If politics is about elections, Bertie Ahern was the greatest politician of his generation. He will go down in history as Fianna Fáil's best vote-getter, bar its founder, Eamonn de Valera.

It is also highly likely he will go down as the worst electoral liability in Fianna Fáil history, albeit in an election he most likely won't stand in himself.

Three times Ahern was elected to govern. On the first occasion in 1997, he came out of nowhere. He had been less than impressive as leader of the opposition. The ruling coalition government had worked better than anybody could have expected over the previous three years. They had overseen rapid expansion of the economy to the point where it was growing at 10% in the year of election, the highest rate it would achieve during those heady days of boom and bubble. But Fianna Fáil had a secret weapon – the "Bertie factor".

His hour had come. Across the pond, Tony Blair had demonstrated that the times called for a bright, new shiny brand of politics, in which the leader was the nice guy from next door. Not that the nice guy didn't have the smarts – far from it. But he was an ordinary bloke, who wasn't given to hifalutin rhetoric and felt no compulsion to wave his ego around the place.

Elections were Ahern's forte. Apart from his own ability to connect, he was a great organiser and had an eye for hiring and deploying the best talent.

His greatest attribute in office was his ability to get on with people. Whenever controversies arose, he was able to smooth things over with his coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats. He developed an excellent relationship with Mary Harney to the extent that nothing would have parted them this side of a catastrophe. Equally, when Michael McDowell took over, Ahern was able to keep him onside despite a growing stench surrounding his personal finances.

As far as the meat of politics went, Ahern was unencumbered by ideology. To a certain extent, he allowed Charlie McCreevy run the economy, but they were agreed on the main focus. Spend as much money as is necessary to buy the next election, and cut income taxes because that's all the rage.

That twin approach has probably contributed as much to our current woes as the excesses of the property bubble. The public finances are in rag order and the tax base has been decimated.

His major achievement in that first term was his work on the north. Whatever else can be laid at his door, he deserves praise for contributing to the arrival of relative peace. He brought all his attributes to the table, camaraderie, patience, wrapping his ego up in humility and an ability to absorb the detail of a brief and see where it can be brought. It's difficult to imagine another politician whose dedication and specific ability could have improved on Ahern's contribution.

The 2002 election was his high water mark. He slapped the opposition around the place. It was the election in which Ahern's poster featured as large as that of the local candidates on party posters. Elect me, I'm with Bertie, your only man.

He romped home and nearly won an overall majority. That he didn't is a small cause for comfort. For in the months after the election, the PDs made its only decent contribution to that government by putting the kibosh on the Bertie Bowl.

Nothing illustrates a country gone mad like the plans for the Bertie Bowl. In a city of one million people, we have a world class 80,000 capacity stadium in Croke Park and a first- class all-seater 50,000 capacity in Lansdowne Road. The former is underused and will continue to be so. Why exactly did we need to spend €1bn on another stadium? Because Bertie likes sport and he said we're worth it.

Through the bubble years that kicked off in 2003, Ahern played dumb. His obsession with winning the next election ensured he would do nothing that might impact on the party's popularity. Briefly, after the 2002 election, his own popularity plummeted when the public saw that the government had been less than frank about the public finances prior to the election. He wasn't going to go there again. Nothing would be done that might arrest the soaraway price of property. Warning signals were not just ignored, they were smashed. Anybody who pointed to the bubble was a whinger who should commit suicide.

In the background, the problems of his own finances were brewing at the Mahon Tribunal. When the issue surfaced, he handled it with his customary brilliance. Can anybody now look back on the infamous interview he gave on the Six One News and believe that this was a man telling the truth?

He made it real one more time in 2007. This was a triumph to match his first 10 years previously. Despite the glaring problems around his finances, he made it past the post.

In the end, he wasn't able to talk his way out of the tribunal. The tales of whip-rounds and dig-outs were enough to sell to the electorate, but in the cold clinical forum of a tribunal, the facts didn't stack up.

Immediately after his resignation, the general consensus was that he would one day be president if the tribunal report wasn't too harsh on him. Irrespective of what Mahon says now, that day will never come to pass.

The public was never fully engaged by his financial issues, but all the polls indicate that they lay the blame for the current mess firmly at the door of the government which ruled during the bubble.

Bar some amazing turnaround, Fianna Fáil faces the mother of all hammerings at the next election. The indications are that it could return its lowest complement to the Dáil since the 1920s.

Brian Cowen has done his legacy no favours in the manner in which he has conducted himself since becoming Taoiseach. Neither will posterity look favourably on his role as minister for finance.

But it is Ahern, as the man in charge at the time, who bears the greatest responsibility. History is unlikely to be kind to him.