EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: What’s Bertie up to now? | Education, Politics, Brexit and More
Bertie Ahern served as Taoiseach from 1997-2008, having also served as Minister for Finance and Minister for Labour during his political career. He is currently Co-Chair of the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and Government. The College Tribune’s Neil Stokes was very grateful for the opportunity to speak with him on a wide range of matters including education, Brexit, current politics, and his lengthy political career.
Neil Stokes (NS): First thing I’d like to start with is your background. You grew up in Drumcondra, the son of a committed Irish Republican. Tell us about your upbringing, the lessons you learned along the way, and what led to you becoming involved in politics?
Bertie Ahern (BA): My father and my mother were both from Cork. They came to Dublin at the end of the 1920s and stayed! Both of them were separately living in Drumcondra and met each other in Dublin. They married and lived in Drumcondra all their lives. We went to the local school in Drumcondra, St Pat’s, then went to the Christian Brothers just up the road in St Aidan’s CBS. So, Drumcondra was very much our life. My father was farm manager in All Hallows College, which was the seminary for the Vincentian Order and he worked there for 50 years – so we had a kind of charmed life of being able to live in a rural setting a few miles from O’Connell Street.
I played football in Drumcondra where we set up a football team. I was a big Drumcondra football supporter [and] played for Home Farm and played Gaelic with Whitehall Columcilles. So, everything was fairly local. And then I studied accountancy – went to Rathmines [College of Commerce] – and I worked in the Dublin District Milk Board.
NS: Could I ask you about Rathmines and your third-level experience. What were your abiding memories from your time there?
BA: It was mainly part-time in those days. My brothers and sisters, we were night-time students. My parents weren’t rich people and, in those days, very few of my class went full-time. Then I went on to work in the Mater Hospital. I got a job as an assistant accountant; then accountant; then cost accountant, so I was there for a number of years.
What led me into politics was being involved in the Workers Union of Ireland when I was working with The Milk Board. I was the student representative with the Milk Board Staff – not that I did a lot to be honest [laughs] but it was a good social scene!
What got me into politics – from hanging around with Labour guys who would have been involved in the Workers Union of Ireland – was the local Fianna Fáil Cumann, a very active Cumann. The Chairman of the Cumann lived only a few doors down from me. And then when I got married, I was living up the road in Artane. It was a new estate and I got involved in the residents’ association. So, I think the combination of sport, residents’ association, and being involved with the trade union led me into politics.
NS: And just on the topic of education, underfunding at third level is a big concern at the moment. How do you think Ireland can remain at the forefront of the knowledge economy given this backdrop?
BA: Well, I think there’s a number of points on that. When I was Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, I had a very close relationship with the Presidents and Provosts of the universities, and we were constantly trying to put more resources into it. We then did the PTRLI (Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions) where people like Chuck Feeney (Irish-American philanthropist) and others put substantial money into it. I think that was a huge part of our success in the 90s. We attracted the technology companies, the pharmacy companies and the medical supplies companies.
So, to answer your question, I think it’s absolutely fundamental to our economic success and development that we continue to put resources into third-level education – and into PhDs and fourth-level education too. Because if we’re not doing that, we will not be able to continue to attract the kind of industries that we want or sustain the ones that we have. I think it is a challenge, but if we want to stay with the kind of economy that can have 5 and 6 per cent growth, or more as we have had most years, that requires money in education. And it’s a big challenge but it’s necessary to do it.
NS: Moving on to politics then. Firstly, how have you been spending your time away from politics? What are the things you do and don’t miss?
BA: For the last few years, I’ve been very active in my role as Co-Chair of the InterAction Council. The InterAction Council is the oldest council of former Presidents and Prime Ministers. Bill Clinton is a member; Gordon Brown is a member. I took over from Jean Chrétien, the former Premier of Canada about two years ago. And what we do is, we keep in touch regularly, the subcommittees meet every quarter – there’s a plenary once a year. The associate members are mainly academics from all over the world, who like to give up their time and expertise working on papers. We did a huge paper on Ebola which is interesting given the current situation. We’ve done a major research policy on water in the world and nuclear disarmament. So, I’ve given a fair bit of my time to that, particularly when I’m Co-Chair.
