School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland.
Bertie (2008) 4 x 60 mins. First broadcast on RTÉ: 3, 10, 17, 24 November 2008
Directed by: Steve Carson
Produced by: Mint Productions
As many commentators have pointed out, the mass media has helped to shrink the world to a global village, producing new forms of social relationships where people appear to achieve ‘intimacy at a distance’ with famous people. Richard Dyer for example, notes that the media construction of stars encourages us to think in terms of what they are ‘really like’, and to uncover the ‘real’ person behind the public appearance. Such examination of the star system and modern society’s growing fixation and fascination with a wide range of stars can also be applied in some measure to the media persona of the politician and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
With frank and deeply revealing interviews from family, political colleagues, former constituency activists and commentators, this new four-part series asks: who really is Bertie Ahern?
The promotional blurb goes on to foreground how the enigmatic politician remains a mass of contradictions, including purporting to be a self-proclaimed socialist who governed as a laissez-faire capitalist. The documentary uses extensive interviews with his family and friends to provide some insight into what makes this complex man tick, and most surprisingly how his close supporters, nicknamed the ‘Drumcondra Mafia’, helped to force his way to the very top of the political ladder.
Audiences were afforded a comprehensive look behind the scenes at the last three decades of Irish politics, and witnessed Bertie’s successes and failures, which culminated in his resignation from the post of Taoiseach on 6th May 2008 after eleven years in the job; second only to Eamon DeValera in terms of longevity. In particular much time was given to the Planning/Mahon Tribunal which was set up in 1998 to enquire into political corruption allegations. Nearly a decade later it would focus on Ahern’s missing bank accounts and a pattern of lodgements and withdrawals with various interviews and media interventions used to explain his ‘irregular affairs’, with the infamous term ‘dig out’ entering Irish political folklore. First broadcast on RTE on 3rd November 2008, the series secured viewing figures of 601,000, which went down slightly from there in subsequent episodes. Nonetheless, it has become a very successful RTE series during 2008.
While episode one traced Ahern’s life up to the general election of 1989 — when he got elected to the Dáil on his first attempt — episode two commenced with the 1990 Irish presidential election in which Mary Robinson became the country’s first female president, and followed Ahern’s career up to his appointment as leader of the Fianna Fail political party in 1994. The third episode focused on the period from 1994 when Ahern very nearly formed a coalition Government with Labour. There was also the major issue of alleged corruption and a briefcase full of cash delivered to Celia Larkin — his then partner — who lodged it in a bank account. The final episode covered the period from early 1999 up to the present day.
Ahern’s crowing achievement, acknowledged by all, remains the Northern Ireland Peace Process, which he worked on patiently over a period of many years. His tenacity in that endeavour received surprising accolades from his erstwhile nemesis in the North, Ian Paisley, alongside Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of Britain.
Ahern was born on the 12th September 1951 and was elected the sixth leader of Fianna Fail in 1994 at the comparatively young age of 43. He has since secured his place in party history as one of their most hallowed and respected leaders. His parents were both from Cork and his father ended up as a farm manager at All Hallows College, Drumcondra. Bertie marred Miriam Kelly in 1972 and had two daughters, Georgina who is now wife of Westlife member Nicky Byrne and Cecelia who is a best selling author. In 1992 he separated from his wife and until 2003 maintained a relationship with Celia Larkin, who becomes the femme fatale of this story, if one was to adapt a film noir analogy.
Larkin however refused to be interviewed for the series, yet remains a defining presence throughout the series, being particularly vilified by the ‘Drumcondra mafia’. The very fact of her not appearing in the documentary causes difficulty for the production, which is somewhat allayed by a stand-in actress, used to dramatise her walking to the bank to lodge her lover’s money for instance. The series reconstructs this incident by also filming her from above, as if by a security camera. One wonders of the benefits of such recreation and its implications for the story of Bertie. Eilis O’Hanlon’s piece in the Irish Independent is very strident in its criticism, as evidenced by the review’s headline ‘If a woman isn’t fluffy enough, the daggers come out’. O’Hanlon concludes that Larkin was right not to contribute to such a series as she could not possibly compete with the ‘Bertie machine, especially when the real machine was obviously Bertie himself’. Much is made of recorded comments by Bertie’s supporters. When asked if she played a significant role in shaping his constituency office, ‘no, said one Bertie’s supporter Chris Wall bluntly after a significant pause’, through the evidence from elsewhere was that her contribution was crucial. ‘The majority of us wouldn’t be that mad about her’, Paddy Duffy, another of the gang observed wryly. Using the analogy of the femme fatale, alongside other gangster parlance, the ‘Drumcondra Mafia’ certainly fulfil the generic expectation that the Don must be protected at all costs [even from himself!].
