Back in the Summer, Bertie Ahern sat down with students Barry Lenihan (left) and Seamus Conwell, from DCUfm, for a 40 minute interview, which was aired for the first time last night and reported in today’s Irish Times. Here are some of the jaw-dropping highlights:
Ray Burke’s appointment
“The problem was, we dwelt on that big time because Ray was highly competent, and he was one of Fianna Fail’s best performers in opposition between 95‐97 and, of course, there was the stories around, was he involved with any of this stuff or was there the danger of it and we took all the usual precautions. We actually went to the commissioner of the Gardai, had a meeting here with him, Pat Byrne, we confronted Ray, I confronted Ray, I spoke with Ray and others spoke with Ray and Ray assured us that there was nothing that would come back to us. And then I still was hesitating on whether to put him in, he was the last of my appointments to that Cabinet, in Dublin Castle that morning. I still hadn’t appointed him. But in the absence of finding anything or finding any hard evidence, it would have been unfair not to give him the opportunity [to become Minister]. But of course as soon as we appointed him they all came at him and Ray said, ‘to hell with it, I’m going’.”
The Flood/Mahon Tribunal
“Well I think when we set it up, we had to set it up because there were things that were necessary to examine, but to think that when we set it up it would be 14 years later and still fluterin’ around with it having spent hundreds of millions, we certainly didn’t think that. I suppose the mistake that was made, when you set up a tribunal, it’s very hard to put a final date on it but it is crazy that when you set something up and 14 years later it is still ticking along. And I have said many times on the record that the tribunals act should be totally amended. Its not sustainable that you can set up a structure that goes on for 14 years, its a nonsense.”
The State’s finances
“People say now that we shouldn’t have been spending so much, my answer to them who say if we didn’t spend so much and if we had saved money we wouldn’t have had the banking crisis, well that’s nonsense, because the demands were there all the time, particularly in health and education.
We spent billions more than others. When I took over as Taoiseach, we were spending €4 billion in health, when I left we were spending €16 billion, which was a huge increase. But was everybody happy with the health service, was everybody going around saying thank you Bertie the health service is perfect? No they weren’t. Same with education. Now what we were able to do, every university was a building site during our years, we were building and building and building. We were getting in the capital investment all the time so that was good but there were still huge demands not only in health and education but in other areas aswell.”
Would you have done things differently economically?
“Not a lot, not a lot because even if you had foreseen the banking crisis, which nobody did, you would have said well we need to save a bit more money, so you would have said we have a surplus, let’s not spend the surplus, let’s keep it. We had already brought the debt ratio down to about 20% and we had the pensions money saved so we were in a very good position, but if you had said, well we will save more, then you wouldn’t have been able to build the roads, you wouldn’t have been able to build the Dublin-Belfast, Dublin‐Cork We wouldn’t have had enough of money, we wouldn’t have been able to save enough of money to solve the banking crisis.
There is a view sometimes put forward by the economists that if we had not spent that money and saved all that money we then would have had this big nest egg to deal with the banking crisis. The banking crisis was about €100 billion, we wouldn’t have had €20 billion to deal with it so I think we were right to spend the money.”
But people still blame you
“Of course they do, I think its totally wrong not to mind unfair because they take the view that if we didn’t spend money on all the things we spent then we could have saved that money and then when the banking crisis came along we would have the money [to solve it] but that doesn’t add up. We wouldn’t have that much money, we might have had €20 billion. They put it forward almost as if we had a bigger surplus
That was a mistake. That was the PDs responding to the Dirt Tribunal. Now it was the populist thing with the media at the time. And I understand the argument, the media were saying that the banks are not treating the consumer fairly and the banks are overcharging people. The Dirt Tribunal, which was a good Tribunal, wasn’t really a Tribunal at all more like a Dail committee. The whole idea of it was the consumer was not getting their voice heard in the Central Bank, that the Central Bank was dealing with bankers and had no interest in the consumer. And the consumer had been proven in the Dirt Tribunal was been done.
And the view was that you needed a new body to protect the interests of the consumer and that was the regulator. I was always iffy about it as I said at time, but the PDs, McDowell had been chairman of the committee set up and Mary Harney felt that we needed to do this and we did it. I am not saying it would have solved the problem [not setting it up] but it certainly would have helped. The dividing of the central bank was a big mistake in my view and it is now corrected, when I came out in 2008 and said it Brian Lenihan reversed it. I think the whole regulation thing was hopeless.”
Department of Finance warnings
“They gave us a whole lot of warnings. In fairness, the Department of Finance give you warnings about everything. They’re like economists, it’s on the one hand it’s on the other hand. I have read back a lot of these reports. Now, they were warning on the property issue, but when we were building 40,000 houses they were warning that we should only have been building 20,000. When we were building 30,000 they were saying build 25,000, when we were building 50,000 we should only have been building 40,000.”
