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Why has Bertie Ahern suddenly rejoined Fianna Fáil, and why should we care?

The former taoiseach is back in the headlines as we approach the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, and he might have big plans

There was major excitement in the political bubble during the week when it emerged that ex-taoiseach and ex-Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern has rejoined his former party. It comes just over a decade after he jumped before he was pushed out of Fianna Fáil amid the fallout from the findings of the Mahon tribunal. But now he has paid his €20 membership fee to rejoin his local Dublin Central Cumman, he’s back, and it has prompted somewhat fevered speculation about why.

Bertie Ahern, he was a fairly successful politician, right?

You could say that. The quintessential Dubliner led Fianna Fáil to three election victories between 1997 and the end of his time as Taoiseach in 2008. He was the pre-eminent Irish politician of the 1990s and early noughties, bringing industrial peace through social partnership and previously unknown economic prosperity. The late taoiseach Charles Haughey once famously lauded his negotiating prowess by calling him “the most cunning, the most devious of them all”.

Ahern was the political face of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger-era and all it entailed – the boom “getting more boomer”, as he once put it; apartment developments and office blocks springing up everywhere; and the infamous knees-up every year at the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races. He left office as taoiseach just before the economic crash in 2008. Many people blame the policies pursued by the Governments he led for the huge damage done to Ireland by the global recession.

While Ahern’s legacy was tarnished by the financial disaster, he is universally recognised for his role as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland. He is one of the key architects of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, still the basis of the continued peace in Northern Ireland. It is Ahern’s enduring and undeniable crowning political achievement.


What led to his political demise?

Ahern’s 2008 resignation as Taoiseach was precipitated by the controversy arising from revelations about his private finances at the Mahon tribunal. He later said that while the tribunal did not affect him personally, it was a distraction for the government at the time. The tribunal heard about alleged financial dig-outs from friends allies, how Ahern did not have a bank account for a number of years, and how he attributed some of the sterling lodged into a building society account in 1994 to winnings from horse-racing bets.

The Mahon tribunal report, published in 2012, rejected Ahern’s evidence in relation to his personal finances as mostly “untrue” and found that, contrary to his sworn evidence, there were no dig-outs in 1993 and 1994. Ahern has strongly disputed the tribunal’s findings and said in 2012: “I have never accepted a bribe or a corrupt payment.” The current Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin proposed Ahern’s expulsion from the party in 2012 in the wake of the tribunal’s findings but Ahern ultimately quit the party himself.

So why has he rejoined Fianna Fáil now and will he “upset the apple tart”?

For months there have been suggestions within the party that the time is right for Ahern to return to the Fianna Fáil fold given that April marks 25 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. Welcoming him back, Martin has said it was appropriate given the passage of time and this year’s anniversary. Ahern’s return certainly means Fianna Fáil can fully embrace its role in the historic agreement.

There has been much speculation that Ahern fancies a tilt at Áras an Uachtaráin in 2025, something he has never ruled out. There appears to be little, if any, opposition within Fianna Fáil to Ahern’s return, with many publicly welcoming it. However, Oireachtas members have privately poured cold water on the prospect of Ahern being Fianna Fáil’s presidential candidate. That might be a bridge too far given the mixed legacy of their former leader.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times