RYLE DWYER: Did highly paid academics object because Bertie would do it for free?

FREE Education for Everyone, with the inapt acronym FEE, organised up to 1,000 student signatures in protest against the appointment of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as a visiting professor at NUI Maynooth (NUIM). They called on the college authorities to suspend the appointment, at least until after the publication of the Mahon tribunal report.

It may have seemed like a rational protest but not when one examines what was involved. Some 36 academics, including professors and senior lectures, were behind the protest, which has been simmering for months.

It was not like 1982 when some members of the academic staff at UCD were critical of the appointment of former Senator George McGovern as a visiting professor of American history. He had an earned doctorate in history and had served in the US Congress for 16 years.

Ten years earlier, in 1972, McGovern won the Democratic nomination to challenge Richard Nixon for the White House. Nixon’s people pulled out all the stops and they won 49 of the 50 states. In terms of the number and percentage of states won, it was the most decisive victory since George Washington won all the states, but “Tricky Dickie” Nixon had overcooked it.

In order to ensure his win his staff had tried to bug the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington. The buggers were caught and their connection with the Nixon campaign was firmly established. This led to the Watergate scandal.

The subsequent inquiry established that Nixon had personally authorised the cover-up. Ironically, he was caught because he also bugged his own office and the “smoking gun” that nailed him was the tape of a conversation with his chief of staff in relation to the cover-up. Faced with certain impeachment, he resigned.

McGovern seemed like an ideal visiting professor, but some UCD staff were outraged because he was being paid a small fortune to deliver comparatively few lectures. We now know that Bertie did not attend the London School of Economics and that he did not get a regular degree from any university, but Queen’s University, Belfast, conferred him with an honorary Doctor of Laws, along with former British prime minister Tony Blair in May 2008.

There may be aspects of the legacies of both men that people should question, but not those honorary degrees. They deserved them. Bertie Ahern is scheduled to begin lecturing in the School of Business and Law where courses include a master’s degree in mediation and conflict intervention. He certainly has the credentials to provide a real insight into such matters. As Minister for Labour he distinguished himself with his mediation skills, and he was one of the main architects of social partnership. Many people may question whether this was achieved by recklessly throwing money at problems, but the university setting would be the right place to question such tactics.

Bertie Ahern played a major role in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Even John Taylor of the Ulster Unionist Party acknowledged that at the time. If he were to lecture on such matters in the US he could undoubtedly command massive fees.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone better qualified to talk on such matters. Henry Kissinger might be more famous, but then he is wanted in many countries for questioning in relation to allegations of gross violations of human rights. Even if Bertie were guilty of everything of which he has ever been accused, he would still be a veritable choirboy in comparison to Kissinger.

Prof John Hughes, president of NUIM, was irritated by the protest of the college’s academics. He criticised their conduct as prejudicial. “In Ireland, as elsewhere,” he said, “people are innocent until proven guilty.”

NUIM announced Bertie’s appointment last March, and the academics protested formally as early as June. They wrote to the college president expressing their “profound opposition” to the appointment on the grounds of “continuing ambiguity surrounding Mr Ahern’s financial affairs, and the implications of these financial affairs for his conduct while in public office.”

In a letter marked “Strictly Private Confidential”, Prof Hughes explained the following week: “A strong case was put to me by the head of business and law based on the extensive experience and reputation of this individual in conflict resolution and mediation, and his potential contribution to the new diploma and master’s programmes in this area.”

“Given the pivotal role of Mr Ahern in squandering the unanticipated riches of the Celtic Tiger era,” the academics shot back, the decision to appoint him “as an honorary professor simply beggars belief.”

They contended that “the political track record of Mr Ahern is one that, on balance, renders him unworthy of the prestigious position that he has been afforded.” Imagine, he’s being elevated to their status!

Bertie’s fall from grace has been rather comprehensive. People are blaming the banks, the speculators and the politicians for our current problems. Since Ahern left office his political stock has plummeted like the actual stock of the Bank of Ireland, AIB or even Anglo-Irish. The Celtic Tiger was already dead, but he got out before it was well and truly gutted. Nobody, except possibly himself, has been fooled.

Talk of him being a viable candidate to succeed Mary McAleese as president sounds like bullsugar at the moment. His older brother, Maurice, finished in fifth place in this year’s by-election in Ahern’s own constituency. Can anyone say when the Fianna Fáil candidate finished lower than second in any other by-election?

THINGS have been getting worse by the week. Some people are even blaming the politicians for the flooding. Despite the agitation about global warming for the past few years when we had the money, no attempt was made to dredge our rivers to ensure they could cope with the increased rainfall that was predicted.

Of course, it is unfair to single out Ahern. He was not responsible for the weather, any more than for the clerical paedophile abuse. All accused are entitled to the presumption of innocence, but there is public exasperation at the interminable delays in bringing people to justice.

In 1997, Fianna Fáil promised zero tolerance towards crime. But the Murphy report contains a litany of appalling crimes that were ignored over decades.

In 2004, almost eight years after the Fr Brendan Smyth affair brought Albert Reynolds down, Ahern’s government concluded a deal indemnifying the religious for compensation in excess of €127m in relation to paedophile abuse.

Now we have a good idea of what they have actually been tolerating. Was their behaviour just another broken promise, or is it further proof of Fianna Fáil’s comprehensive incompetence?

One might understand objections to NUIM paying Bertie exorbitant fees for his lectures, but he has offered to lecture there for free. That seems like a bargain.

Who provided a copy of Prof Hughes’s strictly private letter and leaked the story this week, of all weeks? The timing prompts one to wonder if it was not somebody who thought Ahern’s real sin was offering to do the job for nothing, while these highly-paid academics were striking in defence of their privileged positions?

I’m just asking.


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