Bertie Ahern: he hasn’t gone away but where has he come from?
He first stood for FF at the age of 25 in 1977
Long live the king? Bertie Ahern is to be invited to rejoin Fianna Fáil. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Bertie Ahern speaking at an event in 2006. File photograph: Cyril Byrne
Bertie Ahern at the end of his address to the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in Killarney in October 2005. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Bertie Ahern, in his constituency office, St Luke’s in Drumcondra in 2005. File photograph: Eric Luke
Charles Haughey offers his condolences to the Bertie ahern after requim mass for Mr Ahern’s father Con Ahern in December 1990. Photograph: Frank Miller
Bertie Ahern, a 25- year-old accounts clerk at the Mater hospital in Dublin, stands for Fianna Fáil in the three-seat constituency of Dublin-Finglas. A native of Drumcondra, he is from a republican family - his father Cornelius was a member of the IRA in west Cork during the War of Independence. His involvement with Fianna Fáil until now has been as a volunteer, significantly as a member of the constituency reorganisation committee. Added to the ticket by the national executive, the youthful candidate defies expectations by winning a seat on his first outing, as part of a Fianna Fáil landslide that sees Jack Lynch returning as taoiseach with a large majority.
Ahern, already a TD, is co-opted to Dublin Corporation to replace Jim Tunney, who has relinquished his seat upon becoming a junior minister. Ahern subsequently wins a seat on the corporation in his own right, in local and European elections that reverse the Fianna Fáil gains of 1977 and are considered symptomatic of Jack Lynch’s diminishing authority as taoiseach. In the leadership contest that follows Lynch’s resignation in December 1979, he supports Charles Haughey over George Colley, who will later be his constituency colleague in Dublin Central. In late 1980, he is appointed as an assistant party whip. Fianna Fáil chief whip Seán Moore is ill for long periods and Ahern steps in to manage the role on a day-to-day basis, giving him inside knowledge on Dáil and party process and also allowing him to make contacts with all Fianna Fáil TDs.
Charles Haughey calls a general election in May. The first true indication of Ahern’s formidable constituency machine becomes evident when he tops the poll with 8,738 first preferences, ahead of George Colley. Ahern tells a journalist he has personally written 300 letters on behalf of young constituents seeking jobs. Fianna Fáil loses the election, but the Fine Gael-Labour coalition is short-lived.
Another election is held on February 18th, 1982, and Ahern tops the poll. Independent TD Tony Gregory, who will become a fiercely competitive constituency rival, is elected for the first time. Ahern’s position as government chief whip is formalised, though the second Haughey government is a short-lived one. The late Séamus Brennan later recalls: “As chief whip, Bertie Ahern learned to come down the white line and take both sides of the street with him. I don’t know how he got away with it.”
Charles Haughey offers his condolences to the Bertie Ahern after requiem mass for Mr Ahern’s father Con Ahern in December 1990. Photograph: Frank Miller
Throughout the three heaves against Haughey, Ahern is identified as one of his closest supporters. However, he does not draw the same antagonism from the rival camp as do some others.
He has earned a reputation for being a relentlessly hard constituency worker.
His “man in an anorak” image is coming to the fore. One description from 1985 says unkindly: “Bertie Ahern looks as though he has slept in for work and got dressed in a hurry . . . His tie is askew, his shirt collar well-fingered, his navy-blue pinstripe suit rumpled . . .” Nevertheless, his star is in the ascendancy in Fianna Fáil.
Ahern becomes lord mayor of Dublin, defeating Carmencita Hederman by 27 votes to 24. He moves into the Mansion House with his wife, Miriam, and his two daughters. He throws himself into the task in hand. His diary for the first fortnight lists 140 engagements. Joe Burke is the deputy mayor.
Fianna Fáil is returned to power and Ahern, boosted by his year as lord mayor, is promoted to the Cabinet. He is appointed minister for labour and his skill as a mediator and as a consensus-seeker comes into play - he becomes known as Mr Fix-It. Asked once if Ahern was going to intervene in a particular dispute, PJ Mara retorted: “Well, Bertie will go out and have a few pints with the lads tonight and see what can be done.” Those interpersonal skills will later play a part during negotiations for three successive agreements with the social partners and, arguably, during his decade-long involvement in peace talks in Northern Ireland. Later, he will say that he rates the Programme for National Recovery his finest achievement with the exception of the Belfast Agreement.
