Bertie Ahern: An Irish leader at peace with himself and his people

By David Mckittrick
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The Independent Online

There are at least three different Bertie Aherns. One is the highly competent political manager and consensus-builder who has just steered the Republic through the period of greatest prosperity in its history.

Another is Nice Guy Bertie, the highly popular yet self-deprecating man of the people, the pretension-free politician who supports both Gaelic football and Man United, whose drink is a pint of Bass.

Then there is the third, infinitely more complex Bertie, the one who will always be saddled with the description once applied to him by Charles Haughey. The former Taoiseach, now disgraced by financial wrongdoings, once stuck his head into a room where his protegé Ahern was briefing journalists. Grinning at the reporters and pointing at Ahern, Haughey declared: "He's the man. He's the best, the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all." When Haughey left, Ahern remarked of this unwanted accolade, "God, that's all I need."

It is a testimony to that cunning and skill that Ahern now stands on the brink of victory in next week's Irish general election, as one of the most popular politicians to emerge in Ireland in the last half century. He has had the advantage of a period of unprecedented prosperity. But he has had the sizeable disadvantage of leading a party, Fianna Fail, whose name is synonymous with sleaze on a breathtaking scale. In Ahern's term as Taoiseach he has lost a string of ministers in recurring scandals. One of his backbenchers has been to jail a number of times. The flood of crises and revelations, political, financial and legal, have been so frequent as to be monotonous.

Irish public life has rarely been so exciting, or so full of disillusion. The disclosures have inflicted grievous damage on the body politic, producing huge scepticism about politicians in general and Fianna Fail in particular. Yet, magically, voters adore Bertie – perhaps not the cunning and devious one, but certainly the other two. Such popularity is never accidental, for all three Aherns have been hard at work to achieve this.

Bertie Ahern is a politician to his fingertips, joining Fianna Fail at the age of 14, entering the Dail at 26, becoming Lord Mayor of Dublin at 35 and leader of the party at 43. He is now 51. He comes from a republican background, his father being active as a member of the 3rd Cork brigade of the IRA. In later life, his late mother Julia often regaled the family with descriptions of life in west Cork during the country's troubled passage towards independence.

Mrs Ahern would tell tales of how the Black and Tans shot all the turkeys on the family farm. Later, during the civil war, Michael Collins's Free State forces would come to their home and "turn it upside down" because it was regarded as a republican household.

But no trace of republican militancy is visible in Ahern. In fact any strong ideological commitment is hard to find, for he is quintessentially the pragmatist, a consensus-seeking deal-maker, a man known for getting on with it and getting the job done.

In Eamon de Valera's day, Fianna Fail was a party of flinty austerity. Charlie Haughey changed all that in the 1960s, bringing a new strain of nastiness into Irish politics along with a culture of bribes, backhanders and shady relationships with businessmen. The Chief, as de Valera was known, was replaced by "The Boss", with Haughey's opponents speaking darkly of low standards in high places. A section of Fianna Fail never accepted Haughey, launching periodic "heaves" against him, but for years he staved off the challenged with his legendarily dirty infighting.

Ahern was Haughey's faithful lieutenant through all the bitter heaves. In recent years Haughey's financial misdeeds have been spelt out in shocking and humiliating detail at official hearings, a sometimes daily reminder, if needed, of the dark side of Fianna Fail. Other party figures have also been shown to be on the take, to the tune of millions. Yet although Bertie Ahern moved in that murky environment for decades and was so close to Haughey, no whiff of corruption is attached to him. Many in Fianna Fail were clean, and he was one of them.

Part of the public faith in him stems from his extraordinarily folksy lifestyle and the fact that he looks anything but mercenary. While Haughey was swanning off to Paris for hand-made shirts and quaffing champagne with a high-powered mistress, Ahern was known as "the man in the anorak." He was brought up in working-class north Dublin, working in a hospital and going to night classes to learn some accountancy. He really made his name as minister for labour, his natural negotiating skills helping solve industrial disputes.

