Bertie Ahern: The teflon Taoiseach who came unstuck

Bertie Ahern was untouched by the sort of scandal that has traditionally dogged Irish politics. But his mysterious financial affairs caught up with him when his secretary was forced into the spotlight. By David McKittrick

For over a decade he dominated Dublin politics as deal-maker supreme, negotiator par excellence, master of his once fractious party, skilful manager of the Celtic Tiger and peacemaker in Northern Ireland.

There was much achievement, and indeed glory, in the career of Bertie Ahern. But yesterday that career came to an abrupt end amid allegations of tawdry, venal behaviour.

Ahern's announcement that he will resign within weeks came after many months of revelations and accusations centring on up to a dozen mini-scandals and unsatisfactorily explained financial transactions. An official tribunal looking into his affairs has found no smoking gun, but in the end the cumulative effect of so many mysteries brought him down. The fact that he will resign just after having had the honour of addressing the US Congress demonstrates the severity of his fall.

His answers to the many questions put to him about his financial affairs were unconvincing and increasingly far-fetched. As a result his credibility took a significant hit, and in recent weeks he was increasingly accused of perjury. The irony is that he was once regarded as the Mister Clean of his Fianna Fail party, which under its previous leader Charles Haughey had a reputation as being deeply corrupt and regarded as "the party of the brown envelope".

For years Ahern was known as the Teflon Taoiseach, since none of the numerous allegations about Fianna Fail ever seemed to cause him personal damage. But that changed. After years of digging, the tribunal's lawyers and investigators unearthed a web of mysterious bank accounts and puzzling payments.

Nothing that has turned up comes close to rivalling the exploits of Haughey, who during a legendarily corrupt career accepted payments of many millions of pounds. Ahern's modest lifestyle provided a huge contrast with Haughey's lavish behaviour.

Ahern had absolutely no taste for ostentation. He made much of his "man of the people" image as a Manchester United supporter, a divorced man who liked women and who spent Friday nights drinking pints of Bass with his mates 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." He carried this off in large part because, unlike Haughey, he seemed not to care about personal enrichment.

He was, he projected, one of the boys – a political workaholic fascinated with power but uninterested in amassing worldly wealth. That persona endured for years, but it eventually vanished under the weight of evidence extracted by the tribunal.

A Fianna Fail underworld came to light. Ahern's former girlfriend, for example, testified that he drove her to a bank in Dublin's O'Connell Street so she could nip in and withdraw £50,000 sterling in cash. There were examples of Ahern squirrelling money away. A businessman involved in a complicated house deal with Ahern told of taking 28 grand in a briefcase and heaping it on his desk. Ahern put the cash into a safe, without counting it – and without offering a receipt.

This was strange behaviour for a government minister: perhaps stranger still was the fact that although he was both an accountant and minister for finance, he did not have a bank account.

One of the final straws came in recent weeks when his former secretary broke down in the witness box of the investigating tribunal. She had earlier supported Ahern's evidence that certain transactions had not involved sterling sums, but was then confronted with bank records which flatly contradicted this.

Amid her tears she said plaintively: "I just want to go home." The widespread suspicion that Ahern had something to hide, and had sent in a former employee to carry the can for him, led to a surge of public feeling against him.

He will, like Tony Blair, hope that history will pay more attention to his performance on Northern Ireland than the recent scandal. He and Blair came to office at the same point in 1997, immediately forming a relationship refreshingly free from the strains which had previously affected Anglo-Irish relations.

This proved one of the keys to the peace process. As time went on, Ahern also struck up working relationships with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

But his partnership with Blair was critical, since it was axiomatic of the peace process that if London-Dublin relations were wrong, then nothing else would come right. Crucially, Blair and Ahern agreed that an exit route from the Troubles could be envisaged.

No part of the decade of negotiations aimed at replacing paramilitarism with politics was easy. In fact, Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell relates that Ahern himself was at one stage tempted to resort to violence.

According to Powell's account of one negotiating session: "The Irish dug their heels in, and Trimble came across as appallingly rude to Bertie, who came within an ace of hitting him, as he told us after the Unionists had left the room."

But fisticuffs were averted, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was an important milestone. The funeral of Ahern's mother coincided with a crucial moment in the talks, so that he left Dublin before dawn to meet Blair in Belfast, then returned to Dublin for the funeral at noon before travelling back to Belfast.

George Mitchell, the former US senator who chaired the talks, said admiringly of him: "I don't recall ever having seen a person as totally exhausted. I also had never seen a person more determined."

Ahern went on to strike up a relationship with the Rev Ian Paisley, helping pave the way for the historic Paisley-Sinn Fein administration in Belfast.

Ahern came from a staunchly republican family – his father was a member of the 3rd Cork Brigade of the IRA during Ireland's War of Independence – but he was a pragmatist in all things and, in tune with general opinion in the Irish Republic, he left the goal of a united Ireland to the future, and concentrated first on silencing the guns.

Ahern's rise through Fianna Fail's ranks was steady. He joined at the tender age of 14, entering the Irish parliament at 26 and becoming leader of the party at 43.

His workrate was legendary, but he first really made his name as a Minister for Labour whose natural negotiating skills helped solve many industrial disputes.

Although Charles Haughey was one of his political mentors, Ahern earned his Teflon tag by dodging almost all the mud that stuck to his predecessor as Taoiseach.

Once installed as leader, Ahern consolidated his reputation for solid competence. He displayed impressive skills in holding together a series of coalitions, since in the modern era Fianna Fail never managed to achieve an overall majority.

Previous coalitions had perished due to personal and political differences, but Ahern's talent for negotiation and conciliation provided an unexpectedly stable government.

He was fortunate, of course, to be in power during the greatest period of prosperity that the Irish Republic has ever known. But he also had the advantage of being – until recent times – one of the most trusted politicians around.

He was certainly one of the most popular politicians to emerge in Ireland in the last half-century. He is credited with managing the economy well, and won three elections by stressing the feel-good factor.

If he lacked a certain vision, he was given much credit for shrewd management and steady government, and for devoting much time to the peace process. He has seen off a series of opposition leaders who could find no way of bringing him down.

Ahern had said that he would not fight another general election, but he also said lately that he intended to stay in office for some years yet. He is thus departing earlier than he wanted to, and for reasons that he will always regret.

He was once described as the most formidable operator on the Dublin political scene, a man who had the antennae to sense looming crises, the expertise to manage the economy, and the savvy to remain Prime Minister for a decade.

Haughey famously said of him: "He's the man. He's the best, the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all." Those were all qualities widely ascribed to him, and they stood him in good stead for years.

Yet it all came to an ignominious end amid all the inexplicable bank deposits and briefcases stuffed with cash. Eventually the man regarded as Ireland's most astute politician just ran out of road.

For all the cash in safes and briefcases he eventually became politically overdrawn and had to go. His skills and his cunning took him a long way, but the moral seems that be that, in the end, not even Teflon lasts for ever.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice