MATT COOPER: Would you embrace Bertie just like that busted property developer?

THE sight of a handshake would have been hard enough to stomach, but the picture of beaming former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern being embraced in a bear-hug by NAMA resident property developer Johnny Ronan last Tuesday, at the opening of the Dublin Convention Centre, was nauseating.

Here were two men high on the list of those culpable for landing this nation in the mess it’s in rubbing our noses in it as they enjoyed another big day out.

The last time we saw a picture of Ronhan embracing anybody it was on the front page of a tabloid newspaper; he was locked in a romantic clinch with former Miss World Rosanna Davison, a woman less than half his age.

He had gone off with her on a skite to Morocco, flying her on his personal jet to a five-star resort, costing an estimated €60,000, just days after he had engaged in a highly public row with his former girlfriend, the model-turned-TV presenter Glenda Gilson.

A private matter, you might say. Except that Ronan and his business partner Richard Barrett own a company called Real Estate Opportunities which is in a pretty dreadful state. It owns the Battersea power station in London which it wants to develop into a major residential and commercial centre but for which it does not have the necessary money or the ability to borrow it from elsewhere. It owes nearly €1 billion.

Its loans have been transferred to NAMA and, incredibly, NAMA may lend it even more money in an effort to make an eventual resale of the property, post additional development, more attractive to potential buyers. The point is we Irish taxpayers have been lumbered with the costs of Ronan’s speculation, but he continues to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. And our former Taoiseach – friend to many developers – is hugging him in public.

Ronan and Barrett also stood for photos with a cheerful Brian Cowen. It’s understandable that our serving Taoiseach didn’t want to be impolite. After all, the state gave a contract to this duo’s company to build a convention centre and considerable financial assistance too.

They did the job asked and given that it will be important to the country’s tourism industry – and needs to raise a lot of revenue to cover the expensive construction cost – it would have been churlish not to have attended the opening or to have acknowledged the work done.

But, for once. Cowen’s usual hang-dog look might have been more appropriate for these pictures. While the Taoiseach’s political future seems bleak, seemingly Ahern may harbour aspirations of relaunching his own, notwithstanding his culpability for our current mess. He said he had no immediate interest in running for the presidency, but he added it was a position he would be attracted to at some point in the future.

Ahern did say he does “fancy” the role – but “I talked to nobody about it and I’m not likely to do so in the short term”. Again, as so often during his career, Ahern is being cunning. He is not ruling himself out. He may calculate that he can persuade people things were better when he was in charge and that having him back in some office, even in a very different role, will somehow make things better.

He has a considerable ego and a belief that he won’t be blamed for the mess he left behind when he departed suddenly in May 2008.

“The reality is I left this country in a state where we had low national debt, where we had full employment, low taxes and I didn’t foresee Lehman’s coming down and the rules changing,” he said in an interview with RTÉ’s John Murray.

This is an outrageous misrepresentation of what happened. This myth, or lie, that the collapse of the US bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008 caused all of Ireland’s problems has been well and truly debunked by this stage, no matter how often those in power try to peddle it.

The Irish economy was unravelling by that stage – because of the Ahern-encouraged property bubble – and even if the liquidity issues faced by the banks were accelerated by Lehmans, the bad debts were going to come crashing down upon them anyway.

At this stage most of the public know the Lehman’s lie. Ahern’s attempt to deflect attention from his performance is shameful. He does the usual thing of “accepting” his share of the blame but qualifies it by blaming others. “I’d love to say I was getting daily reports on who was getting what out of the banks, what guarantees were being given, what due diligence was being done, but unfortunately in our system the Central Bank is independent and so far as I got any reports, and even up until April 2008, they were saying, ‘listen I think things will be alright, liquidity is improving slightly’, and that was the view,” he said.

Powerless was he? While the Central Bank is independent and performed abysmally there were plenty of other voices telling him what was going on and Ahern, who had fiscal control as Taoiseach, not only did nothing to prepare for the bursting of the property bubble but continued to inflate it with his policies.

And remember he preferred to ponder publicly why it was that those who were warning him about the economy imploding didn’t go off and kill themselves. He has an excuse for that too.

In suggesting that those who were warning in mid-2007 that the economy was heading for a serious fall should kill themselves, he was merely trying to encourage people to remain positive about Ireland’s future he now says. What a charming way he had of doing it.

“What I was talking about that day was that when a bit of pressure comes on, the thing to do is to talk up your country, not talk down your country. That was the context and I share that sentiment today,” he said. “The world recession didn’t start in Ireland and we have to lead ourselves out of this.”

AGAIN this suggests we are victims of events elsewhere – when many of our biggest problems are self-inflicted. It also suggests it is anti-patriotic to try to tell the truth rather than engage in fiction. Have we learned nothing?

He may gamble that we haven’t. So Ahern for President? Well, let’s see how the public reacts to the eventual publication of the planning tribunal report into his bizarre personal financial dealings.

And remember too Ahern is the man who was responsible for maintaining Ivor Callely’s political career. Callely had just lost his seat and had failed in his bid to be elected to the Seanad when Ahern give him one of the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees in his gift.

Without Ahern’s generosity Callely would not have been able to claim his expenses. But then maybe Ahern felt bad about having fired Callely in 2005 for having allowed his house to be redecorated at somebody else’s expense. After all, Ahern must have had some guilt about firing a man for doing something he had done himself, especially when Callely had done it on a lesser scale.

So bring on the presidential election campaign and let’s see if the public will embrace Ahern as enthusiastically as Johnny Ronan did.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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