Tuesday, April 10, 2007


I interviewed Bertie Ahern last week and the piece appeared in the Irish Examiner on Easter Monday (full transcript of printed interview below). I have done hundreds of interviews during my career. And this is the first that I have ever done in Q and A format, rather than in the more conventional narrative style.

The Q and A style of interview was popularised by John Waters in his HotPress days (and he based it on interviews he used to read in the religious magazine, The Word). Vincent Browne was also partial to it, and also used it regularly during the time he was writing a weekly interview for the Irish Times.

In a way, you'd think it's an easier way of writing up interviews. All you do is transcribe the recording and Bob's your uncle! Not, not quite. A half an hour interview will produce about 4,000 words and unless you are writing for the New Yorker, it's not going to fit in. So it becomes an exercise in pruning.

Plus, it makes it harder to describe how a person reacts to a question. HotPress used to use (laughs) to convey laughter but it always read silly. A couple of times Bertie Ahern, while exceedingly pleasant throughout, commented in a hard-nosed and hard-chaw way to questions about political opponents. What I tried to do was describe all those kind of reactions, the timbre, the way he projected himself at the start.

For some reason, the Q and A format seemed very suited to this particular interview. He was more considered, more in-depth in answering questions than in previous interviews and he went to some lengthts to put context on some of his responses. By going for a straight narrative account, you would have lost a lot of the quotes to description and paraphrase. In a way, this interview is the edited highlights, rather than the match report from the next day.


Bertie Ahern, we are often told, does not obsess with his place in history, doesn’t have the need to leave vainglorious legacies like Tony Blair (reputedly) does.
But even before the nation decides his fate this summer, Ahern will have his place in modern Irish political history assured.
De Valera may have moulded the State; Lemass may have made it modern and outward looking but Ahern made it prosperous and also banished forever all inferiority complexes.
It’s too early, much too early, to judge how history and posterity will judge him. But arguably he now ranks second only to Dev in the FF pantheon.
But for all that, what is most disarming about him - and this goes a long way to explain his enduring appeal – is the sense of ordinariness he projects. His critics will claim that it’s a long time since he has had to use a petrol pump. And it is true that he himself is not shy when it comes to reminding people about the interests and achievements section of his C.V. Yet, when most people think of Bertie Ahern they think anorak.
As you are interviewing him, your are reminded a little of the GAA player or manager. When they are asked how they won crucial championship matches, it is never because they were a better team. No, it’s invariably because the media wrote them off.
It is ditto with Bertie Ahern who often points to his successes in terms of defying those who underestimate him, while also having a slight dig at the media and other detractors.
It’s clear too that there’s an election in the air because there’s a harder edge to his comments. In a wide-ranging interview he is much tougher than in previous Irish Examiner interviews, on the effects of Bertie-Gate, on opposition claims, on Fine Gael, on Enda Kenny. He also delivers a very strong castigaton of the Greens.
He also reveals that having ruled out a Friday, the election mightn’t take place on a Thursday and that it will take place at the end of May (after the 23rd) at the very earliest.
In that vein of ordinariness, he takes on the chin the national pastime of poking fun when he garbles sentences. And true to form, he creates a brand new Bertie-ism when saying he doesn’t mind Bertie-isms.
“I have a good sense of humour. I have been doing Pub Grub and all of those programmes…”
(Of course, he meant to refer to Today FM’s ‘Gift Grub’)

Irish Examiner: How can you deny after the Ard Fheis that Fianna Fáil is not getting involved in auction politics?

Bertie Ahern: Our tax and spending proposals are costed. They are fully deliverable in a strong economy.
What we put out in the Ard Fheis is well within the limits of what we have been spending on welfare and tax in the last number of years.

IE: What’s your response to the charge of 53 promises and E300 million a minute during your speech?

BA: Enda Kenny made 23 promises (in his speech), my guys tell me, and nobody mentioned that, only that he made one…
While others have sought to claim it’s auction politics, the charge does not hold up to scrutiny.
I watch what happened in the AF. There was a group of people who said beforehand: They (FF) have no ideas. They have no routine. They have no innovation. If I made the speech and didn’t put in the things, they would have said: ‘I told you so. No ideas. No fresh ideas. Too long in Government.
And then when I came out with a whole lot of new thinking they couldn’t take that.

IE: Some say you were panicked into making the speech. Did you plan to make those promises?

BA: My draft speech, I had back in early to mid February.
The stuff that was in it was taken from our draft manifesto and I took out a few and put in a few as we go along but most of the big ones didn’t change a line.

IE: Is the election going to be fought on the broad theme of Bill Clinton’s famous line, ‘it’s the economy stupid’?

