CULPRIT Number One showed up in the stocks last Thursday. Bertie Ahern is regarded by many as the captain who drove the State ship onto the rocks. And then, as the crew emerged dazed from the bridge, and those in steerage faced the prospect of drowning, the great leader could be seen rowing furiously towards the security of a big, fat pension.
Thursday was the first occasion since he left office that Ahern had to account for himself in a forum that wasn’t cushioned with fluff. Anybody expecting that he would be filleted by the young political guns of post-Apocalypse Ireland were sorely disappointed. The verbal gymnastics that had long been his hallmark served him well in this postscript to his political career.
While he deserves much of the opprobrium heaped on him, it’s also true that he makes for an easy target. There isn’t much in his public persona to engender empathy, or even sympathy. His faux sincerity, the practiced routine of charming and confusing at the same time, the suspicion that behind the hail fellow well-met persona lies a fellow in whom there’s not much to meet, the dig outs, the manner in which he threw his former secretary to the wolves of the planning tribunal. All of these little things that go to making up Bertie as-we-know-him leave much to be desired.
The long view will commend his role in bringing peace to the North. His commitment was most notable on the day he buried his mother, flying back north that afternoon to continue the work.
So why, more so than any other figure, does he continue to attract such negative reaction from the public? Maybe it’s something to do with the bitterness that can accompany the break-up of a union.
Ahern had a unique relationship with the Irish public. He was Bertie, no airs or graces, content to hide his fierce intelligence, easy in any company, doin’ his bit. The connection he forged extended beyond the 40% of those who voted first preference for Fianna Fáil when he was in charge. His record shows that he was the greatest vote-getter in modern Irish politics. Winning three general elections was an achievement that is unlikely to be surpassed by any politician currently at work in the country.
In a political culture where the local politician is expected to deliver a personal service, he managed to give the impression of doing so on a national scale. Everybody knew Bertie.
The most telling manifestation of his relationship with the public came about in the 2007 general election, his moment of greatest triumph. He was under severe pressure at the time.
Controversy was spilling out of the planning tribunal over how he had come into large sums of money. He called the election earlier than he had intended because a Sunday newspaper was going to break a further story about his finances. The first week of the election campaign was dominated by questions about his dealings with the tribunal, the tales of whiparounds and dig-outs.
For reporters — such as myself — who had covered the torturous detail of the tribunal, it was obvious that his story simply didn’t stack up, that he had major questions to answer, and that any other politician in his position would have resigned by then.
In the early days of the campaign, Ahern’s partner in government, Michael McDowell, was provided with a dossier about Ahern’s finances that disturbed him. The opposition were gagging at the prospect of bringing him down.
Yet after an opinion poll showed that the public had no issue with Ahern, everybody backed off. As far as the public was concerned, this was a decent man with a few weaknesses, and sure look at the prosperity he had conferred on the whole country. “Concentrate on the issues” was the message repeatedly conveyed to elements in the media which continued to raise questions about Ahern’s finances.
In this scenario, his character was not an issue. His honesty or financial probity were not issues. All that mattered was what he could tangibly “deliver” in the short term, what he could say to reassure everybody that the fragile boom would continue to get boomier.
He clung on for another 10 months after the election, an achievement in itself considering what was emerging about his finances. Then, when the economy collapsed, the break-up was complete, recriminations set in, the public grew embittered towards him.
Does he deserve the reputation he now has? Possibly, but those who voted for him — and Fianna Fáil became supremely transfer friendly during his time — also bear responsibility. Ahern was not a dictator. The electorate may not be as sophisticated as received wisdom has it, but neither are voters fools. They knew what they were getting. They were getting a politician who told them what they wanted to hear, who had a little something for everybody on the never, never.
His lasting legacy can be glimpsed in the politics of today. Not only did Bertie delight the electorate, but his popularity mesmerised his fellow politicians. This never, never is the place to seek out. All politics must have some degree of populism to succeed, but Bertie’s tenure showed that the Irish political culture requires big dollops of it.
The most recent example of this approach was evident last week with the launch of the new political party, the Social Democrats. The headline item on its policy agenda, the red-line issue for entering government, is the abolition of water charges.
Privately, most politicians accept the requirement for water charges in some form. It has taken 30 years to get to the point where the issue is on the table, albeit via the cock-up that was the establishment of Irish Water. There are many issues to be ironed out, but reverting to a system in which a resource like water is paid for out of general taxation would be a disaster. Every other country in the developed world recognises water must be paid for.
Yet, the short-term view prevails here. One by one, the opposition parties declare that water charges must be reversed because that’s where votes are in the next election. And if it comes down to it after an election, Fine Gael will also succumb to this view. Today’s politicians will be gone by the time the water turns brown in major conurbations, just like Ahern was off enjoying his pension when the economy went over a cliff.
Populism did the job for Bertie, and all parties have cottoned onto it. Tell the electorate what they want to hear because the price will only come due in the political Neverland of Tomorrow. Water charges may turn out to be the populist issue to dominate the next election, and if so it will be a fitting tribute to Bertie’s political legacy. It won’t be of much benefit to the common good, but matters like that are entirely secondary in elections.