Bertie Ahern: 'I find it hard to accept the premise on which the assertion is made that the Celtic Tiger was a bad thing or somehow Ireland blew the boom'

FOR Taoiseach Brian Cowen and finance minister Brian Lenihan, it certainly took a while, but an apology for the government's part in the parlous state of the nation's finances finally came to pass.

When it comes to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, however, there are no regrets, only the all-conquering belief that he led Ireland to the promised land of economic utopia.

In his keynote speech delivered to the Oxford Union last month, Ahern said the "wise policy choices" of Fianna Fáil would lead the country back to economic growth next year.

He also said it was simply wrong to say anybody "blew the boom" and insisted people should not be "deluded by the spin" that Ireland was hit harder by the international recession.

"Ireland is hurting deeply, as many other countries are, as a result of the credit crunch, the worst global downturn since the 1930s and the crisis in the banking sector," said Ahern. "However, because of the strong growth and wise policy choices we made over much of the last decade, we still have much to build upon and I am confident that Ireland can return to economic growth next year."

The Labour Party has accused Ahern of being in denial.

"It is probably difficult for him to admit it but he played a very large contributory role in the bust," said the party's finance spokeswoman, Joan Burton. "He boosted the boom at every opportunity, giving tax breaks for construction, and could not wean himself off those. I remember one speech in which he said people should be nicer to bankers, and of course there were his notorious comments when he urged those who wanted to talk down the Irish economy to commit suicide."

The former taoiseach, who is paid $50,000 plus first-class flights and hotel accommodation for public speaking engagements, delivered the prestigious speech at a significantly reduced rate.

He spoke at length of his achievements in bringing the country to peace and leading Ireland into the Celtic Tiger era. Most controversially, he insisted there was no question that anybody "blew the boom" and criticised economic commentators who could not see this.

"It is a sizeable national achievement to have raised our living standards from a historically low base of two-thirds of the EU average to a point where Ireland can maintain its status as one of the best-placed countries in the EU, despite the economic downturn," Ahern said. "Given this fact alone, I find it hard to accept the premise on which the assertion is made that the Celtic Tiger was a bad thing or somehow Ireland blew the boom."

The former taoiseach, who is believed to have earned a six-figure sum from public speaking last year, retains his healthy salary as a TD and is also provided with a garda driver and car for life.

He rounded on his critics who he said were criticising an "unprecedented period" of economic advancement in the nation's history. He said the perfect storm of the global economic crisis had not been predicted and that the "best global experts did not see it coming".

In Ahern's closing, he said: "People say I was lucky to be taoiseach during the boom times, but in many ways I made my own luck. People talk about the luck of the Irish and Ireland too will make her own luck in the critical days and months ahead. We are going through a bad patch, but... we will see better days".

Burton accused Ahern of blaming the opposition and the international crisis because it was easier than facing up to his own role in what happened.

"I have been generous in praising his role in the peace process but in other areas – his policies on property, the Galway tent, and his closeness to the monied élite – these things marred his judgement and he came to believe in them," she said.

"More than anything else that symbolises that relationship was when he went to Westminster to deliver an address and brought with him Seán Dunne, the poster kid for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger. They all lost the run of themselves, none more so than Bertie Ahern."