BA: There are two things in it to be honest. There’s the economy and all the economy means… Then the second issue is local issues. The local issues totally differ. As I toddle around the country (I encounter them). They can be big or small. In Cork at the moment it’s the airport. In Galway it’s the water. All around the country, there’s a national issue and then local.

IE: Look at what happened to Tony Blair in his third election in Britain. Will FF struggle to maintain its seat and if you win, will you just about limp home?

BA: Every election is different. I have fought so many of them in my career. We did very well in the last election and we will be fighting hard to hold on in most constituencies and in a couple of other constituencies trying to increase our representation.
What you have to do is just get out there and put in the best work you can, the best policy formulation. Do you plans. Do your publicity. Do all the things we are rolling out.
I have to laugh at the position. Two weeks ago, they said FF have no posters, are not doing up any leaflets, and I met a TD today and he said you have a huge amount of posters up, you have the (FF newspaper) out, you have ads everywhere, do you not think it’s too soon?
I think it’s about work. It’s about what’s the policy agenda, fulfilling that, finishing out our period of work, right up to the end of April and into early May, we still have a huge amount of launches. And I’m going to keep on doing that, on climate change, getting our position out. Ticking off our boxes on what we promised to do.
We have a lot of legislation we won’t get through but that we’re going to get published because at least we want to get the work finished on it.
It will be harder because you are ten years in (power). Tony Blair, in fairness to him, would have walked the last election if it wasn’t for Iraq. The one issue, the international thing that went wrong for them, in so far as they thought they were going to get in and get out.

IE: And what has been your Iraq?

BA: Health is probably the one that comes up and repeats itself.
There are good stories in health. The one good thing about the row over the maternity hospital in Cork is that everybody now knows there’s a world-class hospital in Cork. In Tullamore, they are opening up a huge hospital.
There’s no balance in this (debate). This is all about let’s find the story, let’s find where the crash is, let’s talk about the reaction.

IE: But Enda Kenny said he’d make the election a referendum on health?

BA: Looking at health, we met most of targets on staff and on beds.
Look at the cardiac strategies. They are completed. In 1997, the only cardiac was in the Mater. There’s cardiac in Galway and Cork now. It’s not a issue. There’s no waiting list for (cardiac) stents.
The cancer strategy is very good. It’s nice if it was finished (but work continues). Maternity is very strong.
We are spending more per capita on the capital programme than any other country in the OECD except Norway.
(He continues with a defence of co-location): The length of time (projects have taken) when we have given them money. There were
areas that we gave money in 1999 and they have not finished yet.
It’s Too slow. I’m not a great lover of the private sector but it’s quicker.

IE: You were described before as the Teflon Taoiseach, as Fianna Fail’s best electoral asset. Has the loan controversy of last autumn changed that?

BA: When I went in 1997, the view was that it would be impossible to beat the three amigos as they marched around town together, that I would be a lightweight and that I wouldn’t be able to beat them.
There were three experienced guys, Spring Bruton and de Rossa.
There was the fact that I came up on the outside track with our logo: ‘People before Politics’. It surprised people.
Commentators generally felt (the Rainbow) would win that election after two and a half years.
I think we caught them out and built on that in 2002, we had a very good election.
Nobody can deny the success of this Government but there are people… you built up battles with various groups. That’s inevitable when you are government.

IE: But what about your reputation?

BA: I don’t think about it too much. I would meet more people in two or three days around the country than most people would meet in a year.
You would very quickly detect if they had totally gone off you or not. And they are not.
I addressed public meetings last Friday or Saturday to probably 3-4,000 people which was bigger than the FG Ard Fheis and it was only my usual toddle around the country for a Sunday afternoon.
I won no election on my own. I didn’t win 1997 or 2002 on my own.
I don’t detect any personal animosity to me at all and I think the events of last October don’t rate. They are more interested in how I’ll solve the nurse’s dispute or how I’ll get rid of the crime.

IE: You have a reputation as a master strategist? Was the so-called Inchdoney Conversion (where he embraced socialism) an example of that following the poor local and European election results.

BA: Inchdoney was important. But the switch wasn’t that fundamental. (in 1997), we had gone in with policies to enhance education, services, get more people working, stimulate the economy and growth, bring down corporaton and personal tax, give more incentive to work.
It all us to put more into social policy. We have done a good job in these areas. Let’s put more money into education; let’s put more billions in health.Let’s advance some of the social agenda. I believe we have done that. You could not do that in advance, you could not have done that before you cut income tax and corporation tax.
You would never have had the money.

IE: Speaking of strategy, what Thursday will the election be held?

BA: I never said a Thursday.

IE: You have not decided what day of the week?

BA: I probably have. It’s of no importance whatsoever. My point about the Friday was that with the cleaning of he register, now people are meant to be registered where they are living. That includes students as well. If they are living in Dublin, they should be registered in Dublin
There are tens of people every Friday, working a four and a half day week, who are gone on Friday at lunchtime and do you think they are going to stop for an election?
The fact was that in 2002, they didn’t, they were gone. That’s even more so five years on.

