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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
The Life of Bert

9 things we learned from Bertie at the banking inquiry

The former taoiseach spent several hours before the inquiry today. Here’s what we found out…

bertie fours Oireachtas The many faces of Bertie Ahern today Oireachtas

FORMER TAOISEACH BERTIE Ahern made his highly-anticipated appearance before the banking inquiry this afternoon.

Giving his first detailed remarks on the financial crisis, Ahern focussed on his time as taoiseach from 1997 to 2008 and faced questions about his economic policies, relationship with property developers and the housing bubble among many other things.

It was a classic Ahern performance littered with his famous ‘Bertiespeak’ and one or two sly digs at the opposition as if he were still in the Dáil chamber.

Here’s what we learned from his lengthy session before the committee:

1. He’s sorry

Towards the end of a lengthy and fact-laden opening statement, Ahern did what most other witnesses have done: he apologised for the mistakes he made, stating:

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Of course, I apologise for my mistakes, but I am also pleased that I did get a lot of things right.

It was classic Bertie, giving some ground but not a lot.

He said that he had tried to do the right thing by the Irish people and made reference to the better trains, schools and hospitals, with more staff in better buildings as a result of his government’s spending.

2. But it wasn’t all his fault 

Ahern very clearly abdicated responsibility when it came to the actions of the Central Bank and the financial regulator. He said “you just believed” that they were on top of the issues within Irish banks. Of the regulator – whom he had never met – he said:

I am damned if I am going to take responsibility for something that wasn’t [my responsibility].

He repeatedly pointed to the economy having been over-reliant on the property sector in terms of taxation, saying he only realised this in 2009 – after the crash.

“If hindsight was foresight, I’d be a billionaire – and so would you, deputy,” he told Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy at one stage.

3. It was okay when he left

Ahern was asked directly if he believed that the fundamentals of the Irish economy were sound when he stood down to allow Brian Cowen become Taoiseach in May 2008. His response was simple: “Definitely.”

He paid tribute to the work of Cowen and the late former finance minister Brian Lenihan, saying “they did their best in the circumstances”.

But he did remark at one stage that he had known former ECB chief Jean-Claude Juncker since the early 1990s when he was minister for finance and suggested he could have “put a bit of a lean on him”.

4. His book came in handy 

There was an awkward moment right at the start of questioning from Pearse Doherty when the Sinn Féin TD asked why some of Ahern’s opening statement was word for word the same as passages of his autobiography.

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Slightly taken aback, Ahern said his views hadn’t changed since then. Some three pages of his opening statement were verbatim from his book, we understand.

5. On property developers

Doherty probed the area of Fianna Fáil’s relationship with property developers. Ahern insisted that Fianna Fáil attempted to interact with as many sectors as possible but said he did not believe he was too close to developers:

I don’t believe that I personally had much interaction with property developers. I did deal a considerable amount with the CIF (Construction Industry Federation).

bertie wide

6. The Galway Tent was “a bit of craic” 

Ahern robustly defended the infamous Fianna Fáil fundraiser at the Galway Races. He said his successors were wrong to “run away” from the Galway Tent. Under questioning from Susan O’Keeffe, he half-joked that the tent provided cover from the rain.

Describing it as “a bit of craic”, Ahern also noted that some people met their future wives there, had a bit of fun and would “get a bit of food”. He claimed that he never had any conversations about business or policy with developers or anyone else in the tent.

7. He had a few sly digs 

bertie pearse

Ahern was not nearly as robust or truculent as Brian Cowen was, but he had some classic digs at the opposition. In Pearse Doherty’s case he noted the Sinn Féin deputy “seemed to have a bit of an obsession with Fianna Fáil tents”.

At one point he claimed Doherty had asked him 10 questions. “Mr Ahern, I only asked you one question,” the Donegal deputy shot back.

8. Smug Bertie 

Under questioning from Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy, Ahern was asked whether elections influenced budgetary decisions, Ahern effectively said it had no impact in 2002.

I hadn’t that much competition in 2002 so I wasn’t that worried about whether I’d be elected Taoiseach or not.

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He later remarked on how he can still hear the opposition at the time calling for more spending on “this, that and the other”.

If I’d listened to the opposition I would have spent three times more.

9. He would have carried on

Asked by his former Fianna Fáil colleague Michael McGrath if the Mahon Tribunal distracted him while he was Taoiseach, Ahern insisted he largely ignored the issue at the time.

He said he stepped down because the revelations emerging from it were becoming a distraction for his cabinet colleagues. He added:

I would have stayed on. Not like some former leaders until they were 80, but I certainly would have stayed on for another 18 months.

Bertie: If hindsight was foresight, I’d be a billionaire

Read: What’s Bertie been up to?

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