By Diarmuid Doyle
Diarmuid Doyle – Bertie is out of public sight but it’s never been more important to keep an eye on him….
Brian Cowen was far more generous than he needed to be. Bertie Ahern, he said in a long statement of tribute to his predecessor, was the consummate politician of his generation, “a person of rare ability and extraordinary talent”. Speaking after Ahern had announced he would not be running in the next election, Cowen waxed eloquent about the former taoiseach’s “immense work ethic” and superb negotiating skills. “His fellow countrymen and women will always hold him in high esteem,” he concluded.
Three days later, as we all know now, he got his reward when Ahern, in his role as highly-paid media whore, went on the attack in the News Of The World. Cowen was presented as a man of many mistakes, somebody whose main fault was that he didn’t do it Bertie’s way. From the chief political culprit for the economic downturn, it was farcically deluded and very nasty, although a timely reminder of the bile and bitterness which lies beneath that old Bertie bonhomie.
Timely, because Ahern cannot yet be consigned to history. In fact, now that he will be out of public sight, it has never been more important to keep an eye on him. He remains a menace and a threat to Ireland’s prosperity through his significant, but little commented on, position as chairman of the International Forestry Fund.
So far, only the Sunday Tribune among the country’s newspapers has paid close attention to Ahern’s role in this private company. Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan has asked a Dáil question and Sinn Féin’s Martin Ferris has thrown a few shapes about the former taoiseach’s latest gig. But, as with John O’Donoghue’s expenses a few years ago, it is taking the political classes a while to wake up to this issue.
Although the International Forestry Fund sounds like a vaguely cuddly group, which loves trees the way some of us love kittens, it is in fact a very profit-conscious joint venture between two private asset management companies, Helvetia Wealth and IFS Asset Managers Limited. It makes its money by acquiring existing forests on behalf of investors. As it says on its website, Helvetia has 1.1bn Swiss Francs (€867m) in assets “following a number of very successful acquisitions in the UK, Germany and Ireland”. IFS currently manages in excess of €100m of forestry assets on behalf of 18,000 private and corporate clients in this country.
In Ireland, most of our trees and forests belong to the state agency Coillte, which owns more than one million acres of land – about 7% of Irish land cover. In July last year, Colm McCarthy issued his An Bord Snip Nua report in which he suggested, among other ideas, that the government look at flogging Coillte as part of a mass sell-off of state assets.
This obviously piqued the interest of the cash-rich International Forestry Fund and five months later it announced that Bertie Ahern had been appointed as its chairman. “Mr Ahern implemented bold economic initiatives that included corporate tax incentives and education reform”, the Fund said at the time. “His efforts laid out a welcome mat for international corporations, making Ireland an attractive location for foreign companies”.
Indeed. Seven months after that, in July 2010, McCarthy was given a new job – to look in more depth at the idea of selling off the state assets he had mentioned in his 2009 report. One of the companies specifically targeted was Coillte.
By now, the International Forestry Fund, with Bertie Ahern firmly ensconced at the top, was salivating at the prospect of getting its hands on Coillte and the 7% of Ireland that comes with it. “We would certainly have an interest in that regard,” Paul Brosnan, the fund’s director, told this newspaper last year. “We have always had an interest in Coillte. It certainly would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that we would acquire it.”
Of the very many questions that arise from all of this, here are just some: why on earth would we sell 7% of Irish land to private investors? Why is a former taoiseach heading up a company registered in the Virgin Islands which wants to profit from more than one million acres of the country he used to run? How much is he getting for whatever advice or help he will be giving to help secure this grand sell-off? Does the Green Party have anything to say? Will Bertie Ahern make a statement on the issue?
Many of these questions would be irrelevant if Ahern was to resign from the International Forestry Fund or if the fund was to confirm that it had no interest whatsoever in Coillte, now, or in the future. Such outcomes seem unlikely, however. The former taoiseach and the company he chairs are apparently both driven by an insatiable greed for money. They are perfect bedfellows.