IE: Do you get tired of the media and comedians going too far by parodying you?

BA: No. No. I have a good sense of humour. I have been doing ‘Pub Grub’ (sic) and all of those programmes, breakfast time, all of these programmes have been going on for years and different radio programmes.

IE: Where do you think the election will be won and lost in terms of constituencies. And will Sinn Fein get a lift from the northern breakthrough and the Greens from growing concern over climate change?

BA: At the end of the day, the election is 43 by-elections.
Maybe Sinn Fein will get a lift. I hope we have. I have worked as hard on the North as I could. I gave it the lion’s share of my time and my commitment. You just have to. There are some people who look at the North as the key issue. What percentage of the electorate they are I’m not sure.
People have a general interest but what will swing their vote is a ceist eile.
The Greens are benefiting not from anything the Greens in Ireland are doing and I’m not saying any of this being disrespectful against the Greens. But all over the world the Greens are taking a huge jump except in Germany where the Greens were in power and they got rid of them and they went through the floor.
All of the places where they have never had power, they are doing well.
That’s because you can’t turn on the TV without seeing an ad or seeing somebody going on abut a carbon footprint or a water footprint.
It’s been that way now relentlessly now since last summer and really since the year before when you had all the floods and the mudslides and everything else.
Of course people are rightfully concerned about these issues. We were working away on our recycling programme and the huge things we did on recycling a year ago and nobody would talk about them.
Now, we say something and people say you should have done more.

IE: Are you saying that thee Greens will get a bounce like Labour did in 1992?

BA: Not that big. They are getting a bounce. The premier of Newfoundland was here recently. The Greens were 2% of the vote six months ago and now they are on 11%. This is happening worldwide.
There is no analysis of their policies. I have not read one article.
There’s no analysis of what the Greens in this country stand for on anything.
The Government’s policies will be analysed to death. I’d say they are getting away with that in a lot of countries.
They were down there today (during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil) sneering at our climate change policy. I was shown what they said three years ago. They hadn’t a good idea in the bloody document.
Then we put out a document. Our document isn’t made up. It’s what we have done, what we’re doing.
Ok, there’s no doubt about it (in relation to being 24% over the 1990 level of emissions). You say that’s not good enough. That’s fair comment. I have no problem with that.
These guys (the Green TDs) are down there just chipping way.
Do I believe that for a minute if these guys are in Government they would have an idea, you know what they would do, they would just take all of the ideas that FF come up with because most of the stuff we are doing in Government is stuff that FF scientists and guys have given us. We didn’t find this in the system I can tell you.

IE: You could end up being in Government with them? In any case, won’t it be far more complicated than in 2002?

BA: There could be any series of combinations. To answer your fair question, will the Greens do better, or will they be more significant, it’s obvious the answer is, yes.


Dan Sullivan said...

I found the interview to be a classic of the genre. I would raise one point here in response to the register and then I may post something longer on my own blog (linking back to here of course)

As Taoiseach he must know that the register requires you to register at where you are living on a date in September (either the 10th or 15th) which is chosen I believe and so do most people because students aren’t back in their colleges then. And so they can't register at their college address as they do not have one at that point.

And who are all these people he suggests who can work a four and half day week on a regular basis? Ah, it’s members of the public sector is it. but they would try and save their flexitime for a bank holiday and there just happens to be one of those at the beginning of June. So that is why he is not going for the Friday because he has targeted the end of May, and he is concerned about folks leaving early for the bank holiday.

dublinnorth said...

Its easy to say the people should register to vote where they work or study but that is glossing over the fact that people don't live/work/study all in the one place.

Its no coincidence that younger voters are less likely to vote for the incumbents.

Anonymous said...

Harry, show me one hard question you asked of Ahern. Why do you guys treat our politicans with such deference?

Harry McGee said...

Bertie Ahern said a couple of things that hinted at an election date. The first was that the Dail would return after Easter (it's due back on the 24th of April). He said it would continue until May.
Modern election campaigns have tended to last three weeks. Thus, if it lasts until May the earlies an election will take place is circa the 24th of May.
He also said it wouldn't necessarily take place on a Thursday (having ruled out Friday). I suspect it's going to happen on either the 30th or 31st of May, just before the bank holiday weekend. The reason he won't hold it on Friday is because half of the country will have decamped abroad or down the country by Friday evening.
I have been spectacularly wrong about Bertie intentions before. So my hunch isn't great.
As for anonymous comments, I think I did ask a couple of tough questions. When you're interviewing for a newspaper it would be a bit artificial to go into Paxman mode (the effect would be completely be lost in the medium). H.