You took the warnings with a pinch of salt?
“Yeah we did. We ended up building half a million houses. I mean if we didn’t build half a million houses people would have ended up living on the side of the bloody street and the Department of Finance would still be saying don’t build houses.
I think the problem with the empty houses, if you take Dublin now, we are down now to about 10,000 houses and we need 15 thousand -‐ another year should sort it out. Except some of the apartments that are built in bad places, like some of the rural places, apartments were built in crazy places. But by and large, the unfinished places, they are the problems, not the ones that were built in 2008. I had a fella in here and in the southside he has 1400 apartments, and a Scottish bank has given them approval to finish 400 now and 400 in the Autumn and 400 in the spring. So you are getting to a stage where a lot of what was being built is now being used up. But the main reason a lot of these aren’t being filled is that they would be if the people had the money, but the banks have no money, y’know? Hehe.”
Why are you not In The Presidential Race?
“Probably the same reason as I thought Albert [Reynolds] wasn’t in the race the last time, I wouldn’t get elected, y’know, I mean Albert wanted to stay in the race even though he wasn’t going to be elected, I have no interest in being the race if I wasn’t going to be elected.”
Would you have considered it if your popularity hadn’t gone South?
“Well I think if the party popularity didn’t go South, I mean I still would have done alright. I mean they have done some figures, I would probably sit in around 30 per cent, which you haven’t a hope with as the party is on 20 per cent. If it was the other way around, if you were on 30 per cent and the party was on 40 per cent, you would be hoping the party would pull you in but there’s no hope that I could win.”
In seven years time will you reconsider your position?
‘In seven years time will you be alive, hehe. And normally what happens in this country if the President does a good job, they stay on, so that’s 14 years and that ends any chance I have.
The 2007 General Election
“2007 was tough. For two reasons, first of all I was in the heat of the storms of the Tribunal, but apart from that, 3-in-a-row seemed almost impossible, I mean no-one had got a third term in almost 60 years. And for most of the campaign it was against us. But I think we got on top.
Vincent Browne did a favour for me, Vincent Browne ranting on was a plus for me. Because I think people around the country were like, ‘who does that guy think he is?’. The debate was the turning point. During the election you do field work everyday, and we did fieldwork on the day of the debate, but the following day we did the fieldwork and there was a 6 per cent swing in the 24 hours. The debate was the turning point, it was only a week to go and I think we only lost 1 per cent of the six per cent that we gained. But up until that it had been pretty even Stevens.”
“From then on it was just non stop Tribunal stuff for a year for me. I intended staying until the locals [local elections], for me when it became that everything we were doing, when the lads went out all they were doing was being asked questions about me. And the media just stopped following the economy, there should be an investigation into it, they should have been following the economy from August 2007 but they weren’t, they were following me. I think a lot of these guys really should have looked at themselves.The government were following the economy but the media weren’t, it was a very poor job by the media really. They were shown to be incompetent and that was the trouble – everything was on me so I said to myself, ‘this is ridiculous’.”
Public and private lives blurred
“I don’t think people cared a damn about the Celia Larkin relationship, that was common knowledge going back to when I was Minister for Finance but I think the Tribunal became the issue. I remember one day I was at Tribunal and there was 80 journalists all fluterin’ around, and then I went back to do a thing with the Central Bank – the national treasury and there was four journalists. And I said to myself this is just crazy. They weren’t following the story. We were all making speeches on the danger of liquidity and it only made paqe 19 the following morning. I mean I have had this debate with Geraldine Kennedy and others, and they just admitted that they weren’t following the story.”
Announcing his resignation
“Once I made up my mind that this was what I was going to do, which I did a few days earlier, then it was ok, it was an easy speech to make, but making up your mind is….because most of my colleagues, I only discussed it with the key people, but most of my colleagues wanted me to go on and keep fighting and arguing but my view was you fight on, you win this week and you’re back then next week- it just goes on like a long playing record.
At least I had my own decision. I mean I could have fought on but what was the point. In fact as the Tribunal report is only out now I could have fought on until now but I only wanted to go until 2009, I had already said to Brian Cowen I was going in 2009.”
Got out while the going was good?
“Well, to be honest if I knew it was going to turn down so quick I definitely would have stayed. As what would have happened then is the focus would have definitely shifted back to the economy and you could have peacefully got on with your work. The nuisance for me was that I couldn’t get on with the work because they wouldn’t let me get on with the work. If I had waited until after Lehman’s had came down, nobody would have bothered with the tribunal all would have went on to the financial crisis.
I would have stayed on because that would have been exciting and interesting and nice. The whole thing about politics is that you’re in for tough times and tough decisions and I would have liked that kind of a challenge. What I didn’t like was just being plastered with personal stuff everyday.”
