Bertie Ahern, whose long and eventful political career has come to an abrupt halt, was always regarded as a likeable character, but his misfortune now seems to be that he will go down as a likeable rogue. For quite a while, it appeared that he had managed to flush out much of the roguery from his Fianna Fáil party. It needed flushing, for the former leader Charles Haughey was immersed in corruption on a grandiose scale and other senior ministers wound up in jail.
Although Mr Ahern was a Haughey protégé, he seemed at first interested in power but not money. He presented himself as a man of plain and simple tastes, a happy workaholic content to run the country and let his own financial future look after itself. But that reputation has now gone – the result of the official tribunal which has devoted years to examining his finances. It produced questions to which, during hours in the witness box, he replied in great detail. Yet his answers were completely unconvincing and his credibility dropped like a stone.
Most of the questions relate to the early 1990s. Maybe, it was whispered on his behalf, he was discreetly concealing money because of his messy divorce; maybe he needed cash to meet heavy election expenses; maybe it was just his chaotic way of doing business – for years, after all, he had no bank account. Maybe, it was said, he was completely blameless, but for various reasons he could not tell the full story. Scarcely anyone outside Fianna Fáil believed his accounts, and of late even the party faithful mostly fell silent.
His problem was that even those who accepted he had done nothing illegal concluded that, for whatever reason, he was now locked into a cover-up. Although nobody ever thought he was remotely comparable to Haughey, the amount of known dodgy dealings and suspicious transactions mounted steadily, until it now exceeds, at today's values, more than half a million pounds sterling. Such sums fatally undermine the old Ahern image as a man who cares little about money. And the irony is that during the era of the Celtic Tiger his handling of the public purse, as Minister for Finance and later as Taoiseach, was generally thought of as deft and efficient.
After its years of phenomenal growth, the Irish economy is no longer in full spate and house prices are falling. Yet there is no widespread sense that Mr Ahern made any huge strategic mistakes. That has certainly been the sustained verdict of the Irish electorate, which returned him to power in three successive elections. The suspicion of financial irregularities was always there, but for most of the Ahern era it was less focused than it has lately become, and in any event he was judged the most competent head of government.
Part of that aura of competence came from his painstaking work in the peace process. He devoted countless hours to de-fanging the IRA and easing Sinn Fein into politics. That involved not just hundreds of meetings with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, but also countless contacts with Unionist leaders, including David Trimble and, more recently, the Rev Ian Paisley.
When Mr Ahern came to power, many Unionists regarded the Irish Republic as a hostile entity ever poised to help their enemies and undermine their rights. But Mr Ahern's easy manner and diplomatic cuteness – he presented Mr Paisley with a bowl made from a tree at the scene of the Protestant victory at the Boyne river – immensely improved Unionist relations with the south.
It was striking yesterday that warm tributes were paid to Mr Ahern by both Mr Trimble and Mr Paisley. His successes in the economy and in the peace process will long be remembered. He was one of those who removed the shadow of the gunman; but the issue of his finances will cast a less welcome shadow on his record.Reuse content