I met Bertie Ahern once. I was introduced to him by a friend in Fianna Fail during the 2002 general election, and you know what? I liked him. He was friendly, charming, and when I introduced him to my German friend who was with me, he started talking to her about Chancellor Schroeder. She was very impressed with him, primarily because she had never met any German politician, and was amazed how at ease he was with not just one of his own voters, but a foreigner. I’m telling you all this because in the current climate it is very easy to forget just how popular Bertie was for the great majority of his time as Taoiseach. What’s more, he was popular not because he was some sort of trickster, but because he was giving the majority of voters exactly what they wanted, low taxes and high spending. In 1997 and 2002 I gave FF my second and third preferences, something I’d never ever done before (or since) because I wanted him as Taoiseach, as did hundreds of thousands others. Hundreds of thousands! Why was that? Because Bertie was able to appeal to me by being seen to be economically competent AND socially moderate. We forget that under Bertie, for the first time voting FF was not automatically voting for whatever the Catholic Hierarchy decreed, opposing them during the Divorce referendum when he was in opposition, the first FF leader to ever really do so.
Does that excuse all that Mahon has condemned him with? Of course not. Nor should it be forgotten that the seeds of economic disaster were sewn during the wilful Don’t Ask Don’t Tell approach of his towards the property bubble and reckless lending. He claims that nobody told him of the problems. I’m sorry, but a head of government paid more than the President of the United States should have asked. We all knew there was something funny with the soaring lending and building numbers, but only one of us was paid a King’s Ransom to worry about it every day, and he didn’t.
It is true that taking the necessary action to carefully deflate the property and lending bubble after 2002 would have been unpopular, but that’s the thing. That’s where he really let us down. See, his weird finances, whatever the truth really is about them, do not effect the day to day lives of many of us. But his unwillingness in office to be unpopular, to scrap the section 23 tax breaks for building and to order the banks to up their liquidity ratios and stop giving 100% mortgages, that’s what is killing us all now, and that’s what we will struggle to forgive him for.