I’ve also been involved with World Economic Forum in the area of conflict resolution. I spent about 4 years working on the area of bringing the Basque conflict to an end. Then I was involved in the Ukraine – which I still am – and also the Kurdish-Turkish [conflict]. I’ve worked on Papa New Guinea for the last 2 ½ years bringing the referendum through, now the Presidential election which will be in June, and they have a parliamentary election in September. Last year, I was there [in Papa New Guinea] 5 times. I’ve been back and forward right through 2018,’19 and ’20. Well, I’m not doing much flying at the moment – although I’m flying on Zoom and GoToMeeting [laughs]!
NS: And do you still keep in touch with any of your friends from politics such as Tony Blair and the likes?
BA: I keep very much in touch with my two buddies, Bill [Clinton] and Tony. I’m very close to the two of them. I’m lucky to be able to say all three of us are very close friends – and George Mitchell. The four of us have only been together once – for the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but we’re constantly talking to each other.
NS: Reflecting on your time in politics, what are the achievements you are most proud of? Presumably, the Good Friday Agreement features in there? And then, on the other side of the coin do you have any regrets from your political career?
BA: Yeah, I suppose to paint the negative first. It was a pity that we didn’t have the goldfish bowl to be able to see the financial crash in 2008. If we had of been able to see it a few years earlier, there are things that we would have done faster. Ultimately, it was a world crackdown but there were things we could have done if we’d seen it, like we could have put pressure on – not that we could control the Central Bank – to stop the loans going into property. And we could have got rid of tax incentives more quickly and tried to bring down the amount of construction quicker on the property. At that stage we were building 80,000 plus houses when it was being recommended that we needed about 45 or 50 thousand at most. We were bringing it [housebuilding] down but I think if we had foresaw what was going to happen, we would have kind of “crashed” it ourselves.
NS: And with that in mind do you think some of the criticism of Fianna Fáil and their policies at that time were fair?
BA: I think some of the comment was unreasonable, but I totally understand it. People lost a lot of money. To be honest, if it hadn’t have been for what happened in the United States, we would have had time to bring ourselves into order. But we didn’t get that time, and therefore some of the policy decisions that we made by having tax incentives and being too generous on the property cycle, that was our mistake – and that was fair criticism. What wasn’t fair was when they portrayed it that the whole thing was an Irish problem when in fact it happened nearly everywhere in the world.
NS: And on the positive side of your career?
BA: On the positive side, it was the whole involvement in the peace process. Not just the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement but what was even more interesting was the implementation of it because it’s one thing to negotiate something, but to be able to be around for the 10 years to implement it. The other thing I’m most proud of is that most of the big companies that we brought in here – the high-tech companies, the pharmacy companies – were from the time I was involved, and they are still here today. The day I took over as Chairman of the Cabinet Committee of Employment in 1987, there was 900,000 people working in Ireland. The day I left as Taoiseach, there was 2.25 million. I didn’t do that on my own of course [laughs], I’m not taking that one! But being involved and working to attract that kind of investment, it goes back to your earlier question – if we want to sustain what we have, [we must] keep on doing the things we’ve been doing for the last 30 years. And probably doing more of it! The whole Social Partnership agreement (1997-2008) which I negotiated was a major success.
[Editor’s Note: Bertie Ahern resigned as Taoiseach of Ireland in May 2008 following controversy arising from the Mahon Tribunal, a public inquiry established by Dáil Éireann in 1997 to investigate allegations of corrupt payments to politicians regarding political decisions.]
IRISH POLITICS TODAY
NS: Sticking with politics then. What’s your assessment of the current political situation and the decline in support for the traditional big 2 parties?
BA: I think the last 10 years has moved away from the 2 ½ parties. If you look back from 1932 on, Fianna Fáil were on 43/44 per cent, Fine Gael were on 30 something per cent and the Labour Party were ranging between 9 and 15 per cent – and there was about 10 for everybody else [laughs]! Those days are gone. So, now it’s a different ball game. Now there’s four groupings: there’s Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, and the Independents- and Labour are really just a small part of that.
