The candidate who keeps popping into the public consciousness is the fallen leader, Bertie Ahern. But is he getting a raw deal, taking all the heat for landing the country in the mire, while others slink off into a dark corner?
Ahern can’t help shooting himself in the foot every time he ventures out into the public square. Last week, he was the focus of the first part of a TV3 documentary into the rise and fall of Fianna Fáil. Monday’s programme might well have been renamed Bertie, The Deluded Years.
Ahern kept reverting to his standard line that he bore no blame or shame for leading the country into the swamp in which it now trashes around. He also continued to claim that his travails in the Mahon Tribunal were all down to the circumstances of his marriage break-up. He even provided a reprise of his emotional interview with Bryan Dobson of September, 2006.
On that occasion, the apparent baring of his soul won the hearts and minds of many across the State. The investigations that tumbled out into the public domain in the years that followed bared a different kind of truth. Ahern had proffered to the citizenry a version of events that was, to put it at its most charitable, riven with inaccuracies. So when he appeared to be getting emotional on last Monday’s programme about how much the inquiry was costing him, it was difficult not to react with scepticism. Break down once and we believe it’s genuine. Head towards it a second time and scepticism is the natural reaction.
Later in the week, callers to RTÉ’s Liveline said they were disgusted that Ahern was having a 60th birthday bash in Croke Park, scheduled for last night. They considered it to be in bad taste, as if he was sticking it to the peasants scraping to survive a raging economic storm, while he warmed his hands from the safety of a bloated State pension.
The prognosis was harsh, but understandable. Ahern has every right to celebrate his birthday, but discretion might have been better-deployed. At a time like this, keeping the head down is the best option for those who drove the ship of State onto the rocks.
Ahern’s old confederate, Charlie McCreevy, knows the value of keeping the head down. McCreevy has largely slipped below the radar of rage that genuinely infects huge swathes of the population. He has made precious little public comment since stepping down as EU commissioner and walking off with a slew of bloated pensions sticking out of his back pocket. Even when approached by reporters at race meetings, he declines to offer any morsel for the peasants who are left scraping around in a moribund economy, from which he is insulated.
Both Ahern and McCreevy largely acknowledge that the latter steered the economy as the former concentrated on Northern Ireland. It was during these years that the economic template for the country was set. Cut the arse out of the tax base and throw money at everything, and everybody, in pursuit of the next election.
“When I have it, I spend it,” McCreevy said. And he did, using the exchequer like an election-fighting fund. From the SSIAs to the hare-brained decentralisation debacle, McCreevy was on the bridge as the ship of State steamed towards the rocks.
McCreevy was also the man who created the “because we’re worth it” generation of senior politicians and public servants, ratcheting up pay to match the big brains these people felt they possessed. The most recent expression of this culture was the €700,000 package (as revealed last week) received by retiring public servant, Dermot McCarthy.
Yet, while Ahern is the focus of national rage, McCreevy has moved on to sit on the board of Ireland’s most successful public company, Ryanair. From such a vantage, he can look out on the carnage and tell himself that it was all so different when he was on the bridge. And if he says it often enough he may even come to believe it, just as his old mucker apparently does. Brian Cowen is frequently coupled with Ahern when referencing the mismanagement, but McCreevy arguably bears as much, if not more, responsibility than either of those two.
Ahern’s stock is such now that the current Fianna Fáil leadership is doing all it can to distance itself from him. In recent weeks, both Micheál Martin and his deputy, Eamon Ó Cuiv, have made noises that were seen as less than complimentary about Ahern.
Yet both were perfectly happy to sit at the cabinet table and give their tuppence worth. Or did they do anything but sit on their hands as highly-paid ministers?
Martin benefited from Ahern when he found himself mired in controversy over nursing home changes in 2005. As Minister for Health, Martin had been negligent in responding to a report on the matter a year earlier. It cost the State an estimated €50m. Under a different leader, Martin may have been forced to resign and slink off into the wilderness. But that was not Ahern’s way, and Martin went on to greater things. Ó Cúiv stood apart from his party in 2001 in rejecting the Nice Treaty. Other leaders would have thrown him out of his junior minister’s office. Ahern promoted him to the full cabinet, and when the referendum came up again, Ó Cúiv got into line. As with Martin, he benefited from the Ahern culture that he now wishes to distance himself from.
One audio clip that is constantly — and correctly — played to demonstrate the shabbiness of Ahern’s stewardship is the fabled occasion in 2006 when he suggested that “moaners and cribbers” should commit suicide. The insult showed how far removed he was from unfolding events in which the bubble was about to burst. What is often ignored is that the occasion was a conference organised by ICTU, and the audience broke out in laughter and applause at his quip. If Ahern had his head in the sand, there were plenty of others only too eager to join him, because they had invested so much in his leadership.
Voters loved him, too. In 2007, despite all that was emerging about his character, the electorate returned him to power for an historic third term. His ace card was the promise of lower taxes, lower taxes, lower taxes, all in a country which had the lowest direct tax regime in Europe. And an electorate conditioned on the culture of grab that dominated the previous decade was only too happy to place their trust in him once more. Anybody who pointed out that he may not have been what he seemed was told to “concentrate on the issues.” So it went. So he went. All the way back to power.
Shed no tears for him now, as his head sticks out from the stocks in the public square. He deserves all the opprobrium heaped on his head. But don’t forget that he was not alone. He was surrounded by sycophants and enablers. Having a nation focus its wrath on one head suits others just fine.