In June 1997, Bertie Ahern (born 1951) was elected as the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of the Republic of Ireland. He became the youngest person to have ever occupied the post up to that time. Ahern was one of the major engineers of the so-called "Irish Miracle" that, over the span of a decade, helped to shift the focus and balance of trade on the island from an emphasis on mostly agrarian and cottage industries to that of a noted industrial and technological exporter.
Ahern was born Bartholomew Ahern on September 12, 1951, in Dublin, Ireland. His parents, Julia and Cornelius Ahern, raised their son in one of the working-class neighborhoods on the north side of the city. Ahern's father was a farmer who had joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the early 1920s when Ireland was fighting for its independence from England. Ahern's parents were staunch supporters of the republican political party of Ireland (Fianna Fail).
At the age of 17, Ahern joined Fianna Fail. He attended the Rathmines College of Commerce and the University College Dublin, from which he received a degree in accounting. In 1975, he married his wife, Miriam Kelly. They had two daughters. Ahern was elected to the lower house of the Irish Parliament (Dail Eireann) in 1977. He was representing a constituency in the Finglas area of Dublin's north side.
Moving on Up
Throughout much of the early 1980s, Ahern held a number of junior and senior level posts both within his party and in the Irish government. In 1980, he became Fianna Fail's Assistant Whip. Ahern held this position for one year, during which time he was also named party spokesperson on youth affairs. The following year Ahern became Assistant Chief Whip and Leader of the House for Fianna Fail. Along with assuming the role of the leader of the opposition party in the Dail Eireann, Ahern was named as a Minister of State at the departments of the Taoiseach and Defence and the government Chief Whip in 1982.
Ahern assumed the vice-presidency of Fianna Fail in 1983. He continued to hold this position for over ten years. A few years into his rather lengthy tenure as the vice-president of Fianna Fail, Ahern was elected as the Lord Mayor of Dublin. As a result of being named Lord Mayor in 1986, his visibility and name recognition in Ireland started to dramatically increase along with his appointments both within his political party and in the government.
The "Irish Economic Miracle"
After a one-year tenure as Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ahern relinquished his position so that he could devote all of his time and energy to his newest appointment. In 1987, he received his first appointment to a position in the Taoiseach's cabinet. Ahern was named the Minister for Labour. He was re-nominated to serve as the Minister for Labour in 1989 and held that position for the next two years. During this time, Ahern was also named the director of the 1990 Irish presidential election. Also that same year, he was elected President of the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers for Social Affairs.
In 1991 Ahern was named the Minister of Finance for the first time in his career. It was a post he would continuously be re-nominated to for the next three years. His post as Minister of Finance was to become his most successful and highly influential role in the government of Ireland up to that time. Ahern was responsible for helping to creatively design the economic policies that would foster what is known as the "Irish Economic Miracle."
Throughout the history of modern Ireland, the nation had been known as a rural society that was more than content to focus its energies and resources on agricultural products and cottage industry goods to be traded on the world market. All of this was to change when Ahern took over as Minister of Finance in the early 1990s.
Ireland had been receiving subsidies from the EU throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike many of the other European nations which had also received such financial grants-in-aide and incentives, Ireland rather wisely decided to invest its money from the EU into developing and strengthening the infrastructure of the nation, including building new roads, training the work force in the use of new technologies, and delving into telecommunications. This not only helped to greatly improve the state of the nation internally; it also served to show to potential foreign investors that Ireland was willing and able to compete as a rather credible player in the world marketplace. The major technological developments in Ireland also enticed potential investors to establish operations in Ireland because of the nation's newfound commitment to progress and the future as the gateway to Europe's Common Market.
According to Forbes's Dyan Machan, "in 1987, the Irish economy was on the brink of collapse. Scrapping 40 years of semi-socialistic policies, Ahern, as Finance Minister, cut the government work force by 20 percent, axed spending across the board, and maintained a ten percent tax rate for most corporations." These rather drastic changes in the economic policies of Ireland managed to finally entice numerous American corporations to invest there, which was something Irish governments had been struggling to accomplish for many generations. After Ahern's radical reworking of the economic climate in Ireland, the nation managed to get investments from nearly 500 American companies and corporations eager to start trading with the European Common Market. The majority of the new foreign investments came from such booming fields as pharmaceuticals and high technology.
