Banking Inquiry: ‘Crash breaks my heart’

Bertie Ahern has staunchly defended his time as taoiseach, claiming the infamous Galway Tent was “no big deal”, that he never believed a property bubble existed, and that no one told him Ireland was facing boom or bust.

Banking Inquiry: ‘Crash breaks my heart’

The former leader of Fianna Fáil made the claims during a lengthy grilling at the banking inquiry, where he said the crash “breaks my heart” but denied that what happened just months after he left office was “the biggest hospital pass in history”.

In more than four hours of questioning over why, in his own words, the boom got “boomier”, Mr Ahern repeatedly outlined his achievements. While giving a qualified apology by saying he made mistakes but “so does everyone”, he claimed: “When I handed over, we were still in a good position.”

Mr Ahern, who began the meeting by swearing to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, spent the first 20 minutes outlining boom-era jobs growth and unemployment falls to “counteract” a “retrospective narrative”.

He said there would be “zero credibility” in claiming “all gains have been wiped away”.

Mr Ahern said that, during his time in power, he “never believed” in a property bubble, claiming there are “a good few definitions”. He thought the country could “manage our way through” by reducing housing construction.

It was pointed out that he gave a speech at the opening of a Treasury Holdings building on December 10, 2007, and was previously loaned Seán Quinn’s helicopter. He denied being too close to developers, arguing “at that stage no one was talking about the bubble going bust” and that it was government’s job to “have as many good contacts with sectors as we could”.

Mr Ahern said he had no responsibility for errors on the part of the Central Bank or financial regulator. He told Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath that the Mahon tribunal investigation did not distract him from his work as “I kind of ignored it”. Mr McGrath said the tribunal was a key reason for Mr Ahern’s resignation as taoiseach.

Mr Ahern claimed that Socialist TD Joe Higgins was “misleading” by suggesting he had backed light-touch bank regulation and said he was only told of Mr Quinn’s issues with Anglo in April 2008. He said he left this to the then finance minister, Brian Cowen, as he was “more involved”.

He denied that pre-budget policies on property in 2002 and 2007 did not note the impending crash, saying the IMF did not even predict what happened and that no one told him Ireland was facing “boom or bust”.

After provoking criticism for claiming he always listened to contrary views, Mr Ahern was asked about his 2007 claim that people “cribbing and moaning” should consider suicide. He said he “immediately apologised” and that two of his friends had died this way.

Mr Ahern also insisted the infamous Galway Tent was “literally no big deal” and accused Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty and others of being “obsessed”.

He said he wanted to “assure the committee” his government was “in no way influenced” by 635 builders — including 19 described in his autobiography as “big” — who attended.

Asked again about the interactions by Labour senator Susan O’Keeffe, Mr Ahern said “it usually rained in Galway so a tent was a good idea” and that “some people met their wives there”. Ms O’Keeffe said she had “no idea Fianna Fáil was involved in dating services” and instead wanted to know if “people were paying for access”.

Mr Ahern replied: “If you go down to the Fianna Fáil chicken and chips do in Ballydehob and you pay in because there is some member there, I don’t know, is that access? I’d hate to think political parties would bring in regulations that they can’t meet people. That would be a sad day.”

Mr Ahern claimed the economy’s “fundamentals” were strong when he resigned in April 2008. Despite the evidence pointing to a crash, he denied, when asked by Fine Gael senator Michael D’Arcy, that handing power to Mr Cowen when the crisis was emerging was “the biggest hospital pass in history”.

“We were still in a good position. We could have dragged ourselves on.

“If hindsight was foresight, I’d be a billionaire,” said Mr Ahern, who has a €150,000-a-year pension, a number of directorships, had a lavish 60th birthday at Croke Park, and earned €467,000 on the speakers’ circuit in 2009.

Paul Gallagher: Ex-attorney general. Picture: Gareth Chaney

His appearance at the banking inquiry came as the State’s former attorney general, Paul Gallagher, confirmed that officials were “constantly” discussing the bank crisis from November 2007 and “knew” the risk was “systemic” from April 2008 — when Mr Ahern resigned.

More in this section