The seat of power: Bertie Ahern at his beloved St Luke's in Drumcondra

HOW appropriate that when the end arrived, it came at St Luke's, the headquarters of the legendary Drumcondra mafia. Bertie Ahern may stand second only to Eamon de Valera in terms of time spent in the office of an Taoiseach, but he, more than anybody in Irish public life, understood and embraced Tip O'Neill's maxim that all politics is local.

Even when he was Taoiseach, St Luke's, an innocuous two-story, redbrick, former doctor's surgery in the heart of Drumcondra village, was arguably where the real power lay. Ahern's cabinet met in Government Buildings, but his kitchen cabinet – a small cabal, most of whom he had known since he began in politics – was based at St Luke's and that is where Ahern made many of his biggest decisions.

That makes Ahern different from the 10 heads of government who preceded him and the one who came after him. And, ironically, for a politician whose popularity was based on personal appeal, it was never just Bertie Ahern. It was always Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra mafia.

Together they built the most powerful and best-financed constituency machine the state has ever seen. And together they got Ahern to the very top of the political tree.

The story goes that, a few months after Ahern was surprisingly elected to the Dáil in 1977, a group of his closest supporters – including Tony Kett, Paul Kiely, Paddy Duffy and Joe Burke – met at a house in Malahide. Following that meeting, a document was produced titled 'How to Become Taoiseach in 20 Years'. Others close to Ahern insist the story is apocryphal. Either way, the reality is that he became Taoiseach within that timeframe.

But while the Drumcondra mafia was a huge factor in Ahern's success, he wasn't a puppet being manipulated by others pulling the strings. Ahern was the outstanding politician of his generation – probably the greatest practitioner of the art of political tactics since de Valera.

History, however, may judge that his strengths as a politician ultimately proved to be his weaknesses as Taoiseach. It will be some years before his legacy can properly be assessed, but already some of the problems with his style of government are apparent.

In terms of winning elections, Ahern was without peer. In 1997, his tour de force on the campaign trail meant that Fianna Fáil won an election that it had no right to win and he became the first Taoiseach since the 1940s (yes, that man de Valera again) to win three elections in a row.

But the problem with Ahern, his critics would argue, is that it was always about the next election: give everybody what they want, say no to nobody, shirk tough decisions, throw money at every problem – all with a view to keeping the electorate onside. It worked politically, but this 'politics by focus group' is a large factor in the mess the country finds itself.

There are numerous examples of this approach. It was Ahern, in 2001, who was the driving force behind the decision to give free medical cards to the over-70s. It was a political stunt in advance of the 2002 general election, lacking any social justification whatsoever. It wasn't costed in advance and the last-minute nature of the announcement left the government open to be screwed to the wall by the GP representative body, the Irish Medical Organisation, which is exactly what happened.

The same goes for benchmarking, where a €1bn-a-year pay increase was handed to the public sector without getting any reform in return, just to keep the public-sector workers and unions sweet. The growth in public-sector employees during his time as Taoiseach was staggering. It has left the state with a now unaffordable pay and pensions bill.

The public-sector unions were given an absolute veto over reform by Ahern – moves to reform the 1932 Transport Act were constantly stymied and when health boards were scrapped, there were no redundancies, leaving the HSE chronically overstaffed at mid-management level.

Those who irritated the unions were dealt with ruthlessly by Ahern. The late Seamus Brennan was removed as transport minister because he dared to promise to deregulate transport in Dublin. Willie Walsh, a hugely successful boss of Aer Lingus, was excoriated by Ahern in the Dáil because he took a position that the unions didn't like on state ownership of the airline.

Perhaps the most telling example of Ahern's political style came at the 2007 Fianna Fáil ardfheis. A general election was imminent and there was a debate going on within the party as to what the economic policy should be. While nobody could see the extent of what was coming down the tracks, it was clear even then that tough economic times lay ahead. Finance minister Brian Cowen was urging the party opt for a cautious steady-as-she-goes approach, ruling out extravagant promises on the grounds they were irresponsible and unaffordable. But at the last minute, Ahern – conscious that the opposition was offering all manner of goodies – opted to pack his presidential address with promises of further tax cuts and spending increases. It was a triumph of political pragmatism over sound economic policy and that is what happened throughout Ahern's tenure.

