An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (the Irish Prime Minister – 1997-2008)) is to resign on 6th. May after a long running scandal concerning his private finances.  He is the most successful Taoiseach in Ireland’s history and was previously Minister for Labour (1987-1991) and Minister for Finance (1991-1994).  The ugly duckling to the right in the group photo is Brian Cowen, Minister for Finance, his most likely successor. – Breaking News – Taoiseach to tender resignation on May 6th

Amid mounting pressure about his personal finances, Mr Ahern said he was proud of his political achievements but denied any wrongdoing in relation to his personal finances.

Flanked by cabinet colleagues Brian Cowen, Mary Harney, Martin Cullen, Noel Dempsey, Brian Lenihan and Green Party leader John Gormley, Mr Ahern said a “constant barrage of commentary” was distracting the work of Government.

He said his decision was “solely motivated by what is best for the people” and was “solely a personal decision…inspired by the desire to refocus the political agenda”.

“I’ve been priviliged to serve my community, party and country for many years,” an emotional Mr Ahern told reporters in Government Buildings.

He said he was proud of his work on the Northern Ireland peace process, on successive social partnership agreements, on delivering a modern economy and
of Ireland’s involvement in the European Union.

He also said he had “ended the myth that Fianna Fail is incapable of sustaining a coalition government” and paid tribute to both Mr Gormley and Mary Harney.

However, the work of Government had been “distracted by my life, my lifestyle and my finances”.

Mr Ahern was set to come under pressure in Dáil this afternoon as the Opposition parties sought an explanation for evidence given to the Mahon tribunal by his former secretary.

The Opposition was due press Mr Ahern on the sterling payments lodged to his Irish Permanent building society account by Gráinne Carruth.

The tribunal is investigating claims that Mr Ahern received money from property developer Owen O’Callaghan. The claim by Tom Gilmartin has been repeatedly denied by Mr O’Callaghan and by Mr Ahern himself. However the tribunal invetigations have thrown up questions on lodgements to Mr Ahern’spersonal accounts in the early 1990s.

The total value of lodgements and other transactions that have to date been queried by the tribunal in its public inquiries into Mr Ahern’s finances, exceeds £452,800. The lodgements and transactions occurred between 1988 and 1997, although the vast bulk of the money was lodged in the period to 1995.

The total is the equivalent of €886,830 in today’s terms, applying the consumer price index for the period 1994 to 2008. The total excludes lodgements where the tribunal has been shown the money was transferred from one bank account to another, but includes such lodgements where neither Mr Ahern nor the tribunal have been able to find independent confirmation as to what occurred.

Mr Ahern said he would be “comprehenisely dealing with these matters at the tribunal” and denied any wrongdoing.

“Never in all the time that I served in politics have I ever put my personal interest ahead of the public good,” he added.

“I have never received a corrupt payment…I have done no wrong and wronged no one”.

Last week, acting Progressive Democrats leader and Minister for Health Mary Harney and Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley said Mr Ahern needed to clarify the situation in relation to his finances.

“All political careers end in failure” Enoch Powell once famously said, but few would have thought such a successful political career would end in such a humiliating failure.  On the face of it you would think that this was a straightforward case of political corruption leading to a deserved downfall, but things with Bertie Ahern are never quite that simple.  Once described as “the most cunning, the most devious of them all” by his political mentor, former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Bertie Ahern was a successful Minister for Labour and Minister for Finance where he pioneered the concept of National Social Partnership and laid many of the foundation stones for the Celtic Tiger.

After his third General Election victory as Taoiseach last year, I wrote: – The Irish Times – Mon, May 28, 2007 – Aftermath of the general election

Madam, – An extraordinary election. Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin all tread water and come back with roughly the same number of seats. Fine Gael gains 20 seats and yet Fianna Fáil is feted as the victors.

Having said all that, if you had told me 30 years ago that a government would effectively solve the Northern problem, the unemployment problem, the emigration problem, the foreign debt problem, and raise living standards to the highest levels in the world – and still fail to win by a landslide – I would not have believed you. How expectations change! –

And that is perhaps the key to understanding the Bertie Ahern phenomenon.  The objective achievements of his period in office are phenomenal, but it has also led to a sea change in public expectations.  Few younger voters now can imagine the abject poverty of Irish political life in the early 1980’s with a corrupt Government led by Charlie Haughey; unemployment, inflation, and interest rates approaching 20%; huge levels of foreign debt, taxation, and emigration;  divisive referenda on abortion and divorce; and the continuing degradation of political life and civil liberties by “the Troubles”, chiefly, but not exclusively in Northern Ireland.

