Bertie Ahern and the long winding road to rehabilitation
Former taoiseach playing role in peace initiatives but yearns for more involvement at home
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern attending a funeral in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Bertie Ahern is a man of habit. He has dropped into Fagan’s pub in his home patch of Drumcondra a few times a week throughout all of his adult life.
A friend of mine who lived nearby did a house swap with a family from San Francisco in 2007 when Ahern was taoiseach. They left a list for the visiting American family, pointing out the best of Dublin’s attractions. In there with the All-Ireland hurling final, the Book of Kells and the Guinness Storehouse was a visit to Fagan’s, where they could meet the Irish prime minister as he dropped in for a pint of Bass.
So intrigued were the Americans at this novelty that they became regulars in the pub throughout their visit.
But sometime between 2009 and 2010 something happened to that easy familiarity. The blame game for the bank and property crashes spread beyond Brian Cowen’s beleaguered government to others: particularly Ahern. When the fall came, it came quick and hard.
A useful anecdotal yardstick for that, as with most things with Ahern, is sport. In this case the All-Irelands which Dublin have won in recent years. When he went to Fagan’s after the Dubs won the 2011 final, Ahern shipped a lot of abuse from fans. Somebody who was there said the atmosphere was torrid. But then when Dublin won in 2013, the attitude towards him when he arrived was largely one of indifference. There was no hail-fellow-well-met but no naked hostility either.
Last September, when the Dubs overran Kerry, Ahern wasn’t exactly offered a fatted calf by fans but they greeted him warmly, and lined up for selfies with him.
It marks a slow, uneven, but partial rehabilitation, which has become more noticeable in recent months.
Ahern’s workplace is a small unprepossessing office on the main drag of Drumcondra, tucked way over a string of shops. It is simple and sparse, with only one other member of staff, his personal assistant, ever there. Sometimes you will see a well-worn saloon car parked up outside. The setting is completely anonymous.
This is the base for a surprisingly busy life trotting the globe to become involved in peace processes and conflict resolution. Much of the work has significant geopolitical implications.
Last week Ahern was in Istanbul to continue his involvement in negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurds. In recent years, he has been involved in similar processes in Ukraine, Spain’s Basque region, Nigeria and Iran.
In contrast, public life in Ireland for the former leader of the country and of Fianna Fáil has been almost non-existent.
Of course, most of this state of affairs was self-inflicted. When the economy went into a tailspin soon after Ahern stepped down as taoiseach in April 2008, his status tumbled from hero to pariah very quickly. An inappropriate throwaway remark of his from 2007, that those who were predicting a crash should commit suicide, came back to haunt him.
Ahern was booed at football games and received vile letters in the post, one which included a noose and rope. In 2010, a widower, aggrieved at the quality of healthcare given to his late wife, had to be physically restrained after a verbal onslaught.
In 2013, a man assaulted Ahern with a crutch in a pub off O’Connell Street. A populist – and popular – figure, who enjoyed, even needed, the warm greetings of the public found himself having to retreat from the public gaze, almost in disgrace.
That came on top of a difficulty that all political leaders eventually face when the time comes to step down. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “there is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance”.
For Irish leaders, it’s almost a complete exit. In other countries, leaders are called on by governments and by society as an “éminence grise”. Former US president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair have both set up foundations and carved out busy (and lucrative) careers in their post-politics lives, notwithstanding lingering scandals – the Iraq invasions in Blair’s case. Jimmy Carter has had a fuller career after his presidency than during it.
In Ireland, it is different. “There’s nothing as ‘ex’ as an ex-taoiseach,” Jack Lynch once ruefully said.
The Irish Times spoke to former colleagues, advisers, friends and political opponents and Ahern about his life and career since stepping down in 2008.
One person who is close to him said his domestic options were always limited once he stepped down: “Generally, if you are not running for the presidency, it’s over. You do not want to get on the pitch and overshadow your successor. You have to stand back from it. You get involved with business or go abroad. The crash foreclosed all his domestic options. That was hard for him.”
The flak became intolerable. A former minister who worked with him said: “It was very uncomfortable for everybody. There was an awful lot of anger around. It is much different in Ireland. We are a much closer-knit community and much smaller. Everybody knows everybody.
