Ahern, Bertie (Ireland)

Reference work entry


Bertie Ahern was Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) from 1997 to 2008, heading coalitions comprising his Fianna Fáil party, the Progressive Democrats and, following the 2007 elections, the Green Party. He was instrumental in brokering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the framework accord for peace in Northern Ireland. Staunchly pro-European, he has encouraged the expansion and closer unity of the EU. The second longest-serving Taoiseach since Ireland achieved independence, and the first since 1944 to be elected three times, Ahern oversaw a period of unprecedented prosperity and economic growth in Ireland. Forced out of office by investigations into his financial affairs, he remains an influential figure in Irish and European politics.

Early Life

Bartholomew Ahern was born on 12 Sept. 1951 in Dublin. After studying economics and computer science at University College Dublin and the London School of Economics, he entered the Irish parliament (the Dáil) in 1977 as the republican Fianna Fáil member for a Dublin seat. Two years later he joined the Dublin City Council, serving as lord mayor for a year in the late 1980s.

He first obtained government office in 1980 as a chief whip. Junior ministerial posts followed until 1987 when he was appointed minister for labour. In 1991 he took over the finance portfolio. In Nov. 1994, after 11 years as Fianna Fáil’s deputy leader, Ahern was voted Albert Reynolds’ successor. He led Fianna Fáil in opposition until 1997.

As Ireland’s biggest party following the June 1997 elections, Ahern was prepared to form a coalition government with the Labour Party, but following last minute realignments he went into government with the Progressive Democrats.

Career Peak

Within a month of Ahern taking office the Irish Republican Army (IRA) renewed its ceasefire, and all-party peace talks resumed in Sept. These culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. Amongst the agreement’s key provisions were the creation of the Northern Irish assembly, North–South ministerial council and British–Irish Council. It also laid out guidelines for weapons decommissioning by paramilitary groups, although negotiations were to stall on several occasions over this issue. Ahern meanwhile acknowledged that ending paramilitary violence was only a first step in countering deep-rooted ‘tribalism’.

Ahern’s handling of the peace talks and Ireland’s healthy economy maintained his popularity, although support fell in the Catholic community after his separation from his wife. Also, within a year of taking office, two of his long-term allies—former Taoiseach Charles Haughey and former minister Ray Burke—were involved in embarrassing funding scandals.

Ahern was a leading advocate for the EU. He oversaw the transition from the Irish pound to the euro in 2002 and expressed a wish that the UK would also adopt the new currency, thus facilitating commerce between the Republic of Ireland and the North. In Oct. 2002 he oversaw the endorsement via referendum of the Nice Treaty, allowing ten new countries to join the EU in 2004 (the treaty having been rejected in an earlier Irish referendum in 2001).

Ahern won another term of office when Fianna Fáil won the elections of May 2002. In Oct. 2002 the Northern Irish Assembly executive was suspended over allegations of IRA spying at the Northern Ireland Office. Direct rule from London was reimposed and shortly afterwards the IRA cut off its links with the international weapons decommissioning body. In May 2003 UK Prime Minister Blair postponed elections to the Northern Irish Assembly, claiming that Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams’ assurance that the IRA would not do anything to undermine the peace process did not provide a sufficient guarantee. Ahern refused to endorse Blair’s position but restated his commitment to working with the UK government towards a lasting peace. Subsequently, in July 2005, the IRA declared formally that it was ending its armed campaign to pursue peaceful political dialogue—a move confirmed by the international decommissioning body in Sept. despite Unionist scepticism. In Oct. 2006 Ahern and Blair unveiled a new timetable for restoring government power-sharing in Northern Ireland between the Protestant and Catholic communities. The leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin subsequently reached an historic agreement to share power from 8 May 2007 in a devolved administration to replace direct rule by the British government.

In 2006 the Irish government became more unpopular as divisions emerged within the coalition and Ahern admitted to receiving several large loans from friends when he was finance minister in the 1990s. Nevertheless, Fianna Fáil remained the largest parliamentary party following elections in May 2007 (but without an overall majority) and in June Ahern formed a new coalition government with the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party. In Sept. 2007 Ahern narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence brought against him in the Dáil as the pressure on him owing to public investigations into his personal financial affairs intensified. In April 2008, in the wake of further revelations about financial irregularities, he announced that he would be standing down as prime minister and Fianna Fáil leader in May.

Later Life

In his resignation speech Ahern made explicit his intention to clear his name of the allegations of corruption that dogged his final years in office. He continues to represent his North Dublin constituency in the Dáil. In 2008 he was appointed to the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution and became a board member for Co-operation Ireland, an anti-sectarian charity. He began writing a sports column in a national newspaper in Aug. 2009 and released his autobiography in Oct. 2009 but was criticized for claiming a tax break on his earnings.

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