It’s two o’clock on a blustery afternoon in early March and I’ve just been shootin’ the shit with An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. We’re in his constituency office, St. Lukes, on the Lower Drumcondra Road. In a few moments, the Mercedes outside will whisk him off to a meeting of the British-Irish Inter Parliamentary Body, where he’ll deliver an address on prospects for power-sharing in the North. For my part, I’ll be taking the 16A back to town, where I’ll have to decide whether birthdays or Coco Pops top this month’s What’s Hot list. Before we go our separate ways though, I offer him two copies of Mongrel for his commute.
“This one, I’ve seen already” he says, discarding a copy of the February issue. Then his eyes light up. “But this one I haven’t seen.” He flicks through our hot-off-the-presses March issue. He’s probably just been briefed on the magazine by his press people, but it’s still a rather surreal moment. There’s an awkward silence – I’ve been given the signal not to ask any more questions, so the Taoiseach just freestyles for a bit. “The big thing now is to try and keep the economy strong, to keep employment up. It’s by doing that, and delivering for young people, that you hope you do get the knock on. Okay?” Yeah, far out.
Patrick Bartholomew Ahern has been Taoiseach now for ten years. And, with the bookies offering 1/3 on him to lead the next government, he looks likely to remain in office for another four. Ahern has presided over an era of extraordinary change in Ireland. Since 1997, the number of people in work here has risen by an astonishing 54% – from 1.38m to 2.12m. As a result, ours was the first generation since the famine which wasn’t forced to seek employment abroad. Foreign migrants meanwhile, almost unheard of here a decade ago, now make up over 10% of our workforce. And in the North, where the Provisional IRA was still officially at war when Ahern came to power, Sinn Fein will soon share power with Ian Paisley.
How much of the credit Mr Ahern deserves in all of this is a matter for debate. Certainly, the foundations for his major successes were laid by previous governments. External factors too played a large role. But even his harshest critics cannot deny that he has offered a steady hand in government at a time of unprecedented change. Then, in September 2006, came the scandal that almost toppled him. The Taoiseach still insists that he did nothing wrong in accepting a €50,000 “dig out” from wealthy businessmen when he was Minister for Finance in 1994. And the gut feeling of most observers is that Mr Ahern is not personally crooked.
But considering the endemic corruption that has plagued this country for so long (much of it within the Taoiseach’s own party); and considering the widespread cynicism that is turning young people away from politics like never before; shouldn’t even the appearance of impropriety have been enough to prompt his resignation? Every day commuters on the Luas in Dublin pass posters that warn: “Wrong ticket, Wrong zone, Wrong direction, Wrong ID – No Excuses. Pay The Fine.” Is it not strange that we demand higher standards from the users of public transport than we do from the holders of public office?
I decided to ask the man himself.
“I don’t want to get back into the events of last September. But what I will say is that they were definitely not a highlight of the past year for me. One thing that stands out though is the amount of understanding and support I received from people all around the country at that time. People are fundamentally good-natured. They do not take pleasure in other people’s difficulties. Most people like me have at some stage made an error of judgment along the way. It meant a lot to me to know that people were prepared to accept that I am a person of integrity and that I am genuinely trying my very best.”
For the record, I haven’t asked the Taoiseach how he coped with the personal scrutiny he found himself under last year. Nor have I asked him what the reaction since from people around the country has been since then. What I’ve actually asked is what effect (if any) he thinks the payments controversy has had on young people’s attitudes towards politics in this country. If his reply seems evasive then, listen, you don’t know the half of it.
Organising this interview is a torturous process. Our first approach to Mr Ahern’s office is made in October 2006 and there follows a steady stream of phone calls back and forth. When eventually it is confirmed, in early 2007, that it’ll be going ahead, it seems as if the groundwork is finally complete. Far from it. A succession of pre-conditions slowly trickle out. The first is that I will submit all of my questions in writing in advance. Although not ideal, this at least sounds reasonable, since the Taoiseach might wish to be briefed on something that I’m going to raise. So I agree. The questions I submit, however, are not strictly identical to the ones I’ll be asking on the day.
There are two good reasons for this. The first is that a date for the interview hasn’t been set yet, and if my tone is perceived to be antagonistic then the process may well be strung out indefinitely. The other is that I intend to pitch some curveball questions in the interview. I intend to ask, for example, why a recreational drug user should accept his or her portion of the blame for the recent upsurge in gangland violence, when Mr Ahern’s government will accept no portion of the blame for the Iraqi invasion and its bloody aftermath. (The Irish government helped facilitate the invasion and occupation of Iraq by allowing the US military use of Shannon Airport, against the expressed wishes of the Irish people). I’d rather not get a rehearsed answer.