“You say something in a pub and the next thing it can be a considered opinion in a national media.
“There is also a difference between the UK and the US and Ireland where they find roles of former leaders. There are exceptions here. The likes of Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton came back and made their contribution. They were well regarded as gurus if you like.”
The former minister was worried for Ahern’s safety for a period: “I thought removing the Garda protection from ex-taoisigh was wrong at the time. That could have turned out to be an absolute disaster things were that bad. I would not have the same strong feelings today. I do not see anybody other than a lunatic attacking him.”
When he stepped down, Ahern was ready to forge two pathways for himself internationally. The first was public speaking. He joined an international speaking agency and addressed conferences about the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. For speakers of his standing, the fee could be up to $40,000. He stopped doing it in 2011.
He told this newspaper he tired of the travel: “They were here, there or everywhere,” is his only comment on why he stopped. Others argue that the invitations dried up, not Ahern’s enthusiasm – the truth probably lies between the two.
But even his closest friends said they were inappropriate when the State was on its uppers. “I would have been opposed to him giving lectures on the economy,” said one. “It was cocking a snoop at the disaster that had befallen Ireland.”
He focused on conflict resolution. It has led to a busy career abroad and near anonymity at home. Ahern outlines a very long list of initiatives and processes with which he has been involved since 2008. He says that the bulk of the work is voluntary. All of it revolves around peace process and conflict resolution. Even his most ardent critics agree that he has huge credibility as a facilitator and mediator gained from the Northern Ireland peace process, and also social partnership in the South. And that standing is very high internationally – just before he stepped down he addressed the joint houses in both Westminster and on Capitol Hill. He himself reckons his international commitments and travel take up more than two-thirds of his working time.
Those who know him, however, have said the exclusion at home got to him. “He is not like [Brian] Cowen who was shy and did not like the media or limelight,” said the minister. “Bertie has always liked to be involved at the centre of what was going on.”
His own response is two-pronged, accepting of the criticism, but clearly still querying its basis: a pinch of apology and a bigger dollop of self-justification. This is despite the overwhelming evidence governments under his watch were responsible for bursting the banks and overheating the economy.
“During the most hostile years I said I would keep the head down. I understand well that people lost a lot of money, people went into debt, went into property deals and got hit. They looked around and blamed people whoever is political leader. Some of it was justified, some not, but listen you just have to take it. Rather than trying to defend it, I just took it and went on with it. I did not get that much personal abuse.”
In his comments, he refers to people who made big property deals which collapsed as the source of a lot of anger directed towards Fianna Fáil. “You will get some people who had property deals that went wrong and I understand it. I did not get that much [hostility]. There was more of it in the press than in reality. There were people who were aggrieved and people who blamed us. I did not get much chance to defend myself. The banking inquiry did give me a chance.”
A senior Fine Gael adviser is less kind: “The guy nearly got off the stage without being fully exposed. We are a small open economy with our ass out in the North Atlantic. There are no alternate models for Ireland that some geniuses are going to create.”
When the possibility arose of Sinn Féin joining government in the North, Ian Paisley memorably chided that they must wear “sackcloth and ashes”. Figuratively, the same fate befell Ahern and his friends who say the isolation was hard on him.
“For a man of his gargantuan energy, what it did to him to be without a job must have been the most devastating blow ever,” said a former adviser.
The ministerial colleague said that Ahern, unlike the more introspective Cowen, needed a public dimension to his life and was frustrated. Ahern did give a few sparse interviews in the intervening years, including some barbed comments in the direction of Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin.
Still, his overseas record is impressive. From 2008 he spent four years involved as a peace and mediation contributor with the World Economic Forum and also became an associate of the Harvard International Negotiating Programme. He is an adjunct professor at NUI Maynooth, attached to the Kennedy Institute which researches mediation and conflict resolution.
Through Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative, he became involved in Ukrainian peace and was in Kiev when the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down. He has also played a part in Inter Mediate, the influential and considerably active conflict resolution organisation set up by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s adviser who was chief negotiator in Northern Ireland. Ahern has been a frequent visitor to the Basque region of Spain and also in the prolonged effort to reconcile the minority Kurdish population in Turkey.
He says he likes the work: “I have been involved in negotiations all my life, the North, unions and social partnership. I did four or five rounds of that. People pick up on it.”