Throughout the four episodes more than 70 contributors and interviews are expertly knitted together through the tight editorial work of Nathan Nugent. The complexity of the storyline is narrated within a cinema verité documentary format, which has become very much a stylistic signature of recent Mint productions. Producer Steve Carson described the series as ‘a political biography of the Taoiseach, while also covering Ireland’s political history from 1992 where the Haughey series left off’.1 Film Ireland praises the series’ for its ‘rigorously accurate information with brilliantly creative storytelling’ and Mint Production for establishing a niche in Irish broadcasting by constructing factual documentaries based on contemporary Irish politics with a surfeit of interviewees who willingly contribute to such productions and accept their role based on ‘trust’ in the producers’ skill and integrity.
In his review of Bertie, Liam Fay in Sunday Times spoke of the former taoiseach as ‘a skilled actor from whom the interlinked masks of noble statesman, straight dealer and nice guy slowly but surely slipped’, a reading which elucidates the underlying exposés of ‘Citizen Bertie’. The documentary’s most remarkable feature, according to Fay, was ‘the grim determination with which Ahern and his closest henchmen are still sticking to their prepared script, despite the fact that the rest of us can plainly see the scenery collapsing around our ears’. The story also incidentally serves ‘as a guide to the economic mess in which the country currently languishes’.
Meanwhile Fintan O’Toole [Thurs Dec. 4th 2008 Irish Times] who has written more opinion pieces than most Irish journalists on politics and politicians, affirms that only a fraction of the material recorded appears on screen and that a great deal of important material is left out simply because of the tight narrative structure. (We can only conclude he knows this because his comments were so ruthlessly pruned). A reality of course which is not so surprising for students of the documentary format, calling to mind for instance the hours of footage shot for Man of Aran, with Robert Flaherty trying to capture the ‘poetic essence’ of life on the islands in the 1930. One contributor Des Richardson felt particularly hard done by, as the chosen sound bite doesn’t represent precisely what he wanted to say, according to O’Toole. Surprisingly few other interviewees have publically suggested that they were misrepresented, which says a lot for the even-handedness of the series.
Examining how ‘ordinary viewers’ consumed the series from an Irish Times blog, one notes how many were exercised by representation of ‘The Drumcondra Mafia’:
they were happy to sit back and explain at great length to Steve Carson’s cameras how they got their man into the Taoiseach’s office. They’re proud of what they did and how they did it and they’re happy to flex their muscles retrospectively for the gaiety of the nation’. Of course every politician out there would secretly at least love to have a mafia like that to keep an eye on their back and keep the home base happy while they were off seeing to matters of state and driving around in a Merc. Sadly, the programme didn’t ask these well-upholstered, grand gentlemen what they got out of all those late nights tending to Ahern’s patch, but I suppose they got a few pints and a box of biscuits from the grateful Ahern at the Christmas’. Meanwhile other contributors’ went even further suggesting the ‘mafia connection’ had parallels with ‘Tammany Hall’? [http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/ontherecord/2008/11/11/bertie/]
Throughout the four episodes, much was made of the miscommunication skills of this master evader of verbal clarity; counterpointed by the eloquent straight-talking Ian Paisley. Unlike Bertie however, Paisley is characterised as closing down dialogue by saying no to any form of concessions. Nonetheless, in the twilight of his long life, Paisley has been turned around by the chameleon-like charm of Ahern. In some ways, it is suggested Bertie’s apparent lack of vision was a positive, as it made him flexible and willing to compromise, making him an efficient negotiator and problem solver. Tony Blair concludes his assessment: ‘I found Bertie Ahern to be a man of courage, tenacity and integrity’. Meanwhile Jody Corcoran in The Irish Independentsuggests that the style of programme, was ‘too slick’ in its editing and almost ‘a trick of style over substance’. In an unusual apologia for Ahern, he concludes, Carson has a ‘heroic story to tell, but he fell into the trap which so many in the Irish media have; that is not seeing the big picture’. As a piece of political documentary, the documentary series efficiently captures the range of issues and complexities which define the political context of the enigmatic Bertie, but like the abiding theme of Citizen Kane, even a four part series cannot really define and explain the man, but merely dramatise his strengths together with his fatal flaws, while exposing the consequence of his actions.
- Mint Productions also produced behind Haughey (2005), and Fine Gael: A family at War (2004). It is co-run by Cason and his wife Miriam O’Callaghan the anchor on Prime Time, Ireland’s premier current affairs programme. O’Callaghan’s involvement cannot be coincidental in gaining access to so many any political figures to contribute. [↩]