The questions I submit cover much the same territory as the questions I really intend to ask. But they’re watered-down and boring. They’re Lazenby to the real questions’ Connery; Buble to their questions’ Sinatra; squidgy to their Pakistani Super Skunk. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach’s press people don’t just have my number. They’ve got my library card and dental records.
“Politics is lived in the public eye and under public scrutiny. That is how it should be. Being in politics is about doing the people’s business and there must be accountability. I think that transparency and accountability in politics has hugely increased over the past decade. That too is how it should be. Nobody is conscripted into politics and nobody who has a problem accounting for their actions should come into politics. Public life is just that, public.”
The date for our meeting is finally set, but there’s a kicker. The Taoiseach will not be able to schedule as much time with me as had originally been hoped. Consequently, (I’m told) he’ll now be replying in writing to the questions that I’ve submitted. In other words, he’ll be answering the lame, watered-down questions I emailed his office. And it won’t necessarily be him that answers them; it’ll more likely be one of his press officers. He’ll just sign off on them. Not to worry, I’m assured. There’ll still be plenty of time in the shortened interview to pick him up on anything I need clarification on.
Let me give you an idea of how this works out. One of my written questions for the Taoiseach asks, if the US is a friendly nation, and if we believe the assurances they’ve given us about the rendition of terror suspects, why do we think they’d object to us carrying out aircraft inspections in Shannon? The written response:
“Ireland has consistently made clear its complete opposition to the practice of extraordinary rendition, which is illegal under our law. Ireland was one of only two countries in the EU whose Minister for Foreign Affairs agreed to attend a meeting of the European Parliament’s Temporary Committee investigating extraordinary rendition. The Government have a number of serious criticisms of the final report of that Committee, but we welcome the finding, implicit in the Report, that prisoners were not transferred through Irish airports…”
It’s like interviewing the speaking clock!
Even the assurance that I’ll be able quiz the Taoiseach on these answers in person turns out to be false. I don’t receive the transcript until seconds before the interview commences, so there isn’t time to read it. And, when I arrive at St. Luke’s, it’s suddenly not being referred to as an interview anymore. They’re calling it a conversation. I’m not quite sure what the distinction is. But whenever the Taoiseach’s press guy doesn’t like one of my questions, he pulls me aside and reminds me that its just a conversation. “It’s a getting-to-know-you session” he says. “If this goes well we can do something else down the line.” Don’t hold your breath, mate.
“Howye lads? Howye keepin’?” The Taoiseach, in person, is exactly as you’d imagine. Albeit, he’s wearing rather a lot of make-up for the leader of a centre-right political party. He’s affable and asks lots of questions about the magazine. He’s also extremely compliant when it comes to posing for photographs. (“We shoulda asked him to stand on his head” I whisper on the way out.) After a bit of GAA-related banter, I go for the scoop. When are the elections going to be? “A few more months now. We’ve a very busy period up till Easter with the North. So we won’t really get into election mode until after Easter.” I mention that I haven’t decided who to vote for yet. What does he advise?
“There are two big issues for us with young people. The first would be education. We put an enormous commitment into education.” He talks about the Science & Technology Innovation Plan which he says is all about creating new opportunities for young people. Then he talks about jobs. “We have created 700,000 jobs in our period in government. The thing now is to sustain what we’ve achieved and to develop it further.” I try to draw him on the subject of apathy among younger voters but he repeats the same answer, this time with references to sports facilities and Ogra Fianna Fail thrown in for good measure.
After further interventions from his PR, I’m reduced to asking which, of all the dozens upon dozen of world leaders he’s pictured with here, was his favourite. I’ll be asking what his favourite colour is next. “Clinton” he shoots back immediately. “Clinton was definitely my favourite by a long shot. Tony Blair is a good friend. I’ve worked with him a lot. But Clinton is just so charismatic, a great guy to be with. He still keeps in touch with me.” And what of the current American president? “Well, I wouldn’t have had anything like the same involvement with him. And obviously some of his policies would not be ones that we’d support. But, as a person, he’s a very nice guy.” Bush’s photo includes an inscription from the president thanking the Taoiseach for all his support. In my best Louis Theroux, I ask Mr Ahern what he thinks that refers to. “No, I think that’s just… He’s thanking me for… Usually they just send you a photograph after Paddy’s Day, when we do the shamrocks thing.”
He’s thanking you for the shamrocks? “Okay lads, thanks for coming”. Mr Ahern stands up and brings what has been a profoundly unsatisfactory encounter to an abrupt end. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not deluded enough to believe that the he really owed us anything. Mongrel’s readership doesn’t wield that much electoral clout that he’s obliged to placate us. But looking up at the photographs of all the powerful leaders he’s gone one-on-one with down the years, and then down at the embarrassingly prominent hole in my runners, I can’t help wondering what he had to be afraid of.