Often criticised for his nearly unintelligible “Bertie Speak” he is an amazing negotiator who was adept at overcoming personality, political, ideological and cultural antagonisms and never failed to cut a deal.  He cultivated the image of the common man wearing his anorak down to his local pub and his pint.  His lack of affectation, pretentiousness, and obvious ego are perhaps unique in political life anywhere.

His major contribution to the Northern Ireland Peace Process is perhaps his most lasting achievement, but he was also the pivotal figure in negotiating 20 years of National Social Partnership agreements which have transformed the economic and industrial relations scene in Ireland.  Once famous for our strikes, there are many trade union officials and managers in Ireland today who have never experienced a strike in their working lives, but who have become adept at using a range of statutory instruments, institutions, processes and procedures to resolve or prevent the escalation of a wide range of disputes.  This does not, of course, mean that industrial strife is absent in Ireland, but nevertheless the economic environment and disputes resolution procedures created, in part, by the Social Partnership concept have enabled Ireland to achieve one of the lowest strike rates and highest levels of employment and standard of living in the world.

His Presidency of the European Commission in 2004 resulted in significantly improved relations with the US post Iraq, inter-governmental agreement to a new European Constitution, and the appointment of Barrosso as President of the European Commission (after Bertie Ahern himself turned it down).  Whether it was plying Gerhard Schröder with Irish Coffees or playing off the egos of Chirac and Berlusconi against each other, Bertie managed to create situations where everyone felt they could claim credit for successes that had eluded previous, more vainglorious, Presidencies of the Council.

However he was in some respects also a dinosaur from a previous political age.  As General Secretary of Fianna Fail (the dominant Irish political party) he had become used to writing blank cheques with which Charles Haughey could use party funds to buy Charvet shirts in Paris whilst at the same time urging the general populace to “tighten their belts”.  He saw no problems with accepting wads of cash from party supporters and admirers, often ostensibly as political donations, but which he converted for his own use. He went through a difficulty divorce in the 1990’s (he is the first  senior divorced politician in Irish politics) which may have put some pressure on his finances, but in reality he saw nothing wrong with accepting gifts and loans from admirers and those who wanted to feel close to the centre of power.

The irony is that no evidence of obviously corrupt behaviour on his part has ever been convincingly demonstrated, despite an extensive tribunal of enquiry which was set up to investigate planning corruption but which has come to focus almost exclusively on his private affairs.  That the Irish planning system was (and perhaps still is) corrupt is not in doubt – merely that Bertie Ahern does not appear to have been directly involved in that corruption.  As is so often the case in such matters (Ref. Ken Starr) the main focus of the inquiry becomes unstuck for reasons almost wholly unconnected with the original allegations, in this case the acceptance of gifts and “loans” which do not appear to have been declared to the tax authorities.

There was (and to an extent still is) a culture of non-compliance in Irish society, a legacy of the times when the State was a British Colonial regime, and where cheating on tax and the black economy was tolerated and sometimes those engaged in doing so were lionised for their exploits.  That culture has been changing fast, helped in part by the exposure of corruption in the planning process, but to some extent Bertie’s activities 10 and 20 years ago are being judged by the standards of today.  

Nevertheless there were also many who were at all times scrupulously honest in their dealings, and who abhorred the fast and lose culture which seemed to be endemic in  Fianna Fail at the time.  If Bertie Ahern’s political passing is to serve some useful purpose, it is to underline that such double standards are simply no longer acceptable at any level or sector in Irish society.

So what of the future for Bertie Ahern? He is still aged only 56 and could no doubt make a lucrative career on the lecturing or Boardroom circuit. However he has shown little interest in the trappings of private wealth and could still look to a future career – possibly as President of the European Council.  It all depends how damaged he will be perceived to be by the scandal around his private affairs, but it may very well be that his resignation as Taoiseach will come to be seen as sufficient atonement for his misdeeds.  He is still popular amongst many in Ireland and certainly has the required skills as a negotiator and mediator.  However he doesn’t speak any European languages (and that includes English, as far as many people are concerned) and might be seen as too close to the Anglo-Atlanticist wing of the political spectrum.

The reality is, however, that he is the supreme pragmatist and has shown his ability to get on with everyone from Blair, to Schröder, Chirac and Berlusconi, as well as the leaders of the accession states.  Don’t underestimate the man.  His negatives will be much less that Blair, and he will not have dirtied his bib to much as far as many European leaders are concerned.  He would not be an inspiring leader of Europe but will appeal to many who do not want a high profile leader such as Blair.  He would make the institutions work, which at the end of the day, isn’t really such a bad thing.  Many will laugh at the man and his foibles, but his track record of achievement in Ireland and on the current European Council is second to none.

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