By the late 1980s
Ahern is seen as Charles Haughey’s protege. As chief whip and national treasurer he has been co-signatory of the party leader’s bank account and his name remains as a co-signatory until 1992. It later emerges that blank cheques signed by Ahern ended up in Haughey’s personal accounts, while others were used to buy Charvet shirts and pay for meals at Le Coq Hardi. Ahern told the Moriarty tribunal it was his habit to sign blank cheques which were later filled out by Haughey. When the taoiseach calls a snap election in 1989, he turns, in part, to Ahern’s political skills during negotiations with the PDs. Ahern organises a mid-term renewal of the coalition deal with the Progressive Democrats, following a number of difficulties and tensions, including Brian Lenihan Snr’s resignation during the 1990 presidential campaign. At the conclusion of these negotiations Haughey famously remarks: “He’s the best, the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all.”
St Luke’s is acquired on behalf of Ahern and Fianna Fáil. The building, bought for £71,000, will become central to inquiries into Ahern’s finances. It later emerges that he lived in an apartment in the building when first separated from his wife. He becomes involved in a relationship with Celia Larkin, a Fianna Fáil activist who will tell the Mahon tribunal that she was his “life partner”. Ahern will later tell the tribunal he had no bank account between 1987, when he separated from his wife, until their separation litigation concluded before he became leader of Fianna Fáil. During that time, he says, he saved some £50,000 from his salary.
Ahern becomes, at 39, the minister for finance after Albert Reynolds is dropped from the cabinet. Charles Haughey resigns as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach on February 7th, 1992. Ahern considers standing but decides not to run against Reynolds. His marital status is identified as an issue - Michael Smith, a Reynolds supporter, is quoted as saying: “People do like to know where the taoiseach of the day is living.”
Reappointed as minister for finance by Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern faces into a difficult period, culminating in the currency crash of Black Wednesday in September 1992. Meanwhile, the unfolding
events of the beef tribunal are leading to huge strains in the relationship between Reynolds and PD leader Des O’Malley. They lead to the collapse of the government and a new election in November 1992. Against huge gains by Dick Spring’s Labour, Ahern changes his attitude from one of antagonism to the party to being supportive of a coalition with a re-energised party that has won 33 seats under Spring. The coalition eventually crumbles from the fall-out that follows the appointment of attorney general Harry Whelehan as president of the High Court. Spring’s key adviser Fergus Finlay later recalls: “If Ahern had replaced Reynolds as leader after the 1992 election, it is probable that the government would have run its full term.”
November 18th, 1994: Bertie Ahern, then Minister for Finance, announces that he will run for the Fianna Fáil leadership. Photograph: Frank Miller
Ahern becomes Fianna Fáil’s youngest leader, at 43, when he is chosen unanimously on November 19th, 1994. His only remaining rival Máire Geoghegan Quinn withdraws on the day of the contest, in the interests of unity. He is the first Fianna Fáil leader to be separated. He expects to become taoiseach but Spring opts to support the nomination of John Bruton for taoiseach. Ahern appoints Ray MacSharry to chair a committee that will oversee candidate selection and party reorganisation. However, Fianna Fáil is rocked by new revelations that emerge that supermarket tycoon Ben Dunne had made a payment of more than £1 million to Charles Haughey.
The final Fianna Fáil Ardfheis before the 1997 elections is held in April, only a week before the McCracken tribunal hears Ben Dunne give evidence of giving huge sums to Haughey. In his presidential address, Ahern distances himself from his mentor: “We will not tolerate any deviation from the benchmarks of honour, at local level or in Leinster House, be it in the past, present or future. No one is welcome in this party if they betray public trust.” Fianna Fáil carry the election, returning to power with the help of the PDs and Independent TDs. He is elected Taoiseach on June 26th. He chooses Charlie McCreevy as finance minister. However, his choice for foreign affairs, Ray Burke, is more controversial. Burke resigns both his ministry and Dáil seat on October 7th, 1997, over allegations that he received two payments of £30,000 from developers. Ahern attacks the Opposition in the Dáil, chiding it for the “persistent hounding of an honourable man, on the basis of innuendo and unproven allegations”. Another example of Ahern’s reputed “cunning” emerges later that year when he secretly backs the nomination of Mary McAleese as Fianna Fáil candidate for president, while publicly purporting to support Reynolds’s nomination.
The Belfast Agreement, signed on April 10th, is considered by Ahern to be one of his finest moments. The marathon and dramatic negotiations culminated in an agreement that prompted British
prime minister Tony Blair to say he could “feel the hand of history on my shoulder”. Mr Ahern’s mother, Julie Ahern, died on the Monday during the negotiations. Of Blair, with whom he forged a close political alliance, he would later say: “As Irish leader, as Irish Taoiseach, I say that Tony Blair is a great person whom we deeply appreciate.”
Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are easily returned to government by the electorate. The previous five-year term had seen unprecedented growth. The evidence in relation to planning corruption and that pertaining to Mr Haughey’s finances did not seem to affect the standing of Fianna Fáil in opinion polls, or Mr Ahern’s personal popularity with voters. Several months after being returned in 2002, a Freedom of Information request disclosed that the Government had not fully revealed the extent to which the economy had contracted in the run-up to that year’s elections. It led to accusations that it had pulled the wool over the eyes of voters.
Fianna Fáil performs poorly in the local and European elections. In its second term, the government is faced with a number of controversies, including electronic voting and Charlie McCreevy’s ambitious plan to decentralise 10,000 jobs. During the summer, it is announced that McCreevy will succeed David Byrne as Ireland’s European commissioner. McCreevy is reportedly reluctant to step down. At Fianna Fáil’s “think-in” in September, Ahern unveils what becomes known as the Inchydoney strategy, moving the party more to the left and distancing itself from perceptions of the government being “right-wing”.
Brian Cowen becomes minister for finance in the biggest reshuffle during Ahern’s period as Taoiseach. Ahern also oversees a very successful EU presidency, culminating with agreement on a constitutional treaty and the accession of 10 new member states.
In September, The Irish Times reveals that personal payments were made to Ahern in the early 1990s.
In a subsequent interview with RTÉ, Ahern discloses for the first time the “dig-out” payments and the £8,000 sterling he received from businessmen in Manchester. In the next 18 months, new disclosures are made in relation to Ahern’s personal finances, including three appearances at the Mahon tribunal.
April 30th, 2007 Bertie Ahern the launch of Fianna Fáil's election campaign. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
In a surprise move on the last Sunday in April, Ahern goes in the early morning to Áras an Uachtaráin to dissolve the government and announce an election. The early part of the campaign is dominated by his personal finances. However, in the final week of the campaign momentum shifts towards the government. Ahern addresses the joint Houses of Parliament at Westminster during the campaign and is also boosted by a permanent agreement in the North. He is perceived to win the televised debate with Enda Kenny on RTÉ and the last Irish TimesTNS/ mrbi opinion poll before the election shows that support for Fianna Fáil has dramatically increased. The Fianna Fáil team, led by Cowen, negotiates a historic coalition with the PDs and the Green Party. Cowen becomes Tánaiste and Ahern anoints him as his successor in an interview with Seán O’Rourke.
In May, Ahern resigns after 11 years as Taoiseach over his financial affairs. He is the country’s second longest-serving taoiseach after Fianna Fáil founder Eamon De Valera. Former minister for finance Brian Cowen takes his place.
In June, the Economic and Social Research Institute says Ireland is heading for its first recession since the days of high unemployment and emigration in the early 1980s. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan tells construction industry conference that Ireland’s building boom was coming to a “shuddering end”. In Septembe, an official economic report states Ireland is officially in recession. The Government announces a €440 billion State guarantee of all deposits in Irish financial firms.
In January, Anglo Irish Bank is nationalised because of share price collapse, massive losses, scandal of loans to directors and multi-billion deposit loan from rival lenders. In April the Emergency Budget sets out €3.25 billion of tax rises and spending cuts and by June support for both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party plummets in local and European elections.
The Government’s December budget is the most draconian in the history of the State.
January 23rd: The Green Party pulls out of government, stating it has lost patience with Fianna Fáil. The 2011 election sees a Fine Gael / Labour coalition take power
The Mahon Tribunal finds in March that Bertie Ahern failed to truthfully account for a number of financial transactions in the 1990s. Mr Ahern revealed his resignation following an announcement by current party leader Micheál Martin that a motion would be put to the Ard Comhairle seeking his expulsion. Mr Ahern told The Irish Times in 2012: “I have tendered my resignation because I do not want a debate about me to become a source of division in Fianna Fáil. He added: “I am a resilient person and in public life you learn to take knocks, but I am deeply wounded by this tribunal report.”
It emerges that Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central are to ask former taoiseach Bertie Ahern to rejoin the party. Chairman of party in Dublin Central Brian Mohan says following a meeting there was a general discussion about constituency matters which led to a discussion about how well Ahern has performed in elections past. Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central passed a motion calling for a letter to be written to Bertie Ahern and the party headquarters asking the former taoiseach to rejoin the party. “The general discussion about the state of the party developed into another discussion about our former TDs and about Bertie and his loyalty to the party,” he said.
Compiled from various articles in The Irish Times archive