Bertie Ahern’s post-politics decade: ‘You get the impression he really misses it’
He is seldom in Fagans, focuses on peace-related work, and ‘hates’ Micheál Martin
Ahern’s standing within Fianna Fáil – he resigned his membership in 2012 in advance of a move to expel him because of the findings of the Mahon Tribunal – remains a pebble in his shoe. Photograph: David Sleator
Bertie Ahern’s haunts are mostly still the same: Croke Park, Parnell Park – the home of Dublin GAA – and some pubs around the north side of Dublin where he toured throughout his political career.
Yet some slight differences have emerged in the habits of the former taoiseach since he stood down from office a decade ago.
Despite occasional appearances in Fagan’s – the Drumcondra pub which has framed pictures and newspaper clippings of Ahern and Bill Clinton toasting each other on its walls – he is said to no longer be a regular, but may occasionally make an appearance.
“The lads behind the bar say it: ‘Never comes in anymore’,” said a local source. “He was last spotted there on All-Ireland final day.”
After years in which Bertie Ahern was viewed as something of a pariah, those around north Dublin detect a renewed confidence in Ahern as his reputation has improved
A hostile atmosphere during the worst years of the recession perhaps encouraged Ahern to be cautious in where he socialises. He is now said to favour the discreet bar in the soccer club Home Farm. “The place would be empty – seven or eight people – but the Bert will be in there,” said another local. “I think he uses it for privacy.”
The Goose Tavern and the Beaumont House still count on his regular custom, usually with old friends who have remained “100 per cent” loyal, according to those who know them.
Many of the names featured in the Mahon Tribunal, which eventually brought Ahern down, while others have been long time friends: Liam Cooper, Noel Mohan, Paddy “The Plasterer” Reilly, Chris Wall, Micheál Wall, Anna Bogle, Paddy Brassill, and others. Former Fianna Fáil fundraiser Des Richardson remains a close confidant and adviser.
But – after years in which Bertie Ahern was viewed as something of a pariah – those around north Dublin detect a renewed confidence in Ahern as his reputation has improved. “When you see him coming out of Parnell Park now, there is a pep in his step even compared to two years ago. His head is held up high, he has a bit of the swagger back.”
His interventions on Northern Ireland issues and Brexit have helped to rehabilitate him, although a recent interview with German television – which he walked out of when questions turned to the Mahon tribunal and his stewardship of the economy – served as a reminder that the most contentious issues of his past have not gone away.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Ahern himself says most criticism of him by members of the public in the years after his retirement mostly centred on the economy. “In the heat of the recession in 2009 and 2010, people would say: ‘If you had have done this or that’.” Issues around the tribunal, he says, are raised with him “very, very rarely”.
Friends say a “bit of pride” meant Ahern was reluctant to discuss how his reputation had been damaged. “Even during the height of the recession, and at the peak of when he was getting stick, if you asked him about that, he’d never really admit it,” said one.
But one particular memory from his days at the tribunal in Dublin Castle lingers around north Dublin, and will not be easily forgotten.
The intricacies of his personal finances – aside from an easily mocked claim that he won significant sums betting on horses – have largely passed beyond common memory, but the treatment of Gráinne Carruth has not.
Carruth, Ahern’s former constituency secretary who broke down while giving evidence about lodging thousands of pounds in sterling for her former boss, now lives with her family in a renovated St Luke’s, the former taoiseach’s Drumcondra base which she bought in 2015.
“Even when people see him talking about Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement you’d still hear: ‘What about Gráinne Carruth and what he did to her?’” said a local.
Ahern still keeps an office in Drumcondra, in modest rooms in a small business park. Most meetings are held across the road in the lobby or bar of the Skylon Hotel.
He has been busy since leaving office. He briefly took to the after-dinner-speaking circuit and was on the boards of a few private sector companies but has largely focused on the area of conflict resolution, where his achievements are beyond dispute.
