Bertie Ahern: The operator

His lifestyle is not one of yachts and champagne: it is one of Friday night pints of Bass in north Dublin pubs
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Bertie Ahern does not look or sound like the Republic of Ireland's cleverest and most capable politician: he is not a forceful speaker, would never describe himself as an intellectual, and is not an inspirational figure. Yet he is the most formidable operator on the Dublin political scene, which he has dominated for years. He has the antennae to sense looming crises, the expertise to manage the economy, and the savvy to remain Prime Minister for almost a decade.

The mystery is how someone who has weathered so many crises with such skill should suddenly find himself mired in one which, he admits, has tarnished his stature. This one could yet bring him down. Even if that does not happen, it will inevitably harm his chances of leading his Fianna Fail party to a third victory in the general election, due next year.

It is not as if he lacks experience in coping with the issue of surreptitious payments to politicians, for many of his crises have arisen from this issue. Not only did two senior Fianna Fail men go to jail but his own one-time leader and former mentor, Charles Haughey, was disgraced after it was proved he had taken millions.

As part of coping with these events, Ahern said repeatedly ministers should be under no financial obligations and should not be taking money: "We must draw a line under bad habits that may have grown up," he intoned. Yet before making these public declarations he had himself benefited from monies quietly donated by 12 business figures, in 1993 and 1994, amounting to nearly fifty thousand euros.

For years, he acted as if the payments were not a potential smoking gun that could do him great damage. This was despite the fact that powerful anti-corruption tribunals have been investigating deeply into the financial affairs of politicians. Nobody is saying that the Prime Minister has done something illegal. He is widely regarded as being, if not actually a pretty straight kind of guy, then at least one having higher-than-average personal standards.

Some of the donors were appointed to public boards, but they were mates of Bertie's, and he would probably have appointed them anyway. Such is the Irish way: such things may be widely regarded as cronyism, but that is legal whereas corruption is not. A mystery is why Ahern's fabled antennae did not transmit warnings that the payments might be uncovered, and could be highly injurious to him.

In the Dail this week he insisted he had never taken a bribe and had done nothing wrong, though he admitted with rueful hindsight that his actions "could be made to look wrong". It has been a rare lapse of judgement on the part of a man steeped in politics since he joined Fianna Fail at the tender age of 14, winning election to the Dail when he was 26. His long career has had few serious reverses.

His Fianna Fail pedigree is impeccable, both his parents having been active in the republican campaign to drive out the British. His father fought in the 3rd Cork brigade of the IRA, while at his mother's knee the young Bertie heard tales of how the Black and Tans ransacked their farm and shot their turkeys.

All that got him off to a good start in Fianna Fail, but it was his fascination with politics, coupled with striking organisational ability and a legendary work-rate, that ensured his steady rise through the party ranks. Only 55 today, he became Lord Mayor of Dublin at an early age, and reached the Dail in his twenties. There he was spotted by Charles Haughey and others as a coming man, performing well as minister for labour and finance minister.

His relationship with the corrupt Haughey was not a natural pairing: Charlie affected a patrician air, exuding grandeur and power, while Bertie was a man of modest habits, concentrating on getting the job done. Where Charlie wore fabulous suits and lived the high life, Bertie's standard garb was a dishevelled anorak; he was always being photographed with his tie loosened and shirt-sleeves rolled up. Where Charlie was elegantly groomed, Bertie's hair was long and untidy. Where Charlie spoke in an affected drawl, Bertie never sought to shed his working-class north Dublin accent.

But Fianna Fail is a famously broad church, and the two had in common bursting ambition and huge drive. Both lived for politics: a partnership was born.

Two of the strongest themes of the Haughey years were the whiff of corruption and recurring bouts of absolutely vicious infighting, as Charlie's allies and opponents within the party repeatedly joined battle. Ahern was at Haughey's side through these turbulent years, loyally helping fend off the repeated party "heavies" against him.

The vehemence of these struggles was unprecedented: some in the Haughey camp were particularly nasty bits of work who did not scruple to employ low tactics. Yet Ahern, although always in the thick of things, did not descend into the mire as some others did. In many ways, it is still a mystery how he achieved it, yet he emerged with his reputation for decency and civilised behaviour intact.