Personally, I’d just like to see a Government formed – it looks like Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens. I’d like to see the rural independents involved there too because my feeling is that a big part of the dissatisfaction of Irish people over the last number of years – the last decade in particular, maybe more – is the urban/rural [divide] of society. Western Seaboard; agriculture; and fisheries, I think they need to be in the mix as well, particularly in the next five years as we try to handle COVID-19. It’s not just the pandemic. The secondary issue that I think is huge now is the move away from globalisation and moving towards people doing their own thing nationally. So, I think we need a Government that can represent all sectors. I think obviously the green agenda is big, but so is the rural one, so I’d like to see that four together [Fianna Fáíl, Fine Gael, Greens and Rural Independents].
NS: Micheál Martin has emphasised the need to form a stable Government and is willing to work with Fine Gael to do so. He rules out Sinn Féin, however. Would you adopt a similar approach if you were in the same situation?
BA: I have said for the last decade that it was almost going to be inevitable that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were going to end up somewhere along together. And really with the confidence and supply deal, they were working closer and closer together, and the electorate looked at it that way as well. Both of them had clearly ruled out Sinn Féin for the last seven or eight years so I think it was inevitable they were going to end up together. I think probably what both of them thought was that between the two of them, they would have fairly well near the total numbers [for a majority]. The surprise of the election was that they didn’t.
Leo Varadkar in fairness the other day admitted openly that he was sorry that Labour weren’t coming into the Government. And I think Micheál Martin has said previously that he was sorry the Social Democrats weren’t coming into Government. So, I think they clearly would have liked Labour and the Social Democrats. But I have to say that I worked with Eamon Ryan in Government before. He’s a fine guy, very honourable guy, so I don’t see a problem. But I do think that independent group – there’s some very, very good people in that independent group who understand rural Ireland and are not irresponsible people by any means.
NS: You talk about rural Ireland there. But, looking at the last 3 elections, it seems where Fianna Fáil are falling down is in the capital. So, with that in mind are you optimistic for Fianna Fáil going forward?
BA: I think they have a big challenge. Funny enough, you don’t have to go back that far, say, 18 years which I suppose is a long time ago. But 18 years ago, in Dublin, we were dominant, and Labour were quite strong in Dublin. Only a few independents [were there], Tony Gregory in my own constituency. Now it’s so different. Now Sinn Féin are massive, there’s no other word to describe it. Whether it’s out in North County Dublin or West Dublin or Dublin City. They almost won a seat in the Rathdown constituency. You never would’ve thought that. So, they’re strong everywhere. And okay most of the independents are only there because the Sinn Féin transfers went back to them. Labour are weak, Fine Gael are weak, and Fianna Fáil are very weak in the city.
NS: I want to ask you about the shift away from globalisation and multilateralism. Are you unnerved for the future of the European project and how do you think we can bind the Member States more closely together without moving towards federalism?
BA: I think it’s a big challenge. Europe is going to have to work very hard through this decade of the 2020s to remain relevant and to sustain its place and to keep Member States together. I’m pro-Europe, so I want to see that happen. But it’s not going to be easy. You see it with the Italians for example. It’s only one example, but the Italians I think a decade ago, 9% of them were anti-Europe. I saw figures during the week that showed 44% are opposed. And in Spain, there are problems too. And we see the problems in Germany with their own courts going against them on the money they were putting into the bonds issue. So, I think there are big challenges and the leadership in Europe will have to work very hard.
It’s a dilemma because they [the EU] have China on one side of them who are doing their own thing and they have America which is going totally against globalisation, so it’s challenging and it’s difficult. I hope they can get it right, but I do not think it’s going to be easy. I think there’ll be more challenges for the Euro; I think there’ll be more challenges on migration. Angela Merkel going won’t help because she’s been a great bastion of cohesion for the last 15 years now. And of course, the UK being out doesn’t help the European Union – not to mind us. They’ll be paddling their own canoe; they’ll will get more independent; they’ll be trying to undermine and undercut everybody.
NS: On that point, what do you think of Boris Johnson? A very different character to Tony Blair. How do you think you would have worked with him?
