He’s in Nigeria, apparently, giving them advice on how to create their own economic miracle. It’s unclear how much the audience know about Bertie Ahern’s current status in the country he led for nearly eleven years. The blurb for his speech “Leadership in Changing Times: What It Takes to Succeed” conveniently doesn’t mention anything that happened after 2008.
Back home, things are going from bad to worse for Ahern. Last week’s Mahon Tribunal report just stopped short of labelling the ex-Taoiseach corrupt. His ailing party disowned him and Ahern jumped ship before he was pushed. His old constituency office of St Luke’s, the home of the ‘Drumcondra Mafia’, was repossessed by Fianna Fail. No wonder earning €30,000 per speech in Nigeria is a more appealing prospect.
Born in 1951 in Dublin to two Cork exiles, Con and Julia Ahern, Patrick Bartholomew Ahern grew up in a strong Fianna Fail family. His father had fought on the anti-treaty side in the Civil War, and the young Ahern joined Fianna Fail aged 17, having previously stuck posters onto lampposts in his local constituency. It was Ahern’s luck- which only started to run out in the last few years- that his first bash at becoming a TD was in 1977. Fianna Fail won a landslide in that election due to a series of outlandish promises and the unpopularity of the previous government. Coincidentally, other first-time TDs in that particular Dáil included Albert Reynolds, Liam Lawlor and Padraig “Pee” Flynn.
Ahern settled quickly into political life, and under the tutelage of Charlie Haughey, he began to gather a group around him. This coterie would later be named the Drumcondra Mafia by Haughey himself, and the group of friends, business contacts and advisers knew exactly what Ahern had planned for himself. “Four or five months after the 1977 election, some of the members of the team met out in Malahide,” Ahern’s former advisor Paddy Duffy said. “The purpose of the meeting was to decide how Bertie could become Taoiseach in 20 years… he was ambitious from the beginning.”
Almost like a prophecy of old, Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach in 1997, nearly twenty years to the day that he was elected TD. But between the era of punk and the era of Brit-pop there was still a lot done, a lot more to do.
A spell on the backbenches passed by without incident. Ahern supported Charlie Haughey in his bid to wrest control of Fianna Fail, and was rewarded with a position of Assistant-Government Chief Whip. Following the incapacitation of the Chief Whip Sean Moore, Ahern did much of the work in his absence. He was Mayor of Dublin in 1986, and laid the ground work of Dublin’s Millennium Festival.
Ahern rose steadily through the ranks until he became the leader of Fianna Fail in 1994, following spells as Minister for Labour and Minister for Finance- the latter infamously without possessing a personal bank account. The youngest Taoiseach ever at 45, his tenure at the top coincided with the birth of the Celtic Tiger and the easing of hostilities in Northern Ireland.
Again, fortune smiled on Ahern. The Tiger was merely a cub, but it had started roaring before his election. Bertie Ahern did not hesitate to take credit for Ireland’s economic miracle, as his speechifying in Nigeria has shown. “The boom times are getting boomer,” was one of the best Bertie-isms.
The circumstances were also favourable for Ahern in Northern Ireland. Groundwork had been laid down by Albert Reynolds and John Major, and the IRA had already declared a ceasefire once in 1994. Any action is always easier the second time and all sides were tired of the bloody 30 year conflict. Bertie Ahern was also lucky that his British counterpart Tony Blair was like him; young, personable and willing to compromise. The Good Friday Agreement is probably Ahern’s greatest success and the one he will treasure for years to come, now that the economy has gone sour. But even that may not be enough to preserve his reputation, as current Fianna Fail leader has warned: “Achievements like the Good Friday Agreement are real and enduring but they cannot absolve Bertie Ahern from facing the full implications of this report,” said Micheal Martin.
This report being Mahon, of course. Ahern’s account of payments made to him by various benefactors, being given houses, and dig-outs in Manchester functions wasn’t swallowed by the tribunal. Ahern said that it was during a chaotic period in his life, when his marriage to his ex-wife Miriam was breaking down. Ahern has freely admitted that the schedule of politics was unforgiving on family life, and that he wasn’t around for his wife and two daughters (Georgina and best-selling author Cecelia) when the children were young. “I had a beautiful wife and two great kids. Now I realise that I should have been at home with them, not out on the town with others,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I was being careless and I put our relationship under strain. I know how much I must have hurt Miriam and that is one of the greatest regrets of my life.”
His separation from Miriam occurred in 1992, when Ahern was still Finance Minister. His subsequent relationship with Celia Larkin would prove somewhat controversial to more outdated segments of Irish society. An à la carte Catholic, Ahern has never divorced from Miriam, and his new relationship caused discomfort among Irish clergy. In 2001, Cardinal Desmond Connell spoke of his objections to attending an event hosted by Ahern and Larkin as an unmarried couple. In a display of fence-sitting usual of Ahern, he left her with Tanaiste Mary Harney while he greeted Cardinal Connell. Their relationship ended in 2003, amid rumours that Larkin was sick of waiting for a marriage proposal. The end of their relationship coincide with Ahern’s return to dodgy fashion choices, the stylish Ms Larkin having prised him away from his anoraks.
Rumoured to be with a new partner and now studying as a mature student in the University of Limerick, she is far from the Drumcondra Mafia now. She has said that Bertie Ahern can be “vague, he could be evasive, belligerent, and sometimes downright rude.” All the same, she still has got a soft spot for her ex, admitting that she feels “desolate” that the Tribunal hasn’t accepted his evidence.
For the women in Ahern’s life, he is a partner and a father. His daughters clearly worship him. “I find it really difficult when people are critical of him, but I have learnt not to listen too much to it,” Cecelia said last year.
Bertie Ahern is a mass of contradictions. The man of the people, the betting man, the Northsider with the interesting turn of phrase, the loyal family man, is beset with corruption. He is capable of, at worst, lying, and at best, omitting the truth (for example, pretending to his Nigerian audience that history stopped in 2008). To those who always saw Ahern as a fundamentally nice man, the treatment of his former secretary Grainne Carruth during the Mahon Tribunal- she broke down on the witness stand in 2008, admitting she had lodged sterling for him- made them doubt their judgement. His manipulation of experienced TV anchor Brian Dobson in 2006 also showed a very different side to Ahern. He can be tetchy, petulant and self-serving. We may never know the real Bertie Ahern, but Charlie Haughey’s famous pronouncement rings clear all these years later. “He’s the most skilful, the most cunning, the most devious of them all.”