When he was asked if he would consider a bid for the Áras in 2025, Bertie Ahern responded in his inimitable oratorical style. “Twenty twenty-five? Jesus that’s a long way off ... I have to stay alive first.”
The question should provide a nice distraction for the next two and a bit years but as far as the Fianna Fáil faithful are concerned, it seems almost moot. His much-vaunted return to the fold so far amounts to him handing over €20 to rejoin the Dublin Central branch – but to read about the party reaction to it, you’d think Oasis had just announced their reunion tour. The Fianna Fáil WhatsApp group reportedly lit up with joy at the news that he was coming back to the fold in some form; any form at all. There was talk, Jack Horgan-Jones reports, about a chance for Fianna Fáil to rediscover its lost swagger, reminders “of the days when we truly dominated Irish political life”.
The faithful can’t actually be that surprised or they haven’t been paying attention. This was yet another well-flagged inevitability transformed into a moment of high drama by the master of spin. A concerted rehabilitation of Ahern as a respected elder statesman figure has been under way for months, featuring well-timed reminders from then-taoiseach Micheál Martin of his expertise on the North, his ongoing “invaluable” input on Brexit, his role in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. With the 25th anniversary of the agreement just around the corner, they wouldn’t want to risk Sinn Féin taking all the credit.
To give Ahern his due, all of this is fair. It is also fair to point out the other part of his track record. The report of the Mahon tribunal did not find him guilty of corruption, but it concluded that he did not truthfully account for payments of IR£165,000 (€209,000) made to accounts connected to him. He rejects these findings. He also rejects the idea that he had any role in the property crash, which was all down to “Lehman’s”.
Bertie Ahern interview: I see all this stuff now about TDs with 20 houses - I’m still with me one house
Bertie Ahern’s return is par for the course for Fianna Fáil, a party that frequently rejects history
Fianna Fáil hopes voters have forgotten about all this, along with the cash whip-rounds. And the fact that he didn’t have a bank account when he was minister for finance. And all the times he obfuscated and evaded, including in sworn evidence to the tribunal. Still, the wisdom goes, if Boris could seriously plot a comeback after just seven weeks in the wilderness, then 11 years is surely more than enough for the Bert.
[ Drumcondra deeply divided over Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil return ]
As far as Ahern’s much-vaunted – in the WhatsApp groups anyway – magic touch is concerned, however, 11 years may prove far too long. Can they really believe his “legendary knack for knowing what the public wanted” remains undimmed after more than a decade of relative political obscurity?
The world into which he will re-emerge as a political figure – free, or so his supporters hope, from the awkward chrysalis of dig-outs and Galway tents – is very different from the one he led through the Celtic Tiger years. It is an Ireland of abortion rights and marriage equality, a country whose most popular party is Sinn Féin. This Ireland is grappling with an energy crisis, an escalating climate crisis, the fallout from a pandemic, the threat of an emerging far right and the repercussions of the Russian war in Ukraine. Perhaps the only constant is that housing remains a national obsession – only now it’s less about totting up your apartments in Bulgaria or Ballyshannon and more about wondering if you’ll ever have a secure place to live.
Only blind arrogance or naked desperation can account for the notion – widely shared in those WhatsApp messages this week – that a 71-year-old who hasn’t been a TD since 2011 still “gets” the public like no one else. He may “get” the white, male, comfortably-off, Mass-going, homeowning, traditionally FF-voting public, but the time when that was the dominant voice in Irish society is long past.
That isn’t to say he has nothing to offer. He is a sharp political operator wrapped in a shuffling, easy-going package, who has an ability to read complex situations, knock heads together and get stuff done. Unlike the Celtic Tiger, his achievements in bringing peace to the North were real and lasting.
Yes, inevitably, he will remind some – some Fianna Fáil TDs anyway – of better times, when the country was awash with kitchen islands and meals out in Michelin-starred restaurants, and the boom just kept getting boomier and boomier, until it stopped. But the idea that nostalgia for those years would drive out the memories of what came after and give him a real shot at the presidency is, frankly, delusional.
As the surge in support for Sinn Féin should have demonstrated to Fianna Fáil, young voters are not interested in the past; they’re concerned with what Martin Luther King once called the “fierce urgency of now”. They don’t care about the 40 per cent first preference votes Fianna Fáil used to command, or about Ahern’s key role in bringing peace to the North. They don’t care about his insights on Brexit; they don’t care about Brexit at all, as Fine Gael discovered during the last election. They want to know if they’ll ever own a house.
Presidential elections are notoriously tricky, slippery affairs – depending on the mood of the voting public on the day, they can be outlets for protest votes or a chance to virtue signal about the kind of Ireland we’d like to aspire to being. What they have not been so far is a national whip-round for a politician who threw money at voters until the money ran out, and sneered at those who tried to point it out to him for “cribbing and moaning and sitting on the sidelines”.