Former Ireland Prime Minister Bertie Ahern

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Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern

Bertie Ahern was Ireland's Prime Minister, or Taoiseach (pronounced Tea-shock) from 1997 until 2008, when he stepped down amid controversy over his testimony to the Mahon tribunal, an inquiry set up to investigate allegations of financial sweeteners paid to politicians. (Ahern denied receiving illegal payments but admitted taking cash loans from friends.) He sat down with TIME's Catherine Mayer to discuss his long and sometimes turbulent political life, his key role in the Northern Irish peace process and his new autobiography.

You were Taoiseach for almost 11 years. What's been the biggest shock of life after office?

You wake up every morning and you don't go down to the e-mails to the texts and phone messages left at 4 a.m. saying 'Call me as soon as you get up.' It was a rare morning where there wasn't something of some degree of importance. Sometimes it was very serious. At other times I thought they just left the messages so you wouldn't be lonely when you woke up.

You obviously haven't got out of that work ethic. You wrote your autobiography in record time.

Last summer when I left office a lot of publishers asked if I'd write my autobiography and I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to do that, but don't ask me when.' Then exactly a year ago I fell downstairs and smashed my ankle badly. I was a lousy patient. It was bad enough not being Taoiseach and now to be told that now I had to hang around with a cast and crutches. So I got a notebook and started working. 

How did you decide what to include and what to leave out? You've included some very personal details.

I went through what I thought I should write, about being in government and social partnership and being Lord Mayor of Dublin and blah blah. And then I said, 'What were the questions I was always being asked?' My marriage broke up in 1987 and I was for years being asked about that. I thought, if I'm ever going to talk about it, it will be now. And then the Tribunal stuff ... That was easy enough to do because it just annoys me.

That comes through. You seem to blame the media for your decision to quit as Taoiseach.

Yes, they just kept after me. Even when things were getting serious with the economy, they just kept on my back. I would have [left office] this year anyway. I thought at the end public opinion would be fed up with the tribunal and fed up with me. It just goes on and on. You're asked questions like, 'Do you not remember well going into a bank on Sept. 23, 1993?' and eight hours later you're thinking 'Jesus, did I go into the bank on Sept. 23, 1993?'

I think it was the detail of you not having a bank account while serving as Ireland's Minister of Finance that startled people.

How could the Minister of Finance not have a bank account? Yeah. Of course I had several bank accounts but they were in my wife's name and my name. I didn't have one in my own name. If I ever thought that I was going to be questioned about it, the guys that gave me loans — all I had to do was get them to do a sheet of paper saying this was a loan of money to be paid back. If you spend your life ensuring every little bit of paper you dealt with was right, you won't be doing your job.

Let's look at what doing your job entailed. Obviously you put a lot of time into the Northern Irish peace process.

The trick was to be sympathetic to all the arguments and to work at understanding their arguments. Then they open up to you. Will they compromise? What is it that they really need? You'd know Gerry Adams needed four or five things but he'd come in and give you 45. If you knew where their pressures were, who was undermining them, then you were in a position to get the other side to say, 'What about this?' We needed to get an agreement that we all could live with, that would stop the killing.

Ireland has changed dramatically during your time in politics.

If you go back to the mid-'80s, unemployment was 20%. The debt-GDP ratio was higher than Ethiopia's. Emigration was massive. The new Irish [immigrants] were 1% of the workforce. Before this recession we got to full employment, 7% growth every year. Most of the young Irish that wanted to came back. The working population of the new Irish is now 15%. We've been able to put huge money into infrastructure, to attract foreign direct investment to set up new industries. We brought in legislation decriminalizing homosexuals, helping gay and lesbian couples to have civil partnerships, we brought in divorce. 

It looked like a success story, and then the recession came.

Did we make mistakes? Of course we did. The property boom got too big, the banks borrowed too much. Our regulation system, and we all have to take responsibility for this, wasn't picking up everything it should. When I tried to bring in a property tax, the media killed me. Then the media killed me saying I didn't bring in the solutions. I am sorry so many people have lost jobs.

The Irish used to be instinctive pro-Europeans. Now they're a lot more skeptical.

They're far more questioning. People now say 'If we go further in European integration, what will we lose and what will we gain?' [In the Lisbon Treaty referendum] people thought about investment more; they said, 'Why do we have all these companies in Ireland?' The reason is because we're part of Europe. We still get a great share of foreign direct investment. In U.S. investment round the world, Ireland gets more than China. When the argument comes down to hard facts, people say, 'We're in Europe.' 

There's talk you may stand for the Irish presidency.

I really haven't thought about that because it's over two years away and God, have I learned that things can change. 

As President Obama is learning.

He genuinely is trying to hold out the hand of friendship. The Middle East is crucial. Ultimately to ease the tensions there is crucial. Afghanistan is a different kind of an issue. I agree with more troops there. I'm not a warmonger but it's no good going in for seven or eight years and then pulling out and leaving it worse. It's unfair to say he should have successes by now. But this time next year ...

So you think the Nobel Peace Prize was premature.

I just don't understand. If there's an award for a person doing good mood music, sure. I'd definitely give Obama two of them. But I thought the Nobel Prize was for great achievements, not just the Peace Prize but in science and literature. I could imagine going in front of the Nobel Committee and saying 'Listen. I've a great idea and I'm going to invent it in two years' time. Will you give me the award?' It doesn't make any sense. In fairness to the man, he's probably embarrassed himself.

Bertie Ahern: The Autobiography is out now in the U.K. and Ireland.