This time last year, I sidled up to Bertie Ahern in Stoneybatter, in Dublin, where he was canvassing, to ask about a suitcase of cash in the boot of his car. Allegedly. The subsequent story, you may remember, caused a bit of stir for a while.
I was reminded of the encounter when I met the former Taoiseach at St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle on Thursday night: fresh from his latest episode at the Mahon tribunal, he was guest of honour at a farewell reception for his former programme manager, Gerry Hickey.
Bertie still wears make-up, by the way, or he does for certain public performances. The Mahon tribunal remains such theatre; it is still the best show in town.
Later, at the top of the grand stairway of the State Apartments, Bertie had a long, private chat with Social Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin. Mary is still feeling a little sore following her demotion by the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. Oh, to have listened in on their conversation.
Bertie did not bring up the, alleged, cash in his carboot when we talked: being Bertie, he recalled another part of our conversation that day.
At the time I was preparing to sell my house and buy a nice little place in Drumcondra, with a lilac tree at its front door. As it happened, the house was on the street where Bertie Ahern was born and reared.
“Are you my neighbour yet?” he asked on Thursday night. Don’t mention the war, I thought . . .
Ruairi Quinn, another former Finance Minister, was also at the event. Ruairi worked with Gerry Hickey in the Department of Finance, when Gerry was one of the country’s top civil servants: as a former civil servant, and student priest, you can imagine Gerry is a fairly mild mannered man, not given to bouts of anger.
Later in the night, though, when he said of the Mahon tribunal – “it makes me sick” – you could have heard a pin drop.
There was a mixed bunch present: all of Gerry’s family, most of his friends from the various aspects of his life, his hill-walking mates in Wicklow and his shooting and fishing pals from Kerry. Joe Burke showed up, too, looking fresh and well; former Attorney General David Byrne, who handled the niceties surrounding the establishment of the tribunals, was also there, nodding his head in agreement when Hickey made a particularly stinging point about the tribunal, more of which anon.
I bought my house when Ruairi Quinn was controlling the nation’s purse-strings, and saw it appreciate during the Ahern era. Like thousands, if not millions, of others – the coping classes – it is my only asset. We did not have the wherewithal to earn millions in the good times, but we worked hard to achieve what we did achieve, only to see it now slip away.
As I left Dublin Castle at around 9pm, I received a text from David Cochrane of Libertas, which is campaigning for
a No vote in the referendum: Yes down 5 per cent, No up 12 per cent; David was obviously thrilled, as, no doubt, were most of the bloggers on his Politics.ie website, who, in their spare time – and they seem to have plenty of that – like to post nasty things about me and the Sunday Independent in general, bless them.
In a roundabout sort of way, all of these strands come together. The common denominator, as ever, is the economy, sillies . . .
I put my house on the market in December. It failed to attract a bid. I took it off, and put it back again last month. In that period, its estimated value has reduced by over €200,000: that’s almost €30,000 a month, or €1,000 a day, or, to labour the point, the guts of €50 an hour.
It still hasn’t attracted a bid, although I am told there are plenty of interested parties: the problem is they can’t sell their homes either, to trade up or down. It is not that we are greedy; we have all substantially reduced our expectations.
But there is a credit crunch.
On one side the banks, who caused this mess with their sub-prime packages – sold to each other so targets could be reached and bonuses received – are now squeezing us, the bastards.
On the other, the Government is crucifying us: the level of stamp duty remains a huge inhibitor to economic activity.
The European Central Bank – a faceless bureaucracy, like most power bases in Europe – is, meanwhile, relentlessly hiking up interest rates. Last week it was threatening to do so again.
The ECB is refusing to cut interest rates because, it says, it wants to control inflation. But inflation is sky-rocketing anyway. Go figure . . .
When we complain about inflation, the new Minister for Finance, in a breathtaking display of arrogance, tells us not to “whinge”; such arrogance is reminiscent of his immediate predecessor, the new Taoiseach, who stubbornly refused to properly reform stamp duty when he should have, because he knew best.
Meanwhile, my sole asset is losing me €30,000 a month.
I have my eye on a house closer to my children; for any number of reasons, all concerned would be happier if I lived there.
Brian Cowen has spoken, movingly at times, of the primacy of such, of family, community and society.
Where we differ, I believe, is that what he would call the “cult of individualism” is integral, not mutually exclusive to that ideal.
Put it another way: as Brian Cowen should know, and as he may discover in this referendum, all politics is local.
The Yes camp, led by the Taoiseach, can not tell us specifically why we should vote Yes, other than to arrogantly imply that they know best. Thankfully, the electorate still likes to think for itself.
So when Brian Cowen argues, for example, that we must vote Yes to embrace our fellow Europeans to the east, we say ‘nothing personal’, and think local, as we always have done.
It is the cult of individualism again: when our political leaders, who have led us into this economic crisis, say ‘trust us’ for no reason other than they expect we should, we wonder why we should and we say ‘No, not until we know what’s in it for us’.
While the charade continues, the economy burns; and Bertie keeps us entertained.
The guts of £80,000 sterling passed through his bank accounts in a relatively short period between 1994 and 1995. I have no idea where it came from and neither does Des O’Neill.
It’s still a spectacle, bread and circus. But the frisson has gone out of it. As I see it, Bertie and Des have punched each other to a standstill. Both are still standing. I would say Des has, comfortably, won on points. But Bertie’s make-up is still intact.
If I were a betting man, as Bertie apparently is, I would wager, though, that he did not perform a single corrupt act in return for his cash. We may never know, of course, but at the moment there genuinely are more pressing issues of concern.
A little aside: Tim Kilroe, the deceased businessman who, eh, exchanged Bertie’s punts for sterling, had over 50 racehorses, one of which was Forgive ‘n’ Forget, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1985. That’s what I am inclined to do with Bertie, all things considered, forgive if not quite forget.
Gerry Hickey, his Christian former programme manager, was in no such mood
on Friday night, however.
“I don’t think we made many mistakes in your time in office,” he told Bertie. “But I think we made one, and a serious one . . .”
Hickey, a former principal officer in the Department of Finance, added: "I know and understand that tribunals are needed and have to be established from time to time. I do think, though, that we need, after 11 years, to revisit the definition of ‘urgent’ and, indeed, we may need to redefine ‘public concern’.
“What is going on elsewhere here in the Castle has nothing to do with matters of urgent public concern. These tribunals conflict with the republican ethos of our democratic system. I believe that a tribunal which is based on a statute that preceded the foundation of this State is an abomination.”
He called for new measures – “I hope you are listening, Brian,” he said – to make tribunals more accountable.
Then, with David Byrne vigorously nodding his head, Gerry Hickey said there was a “real question” as to whether the Mahon tribunal was acting beyond the confines of a Supreme Court judgement which had sought to define its amended terms of reference.
Hickey’s words are relevant, but, perhaps, already they are dated: so, too, in its own way is the Lisbon Treaty, to be honest, if it was ever that relevant at all. The real story remains the economy and Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan, and the way they might soon be inclined to look at us.