Determined to keep attracting new investors to come to Ireland and to maintain the ones who were already there, Ahern would later promise to slash in half the capital gains tax and to top off the personal income tax. These changes in the Irish economy were further enhanced by a local work force that was highly educated and highly skilled. Commenting on the so-called "Irish Economic Miracle," Ahern said to Machan, "it's a very good time for the Irish economy."
"The Bertie Factor"
In 1994, a scandal erupted in the government of Ireland. The scandal forced the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who was the president of Fianna Fail, to resign. With the resignation of Reynolds as president of Fianna Fail and as the Taoiseach, Ahern, who was vice-president of Fianna Fail, was all set to become the next Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland. Unfortunately for Ahern, this was not to come to pass. The leader of the Labour Party, Dick Spring, who was a member of the coalition that helped Fianna Fail come to power and form the current government, withdrew his support from the coalition and subsequently from Fianna Fail. Spring then placed the support of his Labour Party behind Fianna Fail's opposition party, Fine Gael. The leader of Fine Gael then assumed the position of the Taoiseach of Ireland. Ahern, however, resigned his position as the vicepresident of Fianna Fail and assumed the position as Fianna Fail's new president.
Ahern, as president of Fianna Fail, became the leader of the opposition. He held this post until the summer of 1997 when a new general election in Ireland was called. At that time, Ahern faced quite a daunting task. He had to convince the electorate that they should not return to office a government that had spurred growth in the economy, increased foreign investments, and had presided over low inflation. Ahern focused his campaign on the ever escalating problem with violent crime, the dwindling hope for a peaceful resolution to the problems in the north of Ireland, and the relatively high unemployment rates.
There was another, somewhat subliminal factor at play in Ahern's election campaign in 1997. It was dubbed "The Bertie Factor," as Nina Rossing explained in a web site that dealt with the Irish General Election Campaign in 1997. According to Rossing, "it didn't hurt that the Fianna Fail policy program seemed sensible either; but undoubtedly it was the personal charisma of the relatively young new leader and his honest, upright down-to-earth level of communication with the people that made the difference. He certainly did not fake a popular image, and by introducing parts of the same popular appearance to the other Fianna Fail candidates, Bertie gave people a reason to vote for his party in other constituencies than his own."
On June 6, 1997, Fianna Fail won 77 seats in the Dail Eireann. Even with the seats won by their coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fail's total number of seats in the Dail Eireann rose by only four seats. It would take the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats coalition nearly a month before they were able to sway enough "unaffiliated" members of the Dail Eireann to come over to their side in order for Fianna Fail to declare a victory for the party and the coalition. On June 26, 1997, Ahern, as president of Fianna Fail, the majority party in the new coalition government, was named as next Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland. When he assumed the position of Taoiseach in 1997, Ahern became the youngest person to have ever held that post in the history of Ireland.
Ahern was determined to keep on supporting the "Irish Economic Miracle" by offering tax breaks to both corporations and private individuals. He also espoused a "zero tolerance" stance on crime, especially of the drug-related variety. Ahern quipped that there can be no acceptable level of crime in the Republic of Ireland. He was also very determined to work with the Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, and the various representatives of both the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland to seek a peaceable compromise to try to end the violence in Northern Ireland. In a momentous settlement reached on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, Ahern, Blair and other political leaders of Britain and Ireland agreed to establish a new form of government in Northern Ireland. At the time Ahern commented, "We have seized the initiative from the men of violence…. Let's not relinquish it, now or ever."
Yet Ahern remained a man of the people who preferred a pint with his mates in the local pub over a posh dinner affair. He was quoted by Suzanne Barrett in an article on the Irish Mining Company's web site as saying that, "I am very conscious of the support I received in every constituency throughout the country."
Further Reading on Bertie Ahern
Current Leaders of Nations, Gale, 1998.
Forbes, March 9, 1998, p. 86.
Newsweek, April 20, 1998, p. 34.
"Bertie Ahern," http://email@example.com (March 6, 1998).
"Talks a Chance to Renew Relations," http://www.irishtimes.com/irish-times/paper/1997/0906/hom1.html (April 6, 1998).
"Bertie Ahern," http://www.irlgov.ie/taoiseach/biogs/frmain.html (March 23, 1998).
"Irish General Election '97: 'The Bertie Factor,"' http://www.stud.ntnu.no/studorg/jsestin/issues/97-3/civilisation.html (April 6, 1998).