How does a party in Government gain kudos from a landmark peace deal – which for all its creaky flaws still stands after a quarter of a century – if that party’s main person, who led the project, remains in ignominious banishment after a dozen years?
nd how does that party reboot a moribund organisation in Dublin, where over a quarter of voters live, without harkening back to the days when it was the political force in that region?
And anyway, how long does banishment have to continue – given that even those who have heinously transgressed eventually walk blinkingly into the greater community, having done their time?
The answers to those three questions are key to explaining the arrival and timing of an eventual truce between Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fáil.
Let’s recall he served that organisation from 1965 until he was forced to quit in March 2012, and led it for the 14 years from 1994 to 2008, when the party won three back-to-back general elections.
Last night, Fianna Fáilers set social media ablaze by speculating whether their 70-year-old fallen – and now apparently rehabilitated – champion might be a standard-bearer for the Áras in 2025.
Mr Ahern jumped before he was pushed by his long-time lieutenant, Micheál Martin
Political obsessiveness can be like that, so it’s time to back up a little here and look at some considerable snags.
There remain a number of political skeletons in Bartholomew Patrick Ahern’s political cupboard, which many of his and the party’s rivals will be keen to parade again, often and early.
Time and an Ahern re-invention as a credible analyst of Brexit, the North’s political travails and Irish politics generally have been hugely restorative to his reputation.
But we have to reflect on why he was obliged to quit Fianna Fáil in March 2012, just over a year after the party was driven to electoral meltdown in a general election that threatened its very existence.
Mr Ahern jumped before he was pushed by his long-time lieutenant, Micheál Martin, who had served on his political team since January 1995.
Mr Martin castigated his former boss and had lined up a majority of the party’s national executive to push him through the exit door if necessary.
With talk of regret, Bertie Ahern quit.
A decade after the establishment of the Mahon Tribunal (set up to investigate allegations of planning corruption involving politicians), Mr Ahern gave evidence in September 2007.
He was pressed on a number of occasions about his unorthodox financial affairs in the 1990s, but he insisted throughout that he never “took a bribe or a backhander or anything from anybody”.
He was asked about not having a bank account for a number of years, including during the period when he served as finance minister, but said there was “nothing in the law or the Constitution” obliging him to have one.
Mr Ahern did acknowledge receiving a sum of money from a number of rich businessmen after speaking at a Manchester hotel, and said he had won money through gambling on horses. The final tribunal report cast doubt on the accuracy of his evidence, but did not find he had been corrupt.
The report was, however, enough to force him out of the Fianna Fáil fold, but right up to the present day he has maintained he did nothing wrong. He told this writer last September he had not the means to go through the courts to fight to reverse those tribunal determinations.
For a period he was a vilified figure, with some reprehensible public attacks and confrontations. But the passage of time has been kinder and he has impressed with cogent analysis of the Brexit morass, the North’s stop-start power-sharing efforts and the general trend of Irish politics.
An Ahern run for the presidency in autumn 2025 is at best a real long shot
Some accolades are beckoning. For one thing, he will be guest speaker tonight at a Fianna Fáil event in Dublin Bay South, hosted by party TD Jim O’Callaghan. Next month he is due to receive an honorary doctorate from DCU, and a host of speaking and other public engagements will follow in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement on April 10.
Party insiders say Ahern suffered socially from his party exclusion and resented being unable to attend local branch meetings. They note that party leader Martin was forced by the impending Good Friday celebrations to relent on his long-time opposition to his old chief’s rehabilitation.
But an Ahern run for the presidency in autumn 2025 is at best a real long shot, if not utter political fiction.
John Downing is author of ‘Most Skilful, Most Devious, Most Cunning: A Political Biography of Bertie Ahern’