My contribution to this week’s Farmers Journal:
Bertie Ahern used his last full day in the Dail, on Thursday January 27th., to offer his reflections on a career which included long spells in senior ministries, including Finance, and 11 years as Taoiseach. Reporters seemed genuinely shocked at Mr. Ahern’s lament for his lost Bertie Bowl, which unbelievably he identified as his greatest regret from his time in office. He also protested that nobody had told him about the problems in the banks.
The Bertie Bowl, described by Mr. Ahern as a national ‘infrastructural’ stadium, whatever that means, was as daft a project as ever issued from the fertile brain of an Irish populist politician. The city of Dublin contains two fine stadiums at Croke Park and Lansdowne Road, both rebuilt in recent times with substantial taxpayer support. The Bertie Bowl would have been a third. At one stage, no less than four stadium projects were under consideration, the fourth being the FAI’s Eircom Park. But during the period when Lansdowne Road was closed for reconstruction, only Croke Park was available and comfortably catered for the full GAA programme plus all the rugby and soccer internationals, as well as numerous concerts. That it was able to do so reflects the simple reality that there are not that many big matches to be accommodated. There are rarely more than about 12 or 15 big GAA match-days per annum, and not many more between rugby and soccer combined. One stadium was enough for three full years. Neither Croke Park nor Lansdowne Road will be intensively utilised in the years ahead and it is debatable whether the city needs two big venues never mind three.
But Mr. Ahern wanted a third, at a cost of around €700 million. It was one of the very few of his spending schemes that did not go ahead, because the late lamented Progressive Democrats pulled the plug after the 2002 election and can at least claim to have spared us a ghost stadium to go with the ghost estates. The vigorous campaign against Ahern’s curious project got little support from the Fine Gael and Labour benches, mesmerised by the popularity at the time of Ireland’s first celebrity Taoiseach. Jimmy Deenihan of Fine Gael, who should know a thing or two about stadiums from his days in the Kerry jersey, and Labour’s Pat Rabbitte, are the only exceptions I can recall.
Given the current condition of the country there is something profoundly disturbing about Mr. Ahern’s choice of the demise of the stadium project as his greatest career disappointment. Fate, or the forces of darkness, deprived him of the opportunity to waste €700 million. But his protestations about the failure of others to warn him about the credit bubble are even more extraordinary. As far back as 2001, the former head of Bank Supervision at the Central Bank, Willie Slattery, who had departed for the private financial sector, warned publicly, and in very blunt terms, about the risks emerging in bank balance sheets. Mr. Slattery’s speech was widely reported and caused quite a stir at the time, given his career background and knowledge of the banking business. There were numerous other public warnings from commentators around this time about the emerging housing bubble and the excessive growth in public spending. In October 2004, the influential Economist magazine devoted a cover story to Ireland which received extensive media coverage here. The story described the Irish bubble in unambiguous terms and warned of the risks. It is simply untrue to assert that no warnings were given. There were plenty of warnings, and in public. By the time Mr. Ahern addressed the Irish Congress of Trades Unions in Bundoran in July 2007, he had begun to hear what was being said and responded to his critics in the following terms:
‘Sitting on the sidelines, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide because frankly the only thing that motivates me is being able to actively change something.’
His ‘suicide’ remark, a subsequent YouTube hit, was warmly applauded by the assembled trade union brethren. Mr. Ahern subsequently apologised and quite properly, to groups representing relatives of suicide victims. He never apologised to the targets of his remarks, of course. By the time Brian Cowen replaced Mr. Ahern in May 2008 the damage was well and truly done and it has been downhill ever since. The electorate blame Fianna Fail for both the genesis and the handling of the crisis and they will have their revenge it would appear. But having run the country from 1997 to 2008, this is unambiguously Bertie Ahern’s crisis. And his greatest regret is not having wasted even more money on a stadium folly. Planet Bertie indeed.