Ahern’s business interests are limited these days by a mixture of choice and circumstance. He chairs the International Forestry Fund, an Irish-led company which invests in afforestation but which raised only a modest €5 million between 2009 and 2014. More recently, he has become non-executive chair of Sea Fin, an Irish aviation company, which sells and leases large commercial jets. His political pension has been reduced in line with other former ministers and TDs and is now about €88,000 per annum.
There are conflicting, even contradictory, forces that make Ahern what he is, positive and negative elements that still drive him on, said a current high-ranking Fianna Fáil figure who still thinks fondly of him.
“In one sense there is an innate sense of decency. He never forgot people who did him a good turn. But he definitely never let go of anyone who did him a bad turn,” said this person. “His self-preservation skills are second to none. He liked playing the thick but is the very opposite. He is deeply religious and tradition in his views. He is stubborn and strategic, workaholic and obsessional. If he wanted something done, it was done one way or the other. He came across as a people’s person but was different in private. Needless to say, he pretended money did not matter but it did very much.”
Most who know him believe he wants to have more of a role domestically. It may be helped that the dispensation has changed, particularly in the past year. The high tide of anger that swamped the party in the last general election has receded but not ebbed fully. That particular generation of Fianna Fáil politicians has found it has become a little safer to go back in the water.
Ahern and the others all identify his appearance at the banking inquiry as a turning point. His ability to bamboozle with unfinished sentences came to the fore during eight hours of evidence. His appearance would have probably reinforced people’s view of him but certainly left him with no further damage to his reputation.
He followed up the following Sunday with an interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio, where an air of self-justification rather than humility prevailed. It was uneven and opened some old sores but the take-home message, for him, was he was no longer persona non grata.
“He got a boost of confidence after the banking inquiry,” said another former Fianna Fáil minister. “It gave him a spurt to get involved.”
Since then, there has been a few well-timed appearances, at the 30th anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; launching former Irish Times journalist, Deaglán de Bréadún’s book on Sinn Féin; and newspaper interviews assessing Northern politics.
“There is no grand plan [for him to come back],” insists a former adviser. “He probably just wants to become more involved.”
He himself says he has kept his comments confined to the North. Does he himself see a greater role in the future? The answer is yes: “On public issues I have a contribution to make. I am not going to become a comment-a-day person. I may comment after big events but purely from an analysis viewpoint.”
But how receptive would his former colleagues and the wider public be to it? A senior Fianna Fáil source points he is no longer a member and divides opinion.
“People either love him or hate him. Some revere him but others felt fooled by him, or were dismayed to find out about his [personal financial dealings, including alleged cash “digouts” from friends and claims by Ahern that some lodgements in his personal bank account had come from bets on horses].”
Ahern has huge credibility on the North and still has a contribution to make there, this individual believes. But on domestic politics, the former taoiseach is still a huge drag for the party’s reputation at large.
A senior strategist in Sinn Féin agreed. “It would be an act of desperation for Fianna Fáil to use him, though he played a big role in the peace process.”
The second former minister said people associate his good traits with things like the peace process and see his role in the economy and in day-to-day politics in a negative light.
The former adviser disagrees. Time has softened attitudes towards Ahern slightly, said the adviser, and Fianna Fáil can no longer disown him even if he relinquished his membership after 2011. The argument put by the adviser is: the party has an unsettled internal debate over coalition. It has no strong key message. It is struggling, particularly in Dublin.
“Fianna Fáil could end up with no seats in Dublin. One of the reasons he became leader was because a Dublin leader was important for the party’s wellbeing then.
“Even if the public hated him, that view is mellowing. Fianna Fáíl is trying to be too politically correct [by disavowing him]. Why is Bertie Ahern not in there advising the party about electoral strategy, in Dublin particularly?”
That is not likely to happen. The most likely scenario is that Ahern will make more regular appearances as commentator. Asked would he like to set up a foundation as Clinton and Blair have done, he said “no”, as it would involve too many headaches in staffing and fundraising. Some of those close to him have suggested a foundation centred around sport but there are no plans, either immediate or long term.
While the naked antipathy towards him may have dissipated, it has not disappeared. For the man who was more comfortable in Drumcondra than anywhere else, it is abroad where his immediate future still lies.