Bertie: Power & Money by Colm Keena – Review

9780717150694Colm Keena  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Gill & Macmillan (2011), 287 pages

Cabra Library

Irish Politics & History  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Bertie: Power & Money is a forensic of Bertie Ahern‘s evidence to the Mahon Tribunal, Ahern’s rise to political power, and his disgrace and departure as Taoiseach following the Mahon Report.  The impressive level of detail in this book confounds Ahern’s subsequent attempts to dismiss the findings of the Mahon Tribunal (see Ahern’s excuses in the TV3 documentary The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil).  Keena’s book makes it clear that Ahern, despite not having a bank account in his own name, received payments in excess of his (already substantial) salary, that he did not reveal all the information requested by the tribunal until he had no other option, and his peculiar attitude to money expressed itself in tightness even over buying a drink for the people who helped him get elected.

In 2006 Ahern admitted to getting a loan totalling £39,000 from 12 people in 1993 and 1994.  Ahern hadn’t paid back the loan or any interest on it.  If it was a gift then he hadn’t declared it for tax.  Ahern said the money was to cover legal costs relating to the break-up with his wife and that no favours were asked or given for the payments he received.  Ahern admitted to receiving £8,000 sterling from friends at a speaking event in Manchester while he was Minister for Finance.  It subsequently emerged that some of the people giving money to Ahern were property developers.  The tribunal requested information from Ahern about all the bank accounts he dealt with.  It emerged that Davy Stockbrokers had made a legitimate £5,000 donation by cheque in 1992.  It was lodged to an account that was not one of the 22 accounts declared by Ahern.  This account was named the B/T Account.  Ahern claimed that this stood for Building Trust and not Bertie/Tim.  Tim Collins was part of the trust that ran Ahern’s St. Luke’s constituency office.  This bank account was in Collins’ sole name and bank statements (which were originally held at the bank) were sent to his home address.  Ahern strenuously denied that the B/T account was some kind of secret account for political donations.  Evidence also emerges of £20,000 sterling in cash being lodged to the B/T account in 1994.  After resigning as Taoiseach Ahern, “gave sworn testimony that some of the sterling in his building society account had been won on the horses.  As soon as he mentioned horses there was loud and derisive laughter from the crowded public gallery.  It was a moment of public humiliation.” (p.79)

Keena charts Ahern’s rapid rise to power following his election in 1977.  Ahern is portrayed as a populist politician who put his own interests ahead of Fianna Fáil’s interests.  His “Drumcondra Mafia” was a highly efficient election machine that ignored party wishes to split his Dublin Central constituency to ensure that at least two Fianna Fáil candidates got elected.  Ahern would canvass the whole constituency and his huge first preference vote was just enough to enable a second candidate to scrape in.  Ahern reshaped his local Fianna Fáil party in his own image (so much so that when he left politics the Fianna Fáil vote completely evaporated in Dublin Central and, the constituency like the rest of Dublin, has no Fianna Fáil TD). Ahern was a hard worker and had a populist charisma that enabled him to alter his message to suit his audience.  He could present himself as the friend of the property developer whilst also claiming to have socialist leanings.  Ironically it was perhaps this lack of core beliefs that enabled Ahern to successfully bring about social partnership deals between unions and employers and also help forge the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.

Keena’s book details too many revelations about Ahern’s finances to list here.  But, perhaps the most extraordinary revelation, was that just before Ahern became Taoiseach, he received a briefcase of cash from developer Michael Wall for the renovation of a house.  The briefcase contained approximately £30,000 sterling but neither Wall nor Ahern actually counted the cash.  Amazingly neither Wall, Ahern, or Celia Larkin (who saw the bundles of cash in St. Luke’s) saw, “anything bizarre or troubling about a prospective Taoiseach being given a briefcase of cash in this way.” (p.123)

Ahern tried to present himself as a working class version of Charles Haughey.  He was everything to all people.  Unlike Haughey, however, Ahern had a chip on his shoulder about his working class roots.  He falsified his CV to claim he had studied at the London School of Economics.  Like Haughey he seemed to envy the wealth that he felt his government policies had created (even if the policies of light-touch financial regulation, cutting taxes, and excessive expenditure overheated the economy, created a property bubble, and resulted in the collapse of Irish banks).  The fact that, as a minister and as Taoiseach, he earned vastly more than his average constituent didn’t seem to cross his mind.  In his interviews since resigning from Fianna Fáil (if he hadn’t resigned the new leadership under Michaél Martin would have expelled him from the party) Ahern has failed to show any remorse or understanding of the huge problems that his leadership saddled the country with.  Like Haughey, if he feels any sorrow at all it is because he believes that he has been misrepresented by the media and that he hasn’t been given credit for his achievements.



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