In his own words

Bertie Ahern – former Taoiseach

There’s no shortage of opinions on Bertie Ahern. Now he’s put out his own version for the record. He talked to Niall Gormley.

What was your reaction to Stephen Gately’s death?

I knew the Gately family well because they are in my constituency and I know Stephen’s mother for years before he became famous. Mikey’s sister, Yvonne Graham, works with me. So through various ways directly and indirectly, I have connections with them all.

It was just so sad. He was in the prime of his life. He was back together with Boyzone and they were doing really well – they had a good 2009. To be cut off so young in life, it’s just so sad.

Were you impressed with the way the death and funeral were handled and received in Dublin, and the aspect of Stephen’s gay lifestyle?

Yes, I was. I was down with Stephen’s mother and Father Damien and the whole parish turned out for him.

Other than comments in the papers, there wasn’t a mention of the gay issue on the ground. It did strike me that it was only in the early 1990s that we were bringing through legislation to decriminialise homosexuality. I was Finance Minister then and I remember the controversies and the hassle there was.

Later, when I was taoiseach I went to the opening of the offices of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network where I outlined the legislation on civil partnerships. We’ve moved a long way, but it wasn’t always so easy, I can tell you.

Did you find that in Fianna Fail there were people who weren’t particularly pleased with the move on civil partnership?

Yes, and elsewhere too. In fairness the Archbishop of Dublin (Diarmuid Martin) supported me. It gave some people a shock, but he’s a very progressive man, and it allowed us to get on with it.

One of the things that is said about you is that you brought meticulous organisation to Fianna Fail in your local constituency right back in your early days in Dublin City Council (Corporation). What was your thinking?

I got active in the party after the 1969 election. On the ground in my constituency I found out very fast that there were huge holes in the political organisation. In the local cumanns membership was very low and generally members weren’t from the local community. They very rarely had meetings.

From 1974 on, when I was secretary of the organising committee, I actively recruited members and made the cumanns active, they met once a month, they had up-to-date membership and they had some activities on the ground.

I took in a huge amount of young people, some of them still with us today. We had a really busy campaign for the election in 1977. Since that, I’ve never stopped recruiting people. Even now, we had a do in St Pat’s College a few weeks back and we recruited 150 people into the party.

How has a traditional party like Fianna Fail managed to last in the urban environment of Dublin?

Well it has been strong right back to 1926 when the party was formed and further back to the days of Sinn Fein and even the Fenians. Sean Lemass’s great success was that he pulled in much of the 1918 Sinn Fein organisation into Fianna Fail. So we ended up with very good organisation in the 1940s and 50s and again in the 1970s.  

The challenge is that it has to be continually renewed in the cities. In the country, you might get away with it. In the cities it’s required every decade: renewal, renewal, renewal. We’ll have to do it again in the decade just coming and especially up to 2016 which will be an important year for Fianna Fail and for the country.

Fianna Fail has been able to change along with the political trends. For example, we talked earlier about the reform of the laws on homosexuality, which would have been unthinkable in Fianna Fail in earlier times. How has the party managed that?

Fianna Fail is a microcosm of society here. It’s got big farmers, small farmers, businessmen, working class and unemployed. Of course it’s had its conservative wing and its liberal wing. But it has been able to address change and that’s been a huge plus for the party.

And it’s been the same on the North. We were able to move away from Articles Two and Three when it was the right time, and move to the policy of consent. People said we wouldn’t be able to do that but we were.

You cut your political teeth here in the city, on the city council (corporation as it was then) and as Lord Mayor. In the past twenty years, what kind of Dublin do you think has emerged through the frenzy of development? 

I think that there are pockets of disadvantage but compared to where we were the city has really revolutionised itself.

Just look at the heart of the city, look ta Temple Bar. We made a commitment in 1987 in a famous meeting down at the CIE Hall, chaired by Olivia O’Leary and with Charlie Haughey, that we were going to revolutionise the area as a kind of Left Bank for Dublin. At the same time we put forward the idea of putting in the Financial Services Centre. 

And it’s the same with a lot of the big flat blocks around the city. There’s more to be done but it’s a pity that the downturn happened when it did because there was plans in train to transform many of these areas and it didn’t happen.

But look at the quays today. The quays have been a source of marginalisation and neglect in Dublin over the years. It was really when we brought in the tax designation plans that gave those areas a total lift. The city is a far, far better place than it was.

What about the idea of an elected mayor for Dublin? Could it make a difference? And would you be interested?

I’ve ruled myself out of that. I agree with the idea provided that the individual is given full executive powers. 

The idea of having an elected mayor will only work if the person is given full autonomy and is given full powers, including local tax raising powers. If you’re looking for money from central government you’re never going to get anywhere.

The Northern agreement is seen by many as your greatest achievement over the years you were in government. Do you agree?

Well there’s two parts to the Northern agreement. Firstly, the negotiations that went on for the better part of a year from July ’97 right up to the Good Friday Agreement and the vote on it in May 2008 – that was a huge achievement, ten months’ work and it was great.

But the bigger one was the full implementation of it and that didn’t finish until 2007. That was the hard bit – it was one thing having a blueprint but another to get everyone on board. 

At the start we hadn’t got Ian Paisley’s party signed up until we finally got the St Andrews Agreement signed in 2006. So I think it has to be looked at over the whole period.

Could it have been done quicker?

I knew in ’98 that we had a flaw in the agreement and that flaw was that the DUP were not involved. Here was the biggest vote-getter and probably the most powerful politician in the North, (along with John Hume) and we didn’t have him on board.

It took time. We were dealing with huge issues like the release of prisoners and decommissioning. They were all backbreaking to get through. 

In terms of the current crisis and given your background as Minister for Finance, what’s your view on Brian Lenihan who has been landed surely the most difficult job in he country?

Well, I was minister during the currency crisis in the early 1990s and it was tough then. When the revenues aren’t coming through, and when unemployment is high and not much growth in the economy, you don’t have the money to do things and it’s a tough job.

This is worse that it was then. That was the biggest crisis in 30 years and this is worse still – by a multiple. In fairness, I think Brian has done very well. There’s a lot of these decisions I’m sure he’d rather not make.

The big thing now is that it is no good having blame games and looking at each other, we’ve got to get out of it.

But there’s a real dilemma here, isn’t there? We need to save money but if the Government takes too much out of the economy, it will make things worse. What’s your view?

It is a dilemma. I wouldn’t like to see cuts in the capital programme, building hospitals, schools, roads, etc because that will affect the country in the future. It’s the right thing to keep spending that money. We’ll get better value now and it’s needed for the long-term benefit of the economy.

In terms of your time in government, do you think we were a bit too much Boston and not enough Berlin? Would it have been better to have had Labour as your partners rather than the PDs?

Well, I wanted to have a Fianna Fail/Labour government but Dick Spring unfortunately decided to go with John Bruton in 1994. It was out of our control.

But I think we followed policies that worked well. We wanted to make working productive, cutting takes to allow people to hold on to their earnings and to spend it according to their wishes. We brought unemployment down and emigration stopped.

The policies drove the economy, and ok people say it drove it too much. And if it hadn’t been for the international recession, we would have cooled the housing market down without it being such a huge problem. It would have been a problem, I’m not saying it wouldn’t, but not as big as the financial crisis made it.

How’s the book going? Did Cecilia give you a hand?

The book’s going well. It’s been number one for a few weeks now. So somebody’s buying it and I hope they’re enjoying it. Cecilia helped, she’s the expert, she gave me some good advice.