The real question here is not, in truth, “could he win”, so much as “why on earth would he want to run for the job in the first place?”. Nonetheless, he told the Irish Independent at the weekend, he is not ruling it out:
“I’ll see what state I’m in in 2025. At the moment, I’m busy at home and I’m busy abroad. God knows what will happen in the future. I’d never say I will be interested – and I’d never say I won’t be interested. But I am conscious I am 70 and it is pushing on.”
Presidential campaigns are amongst the most nasty and brutal trials Irish democracy has to offer. Since the job has no real powers (the only meaningful one is the ability to refer legislation to the supreme court to test its constitutionality) campaigns are not, and can never be, about the “issues”. There are no issues. The only issue at stake in these campaigns is whether a candidate is the “right person” for the job. That is a polite way of saying that the media feels justified in trawling through every aspect of a candidate’s life, seeking dirt and muck to air.
The problem for Bertie Ahern is that, well, he has lived a long and controversial life. Yes, his campaign, no doubt, would focus on his vital role in the Northern peace process. You could see him very artfully constructing a narrative that presented him as a unifying national figure, one of the very few Irish leaders with real credibility with the Unionist population in Northern Ireland, and therefore well positioned to make the long term case for a United Ireland. He would also be credibly positioned to argue that he is a respected international statesman, who would enhance Ireland’s voice on the world stage.
But of course, there’s the questions about money. And envelopes.
It matters not a jot whether Bertie did, or did not do anything improper. The point is that by standing in that election, he would be handing the opposition, and the media, licence to make the entire campaign about his personal finances in the 1990s. He would spend six weeks answering questions about why he did not have a personal bank account, and offering pained explanations about the breakdown of his marriage, and all that other uncomfortable stuff.
And it would not just be that. His time as Taoiseach was relatively uncontroversial at the time, but that was a different Ireland to the one he would be aspiring to lead. In 2002, Bertie Ahern tried to tighten Irish abortion laws, for example, which puts him firmly on the villainous side of the current, hysterical, interpretation of Irish history. He is, and has ever been, an overtly devout catholic. His Government negotiated the indemnity for the Catholic religious orders, which is today universally (and, not that it matters, entirely falsely) presented as a dodgy deal to bail out the church.
He would, of course, win nostalgia votes. Including, quite possibly, my own. But make no mistake: He would be torn apart in the media, and by the opposition.
To answer the question posed in the headline then: No. No, he cannot possibly hope to win. He will find himself facing some sort of paragon of modern Ireland – a secular saint candidate in the mould of Michael D. Higgins, whose primary qualification is having all the right opinions about social and economic issues, while presenting no threat of actually enacting them. Colm O’Gorman, maybe, or Catherine Corless. He hasn’t a hope.
One hopes, for the sake of his dignity, and for the peace of mind of his family, that someone will have a quiet word with him along those lines.
For all his faults, and they are many, Ahern did the country real service. It would be sad, and unnecessary, to see him thrown to the wolves in the winter of his life.