He did so despite working closely with crooked colleagues, who were later to be disgraced and in some cases jailed. It is true that one of his Fianna Fail tasks was, literally, to sign blank cheques for Haughey to do with as he chose. But, he explained, he never knew what the boss did with them and did not regard it as his business to inquire.

His nine years as Prime Minister have been studded with damaging revelations, mostly dating back to the Haughey era. Ahern's achievement has been to present these as these as historical matters rather than the stuff of current politics.

He carried this off in large part because, unlike Haughey, he manifestly does not care about personal enrichment. His lifestyle is not one of yachts, champagne and racehorses: it is one of supporting Manchester United and Friday night pints of Bass in north Dublin pubs. He said once: "I have no big houses or mansions or yachts or studs. All I've got is a mortgage." The money he received in the early 1990s was not to set him up in luxury but to meet the costs of his marital separation, which had left him in debt.

The separation from his wife Miriam, which many attribute in large part to Ahern's workaholic addiction to politics, was a low point in his life. There has never been a divorce, and he later had a long-running relationship with a one-time party worker, Celia Larkin. He made no secret of this and, although there were some clerical rumbles about an Irish prime minister living with a woman who was not his wife, Ahern paid no attention to them, nor did the Irish public.

His relationship with Celia ended several years ago, but he remains on friendly terms with her and Miriam. He is also known to be close to his daughters Georgina and Cecilia.

The huge irony is that, in part, his financial difficulties arose from the fact that he had to make provision for the girls. Yet, though both are still in their twenties, they have since become independently wealthy - far wealthier than their father. Georgina married Nicky Byrne of the internationally successful group Westlife, while Cecilia has become a multimillionaire through the worldwide sales of her "chick-lit" novels, such as PS, I Love You.

Ahern's ability to maintain relationships through fraught times can also be seen in the political sphere. His years as Prime Minister have been at the head of coalitions with a party, the Progressive Democrats, which is by no means a natural governmental partner. The PDs are the people he is watching most anxiously, since they are pressing for more information on the early 1990s money and on fees he received for speaking engagements in Manchester. If they were to pull out, the Ahern government would fall. The PDs do not want to trigger a premature election, but since one of the party's principal purposes is to curb Fianna Fail excesses they say all ambiguities must be cleared up.

In his time in office, Ahern has maintained a most valuable understanding with Tony Blair, their closeness helping bring Anglo-Irish relations to an unprecedentedly cordial level after decades often marked by turmoil. In 1998, they signed the pivotal Good Friday Agreement together in Belfast after intense negotiations in which Ahern impressed Ulster Unionists with his commitment to reaching a new accord.

The day of his mother's funeral coincided with a crucial phase of the talks, but Ahern insisted on carrying out both his family and political duties. On the day of the funeral he left Dublin before dawn to meet Blair in Belfast, then returned to Dublin for the funeral at noon before immediately travelling back to Belfast again. The former US senator 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."

Since then he has established reasonably amicable contact with the Rev Ian Paisley. While this has yet to help produce a breakthrough, Ahern's efforts in the peace process will go down as a major achievement on his part.

Back home, he has been working towards the next general election. Hugely popular on a personal level, his party has of late been trailing in the polls, but his premiership has had slumps and surges and he has in the past shown his powers of recovery.

With the Irish economy remaining remarkably buoyant, the expectation had been that a December giveaway budget would give him a fighting chance of a third term. But suddenly he is fighting not for victory but for survival. He will need all his formidable talents, as well as much luck, to get through all this.

A Life in Brief

BORN: 12 September 1951, in Dublin , to Cornelius and Julia Ahern.

FAMILY: Married to Miriam Kelly, a bank official, 1975; separated, 1992; two daughters, Georgina and Cecilia.

EDUCATION: Rathmines College of Commerce; University College, Dublin.

CAREER: Member of the Dail, for Fianna Fail, since 1977. Assistant chief whip, 1980-81; Government chief whip, 1982; Lord Mayor of Dublin, 1986-87; Minister for Labour, 1987-91; Minister for Finance, 1991-94; Leader of the Opposition, 1994-97; Prime Minister, 1977 - ).

HE SAYS: "If I can go on my annual holidays to Kerry, get a few days sometimes, if I can get now and again to Old Trafford, if I have enough money for a few pints and if I can look after Miriam and the kids, I don't care a damn."

THEY SAY: "He's the man. He's the best, the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all." - Charles Haughey, former Prime Minister of Ireland