Mahon Tribunal findings
“The only thing that is important to me is the central allegation that has been made against me, well there is four – did I interfere with the designation of Blanchardstown/Quarryvale? That’s number one. Number Two, did I interfere with the planning of Blanchardstown/Quarryvale. Number Three, did I take money from [Owen] O’Callaghan? Number four – did I take money from any of the six companies named? They are the only issues that matter, and the answer to the four of those, as far as I am concerned is no. What the tribunals say about all the other trash is irrelevant, not interested, that’s all irrelevant. It’s the answers to those four questions is the important things.”
“Well I think its always a mixture in politics. I mean the big things, when I go around the country now, and even outside the country, you’re remembered about Northern Ireland, you’re remembered about the infrastructure, of course the economy is always a factor, an economy is always up and down, we brought it up, I always claim that if people blame us for bringing down the economy they also have to blame us for bringing it up. When I was made Minister responsible for employment, unemployment was 20 per cent, then it was 4 per cent. You get the credit for that way you have to bring it the other way.
“It’s always the danger when the party is in government for a long time that they get stuck with being involved with the business community and everything else. But when I was taoiseach, I was always being blamed that I was too close to the trade unions. The accusation against me was that I was too close to Raglan Road and I sue to be berated by papers like the [Sunday] Business Post. But I do think the party has to stay close, as we have always done in this constituency, to the local, to the issues, to the cumainn and to the people. You have do that as best you can. I think too many members of the party got too god damn lazy. They were all doing too well and they weren’t prepared to get out and do the slog.
I heard a lot of the TDs in the last general election. They said they were absolutely astonished and astounded when they went out and found out how angry people were. Well, if you were out every week you’d know. Hehe, and I think that’s what they should be doing. We always went out in this constituency. I think you have to be out there mixing. There will always be good and bad days. I mean there were great elections, ’97, ’02, ’07, and there do be hard elections but I think politicians should be out there.
I would have won a seat in this election but I had no interest in running. We had done the, done the… I mean…in fairness, my constituency colleagues in this election, both Mary Fitzpatrick and Cyprian, they probably wouldn’t have stood if I had ran. I wouldn’t have topped the poll this time. It was going to be a tough thing. But I had said I would pack up in 2009, 34 years was enough.”
The News of The World ad
“Ah I think it was drummed up a bit, I mean I had done the ad for the charity, for the Spar, and that had run for four months with me and Louis Walsh, remember that two car two thing, the difference was that was for charity. The News of the World thing, they thought we were being paid for it, now I wasn’t paid for it, I got paid for doing the column. And I didn’t put any thought into it. I mean it was kind of a stupid idea. Everybody kinda goes mad about it. It was drummed up by a handful of people.”
“Ah he is doing alright. I think they have got a reasonably good start. I mean from the country’s point of view I think it is important they get things right. He is steady-as-it-goes. I mean he is doing OK. As time goes on you will get the belts. They made a mess of Roscommon…but there are big issues and small issues and Roscommon isn’t a big issue really.”
“There is always regrets, I mean you would have loved to see if the economy could have ticked on even moderately. It’s a pity that the banking crisis and the construction crisis came together. I always believed that the construction issue was manageable. We were on 90,000 houses, we could have come back to 75,000, it was predicted that we were going to come back to 50,000 the following year, and then the Department of Finance said around 40,000….so we would have come back to that. We would have lost tax revenue on that and it would have created some difficulties but it was manageable. What wasn’t manageable was getting the banking crisis at the same time. That crucified us. And it would have been lovely if we could have managed to avoid having the two at the one time.”
Would you have done any better than Cowen?
“I could have done on the construction crisis, I mean if we ever thought that the banking crisis and the construction crisis were going to come together then we could have slowed up the construction thing far quicker but to be honest we couldn’t have done anything about the banking crisis. Even if we knew the banking crisis was coming I don’t think we could have done anything.”
The Bertie Bowl
“The funny about about the Bertie Bowl, I didn’t get the one stadium where we wanted but we gave €191 million to Landsowne and €150 million to Croke Park. And it was funny; once we decided not to do the Bertie Bowl everyone was delighted to give me the €191 million to do Lansdowne. And the remainder of the money we gave to Thomond.
I still think its a pity that we didn’t get a national stadium but in present circumstances, I mean most stadiums in the world have a proper national stadium, we don’t have any national stadium, we have a gaelic football stadium that is brilliant and we have a rugby stadium but we still don’t have a national stadium. But some of the services they are building up in Abbotstown, the research and science, are good.”
“I have a few of them. Hah hah. I had them last winter in the snow and the cold, I was back in me anoraks. Very funny with me friends, I said Jesus at least I don’t have to go around freezing anymore, I’m back in the anoraks.”
Listen to full interview here
Thanks Cian MacMahon