attitude is going to continue to be a problem . . . My own view is if Jean-Claude Juncker really wanted it . . . very, very astute guy, though some feel maybe the bus is gone past for him too. But I don’t see any EU job at the moment that can fall my way and I’m not really out looking for it either. I’m realistic about that.”

Which leaves the presidency of Ireland. Is he simply waiting for the tribunal to report?

“It’s not just one thing,” he says. “There is a president there for over two years and I think it’s wrong for anyone and disrespectful to the President to be talking about a campaign that’s two years away. And you’d have to look at the political situation, at your personal situation (which the tribunal is obviously part of) and at your party situation – where you are in your party peckins, how you’re doin’. I’m 60 come the presidential election, so you’d have to say ‘would ya, or wouldn’t ya?’. But that’s not an issue for today.”

Are there things he would do differently, given the chance? He looks to the floor, then into the middle distance, and heaves a sigh. “You know, I love watchin’ these people that write books and do films and do interviews and say, ‘If I lived it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same’. If I lived it all over again, I’d do most things differently. That’s the book I’d come in on. To say I’d do it all over again just as I did it, it would be just a lie to say. I’d do loadsof things differently. Yeah, I’d do a lot . . . a lot of things differently.” Like what? “Maybe jobs, maybe personal relationships – I’d do a whole lot of things differently. I would. My friends ask me would I do it all over again – no, I can’t say I’d do it all over again. I’d do things differently, differently. If you asked me about things like Northern Ireland, or social partnership, I wouldn’t do anything differently. But life generally? I would have done things differently, yeah.”

Then he’s off – but is suddenly back with a Central Statistics Office study, which shows that national pay agreements between 1997 and 2009 left the private sector ahead by 10 per cent. So the 9 per cent from benchmarking simply bridged the gap. That’s all. “So I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he says, mystified. Well, um, it’s that like-with-like thing again . . . How do you argue with a man intent on burnishing his legacy?

EARLY YEARS

Born Bartholomew Patrick Ahern in Dublin 1951. Raised in Drumcondra, the youngest of five children of Julia and Cornelius, from Cork

CAREER

Joined Fianna Fáil in 1971 and elected to the Dáil in 1977. Under Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds he was minister for labour and minister for finance and, briefly, tánaiste. Became taoiseach in 1997 at the age of 45. Leading three coalition governments, he played a major role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and presided over an unprecedented economic boom. Resigned after almost 11 years as taoiseach on May 6 2008

PIVOTAL MOMENT

Choosing politics over money (and ultimately, family) when turning down a £20,000 job as chief executive of the Mater Private in 1980 to remain a TD (salary £9,000)