Such pro bono work includes: spells with the World Economic Forum’s advisory group on conflict resolution; the Clinton Global Initiative; as a facilitator with Crisis Management Initiative, which saw him taking part in peace talks in Ukraine; the Inter Mediate group established by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief adviser; and a period as co-chair of the InterAction Council of former world leaders.
Ahern’s standing within Fianna Fáil – he resigned in 2012 before a move to expel him after the findings of the Mahon tribunal – remains a pebble in his shoe
Ahern has also formed associations with various academic institutions including receiving an honorary professorship from NUI Maynooth. This week, he was in the Basque Country to mark the end of Eta, another step in a peace process to which he, along with others such as Gerry Adams, contributed.
Recently, he has also been asked by the United Nations to chair Bougainville’s referendum commission ahead of a vote next year on whether the region should be independent of Papau New Guinea. Back home, he has helped settle disputes between the GAA and organisations in north Dublin.
But Ahern’s standing within Fianna Fáil – he resigned his membership in 2012 in advance of a move to expel him because of the findings of the Mahon tribunal – remains a pebble in his shoe.
His possible re-entry into the party was raised as recently as last Wednesday night at a Dublin Central Comhairle Dáil Ceantair meeting. According to sources, an elderly delegate said that in order to secure a Dáil seat for Mary Fitzpatrick, the current Dublin Central candidate who clashed with Ahern on numerous occasions, the party should recruit all the help it could get, including allowing Ahern back.
Ahern was sounded out about the prospect but cautioned against opening up such a contentious issue at this point. Micheál Martin shot down a similar proposal in November 2016, but many in the party would take Ahern back in a heartbeat.
Last month, at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil national executive, talk turned to the prospect of the party standing a candidate in the presidential election – if there is to be one – later this year.
Der Walsh, the delegate for Martin’s own Cork South Central constituency, told his leader that if the party is serious about standing for the presidency, it should send for Ahern. Unsurprisingly, Martin didn’t address the question.
The current Fianna Fáil leader has a strained relationship with Ahern, who in turn finds it difficult to mask his dislike for the man he first appointed to Cabinet in 1997.
Ahern’s occasional flirtations with a run for the presidency may be designed to cause trouble for Martin, or are a way of keeping his name connected with the Phoenix Park, in the off-chance that events turn his way.
But friends insist he just wants his views on politics respected within the party he gave 40 years to. “I think he’d like to do the same around the party as he does with Brexit and the North,” says a friend, “to give advice”.
“I don’t think he wants to run for office again. He was 40-odd years a member of the party. Most of his friends and most of his life has been around the party. I think he’d love to be of help. He doesn’t want to be on the frontline.”
Bert still has the glint in his eye, the word for all the auld ones: ‘How yis doin girls? That type of thing.’ He still has a great grá for the day job
Ahern himself says: “If I was still in Fianna Fáil, the only thing I’d be doing would be in the local cumann.”
To those around Ahern, the recent celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement offered the perfect opportunity for Martin to make a generous gesture of rapprochement.
While Martin praised Ahern’s contributions to the peace process, it was felt that Fianna Fáil was attempting to claim credit for its achievements while continuing to disown one of its chief architects.
“I have heard people in Fianna Fáil say: ‘We are the party of the Good Friday Agreement.’ You know Yeats’s famous line, how do you separate the dancer from the dance? Well, they are trying to do that.”
As to when Ahern could return to Fianna Fáil fold, one supporter is blunt: “As soon as your man from Cork is gone.”
All who encounter Ahern testify to his ongoing, intense interest in politics, from constituency level upwards.
While he “f***ing hates Micheál Martin”, said one in regular contact with him, he is said to have a regard for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “He sees Leo as the same style of politician as himself.”
“Bert still has the glint in his eye, the word for all the auld ones: ‘How yis doin girls? That type of thing.’ He still has a great grá for the day job. You get the impression he really misses it.”