When he’s in the chamber, Ahern has a large volume in front of him indexed A to Z. It’s a mini Bertie encyclopaedia and contains briefings for every imaginable issue that will come up — from crime, to anti-social behaviour, to finances, to house prices, to stamp duty, to nuclear power; to class sizes; to the Taoiseach’s pay; to the bill for Bertie’s make-up.
Yes, these days the Taoiseach is high maintenance. So high maintenance that you sometimes feel that he may have crossed the Rubicon and is now more Charvet shirt than St Bernard anorak. On that subject, let us digress for a second. He was at it again on Thursday, trying to justify his huge pay hike while telling ordinary workers that wage restraint was the order of the day. And when asked to justify his own €38,000 rise, he trotted out the same excuse that it was an independent body and that he hadn’t got a turnip for seven long years (if you forget the nice little interim award of 7.5% they got two years ago). And who wrote the independent body’s terms of reference? Erm, oh yes, the Government.
And so when they met the social partners on Thursday, we had utterly hypocritical posturing from him and from Brian Cowen — the wealthy who have just become even wealthier telling the poor why they must stay poor.
Now back from that side alley onto the main drag of Leaders Questions.
The issue that floats to the top term after term, year after year, is health. It comes up in different guises. You can be sure of one thing. The opposition will always use the word “crisis” and “scandal”. Ahern in his reply will always compare the amount of money his Government have spent on health compared to the Rainbow who preceded it. It is hard to clearly identify when the Rainbow last ruled.
Mediaeval historians place the last signs of that particular civilisation sometime towards the end of the 20th century but we can’t be sure. But it’s still the default comparison for the Taoiseach when unleashing a drizzle of statistic.
Traditionally, Ahern has responded to the barbs of the opposition in a very clever way. He will know that they have offered him a choice of questions so he’ll chose the ones that most suit. He will read out verbatim the brief written for him by a civil servant.
If there’s explaining to do, he will do it but in that unique smokes and daggers way of his that makes everything as clear as mud. And he will deliver it in that reasonable, sotto voce tone of his. It’s not pretty on the ear but it’s deft and has served him well.
There’s been a theory doing the rounds of Leinster House for the last couple of months, however, that his demeanour has changed, has hardened, that he has become arrogant and aloof. He has won his third election now and doesn’t care any more. There’s nothing more to prove electorally. All that matters is retaining the loyalty of his party, to hang on until it’s time to go.
Tony Blair underwent such a transformation in his third term. He changed from the politician who was eager to please everybody to the one who realised that wasn’t possible.
Since May, there’s been little evidence of the famous anorak. The arrogance began in the RTÉ studios on the night of victory and is still evident. Little niggling things are being said about him that were not said before — that he is obsessed with money and wealth; that he has become imperious; that he increasingly out of touch with real people.
He was certainly damaged during the Tribunal and he badly dropped the ball over provisional licences. His defence of the pay rise was indefensible. But the thing that really bolstered the notion for me was his performance at Leaders Questions on Wednesday.
Now maybe Eamon Gilmore provoked him by mentioning the unmentionables, Doctors John Crown and Maurice Neligan. What stood out from his response was his attack on the two medics and his jibe that one of them made more money than him. What had that to do with women who have just learned the horror of a misdiagnosis? There was no empathy. It was somebody else’s fault; not his.
In the past, that would not have happened. The apology would have been made within seconds. He has either lost his common touch or has become deeply complacent. Bertie’s become high maintenance with all the attitude to go with it.