In the period Ahern was Taoiseach, spending grew every year by double digit percentages – a level that was wholly unsustainable and which was quite rightly viewed with horror in Berlin and Brussels. Some of the spending was undoubtedly required as the state played catch-up, but a lot of it was hugely wasteful. How, for example, could the budget of Fás have reached €1bn at a time of full employment?

Perhaps the biggest budgetary damage was done in the 2004 to 2007 period when it was clear the economy and the housing market were overheating. Belated efforts by Charlie McCreevy to rein in spending saw him dispatched to Brussels. Brian Cowen may have taken over as finance minister, but the budgets – with more big tax cuts and large welfare increases – had Ahern's fingerprints all over them.

It was all about repositioning Fianna Fáil in advance of the general election and it worked brilliantly. A grateful electorate returned Fianna Fáil for a third successive term, but good economic management it most certainly was not.

Good things did happen during Ahern's tenure. Huge economic and social progress was made and not even the ravages of the current recession will reverse all of that. How much of that progress was down to Ahern's government policies or simply because Fianna Fáil came into power on the cusp of a boom is open to debate.

Nobody, however, can take away what Ahern did in Northern Ireland. Those who say that he was simply there at the right time ignore the impasse that existed prior to Ahern coming to office. Of course, he was just one of the players in the drama, but he unquestionably played a key role. Those who delighted in sending abusive texts to radio shows about Ahern in recent days perhaps might reflect that this is a man who went straight from his mother's funeral back to negotiate the Good Friday agreement.

Ahern was at his best in such environments – interacting with people, cutting a deal like an old-style trade union negotiator. His time as president of the European Union in 2004, when Ireland managed to almost single-handedly get the European Constitution back on track, was an undoubted triumph and won him huge acclaim across the EU. At that point, it seems as if the job of president of the European Commission was his for the taking, but ever the home-bird, he wasn't interested. He probably wishes now he had gone for it.

If he had done so, Ahern would have gone at a time of his own choosing instead of being effectively forced from the office of An Taoiseach in 2008 due to revelations about his finances. When historians come to write his legacy, the two-year period in the mid-1990s when large sums of money passed through his bank accounts will undoubtedly feature.

The Mahon tribunal will give its verdict on the 'dig-outs' and it is hard to see how Ahern – who by the end of his evidence was stating that some of the sterling uncovered by the tribunal had come from bets placed on horse races – can emerge unscathed from its final report. The economic meltdown has prompted a revision of his record of overseeing the greatest boom in the history of the state, but the Teflon Taoiseach image first started to erode with the revelations from Dublin Castle.

The end for Ahern was formally announced last Thursday night at a meeting of his beloved O'Donovan Rossa Cumann, but it really happened in June 2009 with the Dublin Central by-election and the local elections. Ahern wasn't on the ballot but his brother Maurice was and it was the Bertie brand that was on offer to the electorate.

Despite Ahern's nine successive poll-topping performances in Dublin Central, Maurice came in fifth place in the by-election failing to get elected for the Cabra-Glasnevin ward of Dublin City Council. Three quarters of people who voted for Fianna Fáil in Cabra-Glasnevin opted not to place a number one in the box beside the Ahern name. It must have been a sobering experience for the former taoiseach.

So why put himself through another election, with no guarantee of success, when his political career is coming to an end anyway? The famous Ahern machine is no more and the much-vaunted ward boss system a shadow of what it was. The days when the Jaguar and Mercedes of Des Richardson and Joe Burke respectively could be seen parked outside St Luke's are long gone. Even the once omnipresent ministerial Mercedes perked on the kerb outside is a rare sight.

St Luke's, the building, still exists, but St Luke's as we know it is long gone. Will the last person to leave the building please turn out the lights.

Shane Coleman, the Sunday Tribune's political editor, is the co-author, with Michael Clifford, of 'Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra Mafia'