In those days he had longer, untidy hair, and his image was that of the man with his jacket off, sleeves rolled up and loosened tie: he was described as possessing "dishevelled charisma." More recently the image-makers have been hard at work, insisting on tidy hair and good suits. But part of his attraction is that, though surrounded by consultants intent on grooming and polishing him, he remains unmistakeably a Dub.

He is plainly unimpressed by the trappings of office, what the Irish call the Mercs and perks, his natural habitat remaining the pub and the match. He still has an endearing occasional stutter, a tendency to talk about de government, to describe young people as yout, to speak with pride of Ireland's incredible economic growt.

None of this is an embarrassment to him, and in fact it all demonstrates that he is a man completely at home within himself, a man who takes and accepts things as they are. More thoughtful observers sense a longer-term weakness in this, in that there is no real sign of any "vision thing" in his makeup.

Perhaps this is understandable for a politician so preoccupied with applying damage limitation. It means however that the Republic has taken on a loadsamoney ethos at the same time as religious influence has gone into steep decline. Bertie is good at the basic fundamentals of politics, particularly in vote-getting, but less good at suggesting that prosperity can go hand in hand with strong values.

As rhetoric and debating are not his strongest points, next Tuesday's televised debate with Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan may be a testing moment. Ahern has been a lucky politician – though he helps make his own luck – and he is lucky in facing an uninspired opposition.

Noonan has yet to persuade voters he could do the job better than Bertie. He is also slightly too combative for the present national mood, and has the misfortune, shared by British Tory leaders, of a hairless head. His campaign coach has been unkindly christened "the Baldybus."

Ahern's lack of all affectation is of huge importance in keeping him connected to the people. His first name helps too, Bertie instantly conveying that he is one of the lads.

He can also be disarmingly frank about matters such as his private life, including his failed marriage. It was known for years that he was separated from his wife and attached to Celia Larkin, one of his constituency workers. Many wondered whether this would leave him politically vulnerable, but he has been open about the whole thing, and everyone knows he has a particularly close relationship with his two daughters. When the Celia issue came out, only a few of the most conservative clerics were seen to frown; and in today's more secular Ireland clerical frowns no longer generate terror.

As is usual in Dublin elections, the Northern Ireland question is playing little or no part in this contest since southerners, when they vote, tend to concentrate on matters domestic. This is probably a pity for Bertie, since he played a large part in clinching the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and he can convincingly claim to have made major contributions to the peace process.

One of his achievements was in establishing a businesslike relationship with both Sinn Fein and Unionist leader David Trimble: to many Unionists Bertie conveys nothing of the old sense of menace from the south. In the Good Friday talks, Trimble and others were impressed with Ahern's commitment in insisting on travelling to Belfast at the time of his mother's funeral.

On the day of the funeral, he left Dublin before dawn and flew to Belfast to breakfast with Blair, returned to Dublin for the funeral at noon, then immediately went back to Belfast again. Talks chairman George Mitchell said of him: "I don't recall ever having seen a person as totally exhausted. I also had never seen a person more determined."

At a crucial point in the talks Ahern made a key concession, agreeing to dilute the strength of north-south links in order to avert complete breakdown and make the final deal possible. "It was a big decision by a big man," said Mitchell. "It made everything possible that followed."

Ahern and Tony Blair maintain a solid working relationship. "They genuinely get on well," said one who knows them both. "The Good Friday Agreement was a bonding experience for them. Blair recognises that Bertie is someone who can make a deal and then deliver it."

Now, if the opinion polls and the general feel is correct, the Irish electorate is about to deliver Ahern a famous victory. The signs are so good, in fact, that the principal issue is whether he will head another coalition government or secure an overall majority.

The familiar pattern has been for Fianna Fail to be in coalition with some other party tasked with being a moral mudguard, keeping a wary eye out for signs of Fianna Fail going back to its bad old habits. If the latest polls are anything to go by, he might even get the overall majority which has eluded Fianna Fail for so long. He himself has been strongly playing down this possibility, afraid that voters may become uneasy and create a late swing against him.

As the party's greatest asset the campaign has been built around him, so that on most of the election posters he takes near-presidential precedence over the local candidates. Right now Ireland has not just three Bertie Aherns but tens of thousands of them.