BA: I think Boris is a clever guy; he’s a good strategist. He moved himself into Mayor of London when he knew that would give him world profile, and it did. Then he moved himself into Theresa May’s Government. He got out at a time where it looked like the wrong time, but [it turned out] it was the right time for him. He could’ve gone either way on the European project. And now – by and large – he now has a decade. Barring an absolute catastrophe from him, he will get this whole decade of the 2020s. But he’s not going to find it as easy as he thinks. I do think Labour will revive itself; I think they’ve picked a really good leader. I think – and I might be wrong on this – but I think a few years down the road Boris will see that he will be far better being closer to Europe than what he’s presently saying. But I don’t think that will happen for a few years. He will watch to see if Europe can get themselves together and be cohesive. And that’s why I think now until 2024 is going to be a very interesting period in European politics.
NS: And on the whole Brexit issue then. What sort of solution would you ideally like to see implemented in relation to Northern Ireland and the border?
BA: I think the Northern Ireland protocol, as negotiated, is fine. Now we have to see if it is implemented. Michel Barnier understands Ireland, North and South, very well. So, we’re lucky that he’s there. I think Northern Ireland – and I hope the politicians up there see it this way, and I think they do now – can have the best of both worlds. They can have a very good trading relationship with us. They can have a very good trading relationship with the UK. They have a really good opportunity to be the three-card-trick: working with us, working with the UK, and working with Europe. I think that can work for them and work for them very well.
They have the flexibility in the agreement. As you know, I follow the Brexit debate very closely and they do have the flexibility now to trade and operate in a way that gives them maximum room. The danger side from their side is that they will be boxed too closely to the UK. And if that happens to them, I think they will lose a lot. They should be very anxious to see the Northern Ireland protocol and this flexibility implemented and not get themselves sucked into just a UK solution.
NS: Moving away from politics, I’d like to know what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received. And if you were giving advice to the young people of Ireland at third-level what would it be?
BA: The best bit of advice I ever got was when I started, I think I was doing a summer job. I had a great interest in accountancy even at that stage. I was lucky enough to get talking to the accountant in the firm, a fella called Pat Murphy, and he said to me that the effort you put in to your studies, into your work ethic, into your concentration, it will determine the kind of life that you have. It will determine the friends you have, the family you’ll have, your house. He said if you don’t do the work in the early years those things will all work against you. And I always remember that. I remember it today as clear as then, 50 years ago.
I’d say the same myself. I’m a believer that you get out of things what you put into them, and you have to put in the hours. I remember we had a lecturer in Rathmines once who use to say that for every hour of study, the assiduous student will do two hours of swotting. I do think you have to put in the effort and commitment. It’s worth doing it in your early years. It’s worth doing it in your college years and it will bear rewards for you afterwards. Although it’s not easily done [laughs]!
NS: You’re a big Man United and Dublin fan. Both have enjoyed differing fortunes recently. What’s been your assessment, and do you get to watch much of them?
BA: I do [get to watch them]. I watch both. Although, now I’m watching old matches [laughs]! I’m a keen United fan. The huge mistake I think was Alex and David Gill leaving [at the same time]. I know both of them and have been lucky enough to have met them a lot. That was a crazy mistake because it took the management and the heart out of United. Then they had to go around in circles with Van Gaal and all the rest for a few years.
NS: And would you keep Ole?
BA: I would now. I think they have to rebuild and the keep changing thing hasn’t worked for them. I think they were wrong to let Moyes go. They gave Moyes a contract for 6 years and they didn’t give him 10 months. The mistakes in my view were made in the boardroom. They need to get stability.
On the other side, with Dublin. Dublin have been lucky with Costello [John Costello, Dublin GAA CEO] at the helm and Pat Gilroy, Tommy Lyons, Pillar Caffrey. They’ve had good managers; all have played a part in pulling it together and they’ve followed more or less the same system. And then of course we were lucky enough to have an outstanding manager in Jim Gavin, but we’ve another good one now – Dessie is a good guy. You can’t expect Dublin to stay at the top. Watching some of the old matches, a lot of the guys from 2011 are still around and we’ve got some new guys, but the backbone of that team are pushing on and it will be hard to keep rejuvenating themselves. It’s been a dream period to be a Dubs supporter.
Neil Stokes – Reporter