His predecessor Charlie Haughey called Bertie Ahern “the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all”, no mean compliment coming from such a notorious source.
But today Bertie Ahern has had to quit as Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) under a cloud of scandal: he’ll stay in office for another five weeks, just long enough to make an ‘historic’ address to the US Congress on April 30th.
Although no one was quite sure of its impact until today, it seems the killer blow came just before Easter when his former constituency secretary, Grainne Carruth, admitted tearfully to a corruption enquiry that money she deposited for Ahern back in the mid-1990s must have been in British sterling currency–and so could not have been, as Ahern had claimed, his salary checks.
Bertie is an accountant by profession, but his cunning did not extend to hiding mysterious sums of money with sufficient care. For the last two years, a tribunal investigating Ireland’s thoroughly bent planning process has been turning up odd transactions and deposits, along with Ahern’s unlikely stories of huge piles of cash from his salary kept in an office safe, pricy home renovations and ‘dig-outs’ from pals who wanted to help him out with the cost of his marital separation. There were ‘gifts’, and ‘loans’ that were never paid off, and increasingly a sense that the taxman could be closing in.
It started to really look terminal with the recent revelation that his then-girlfriend, Celia Larkin, scooped £30,000 in money from Fianna Fail party funds, allegedly a loan to help elderly relatives who were in financial trouble. Despite a well-proven history of corruption, Ahern’s Fianna Fail party sees itself as a populist organization with deep grassroots, raising cash with pub gigs and church-gate collections, and some local members didn’t like the idea of their money being tossed around that way.
An analysis last week by the Ahern-chasing Irish Times concluded that the tribunal has so far queried Ahern’s lodgments and transactions from the period 1988 to 1997 to a total of £452,000. That’s in the old, pre-euro Irish pounds, and would be well over $1 million in today’s money. It’s a lot of cash given Ahern’s conspicuously modest lifestyle, but would have been chump-change to the late Haughey, who collected tens of millions in political tribute and lived like royalty.
That contrast in ‘lifestyle’, and the fact that Ahern has presided over unprecedented prosperity as well as a political settlement in Northern Ireland, has brought forth immense sympathy for him today, in the media and on the streets. At his press conference he was flanked by supportive cabinet colleagues, and he declared emotionally: “I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong and wronged no one.”
The media are being blamed for hounding him from office: “There is blood on the printing presses today,” declared one emotional caller to a radio program. But actually Ahern has had largely sympathetic press during his years in office. The tabloids loved his pint-drinking ‘man of the people’ act, and his social-democratic rhetoric matched with ruthlessly neoliberal practice made him the perfect front-man for the Celtic Tiger. He kept on the right side of Ireland’s most powerful media mogul, Tony O’Reilly, and enjoyed warm relations too with the invading Murdoch empire: by happy coincidence, his daughter Cecelia’s multi-million-euro book contract for chick-lit novels is with Murdoch’s HarperCollins.
It’s true that the Irish Times has lost patience with Ahern, and the English-based Daily Mail has tried to build a profile for its Irish version by attacking Bertie ceaselessly. But by and large the media pursuit of the Taoiseach has been lackluster, and he is the author of his own misfortune.
Not that he acknowledges as much. Admitting that the tribunal, where he has been frequently called as a witness, is a distraction, he said today only a “simplistic analysis” would attribute his departure to its work. He insisted again that the investigation will ultimately vindicate him, and whined: “I have provided more detail about my personal finances than any person in public life who has ever held office.”
Perhaps this self-pitying hyperbole was meant to make us think, plausibly, that almost any politician subjected to such scrutiny would harbor some hard-to-explain funds. But it was also a reminder of how investigators keep turning up accounts that Ahern has failed to mention. His announcement today came a few hours before he was to face parliamentary questions about the latest revelations.
Whatever his ultimate legacy, he is trying manfully to go out on a high note. The address to America’s joint Houses of Congress, allegedly only the fourth ever by a foreign leader, will be, as always, awkwardly delivered by the verbally stumbling Bertie, but also another chance to mark himself down as a man at the very centre of his nation’s history, and of its new place in the world order. It comes almost exactly 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement, which pointed the way to power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and which undoubtedly owes something to Ahern’s negotiating prowess.
Indeed, leading the government of what is sometimes regarded as the ultimate neoliberal success story, Ahern has embodied the technocratic aspect of neoliberal ideology. A superficially likeable but entirely uninspiring man, he’s seen as a problem-solver, a fixer, able to remove the obstacles that lie in the way of people seeing their common interests–workers and bosses, nationalists and unionists. After the Good Friday Agreement, he easily persuaded the Republic of Ireland’s electorate to scrap articles 2 and 3 of Eamon de Valera’s 1937 Constitution, which claimed Northern Ireland as part of the national territory, skillfully transforming a potentially emotional issue into a merely technical one.
Before today he was regarded as having a real chance at getting a big EU job when he stepped down from office here, which he was committed to do in the next two or three years anyway.
Among his biggest political failures, however, was the defeat in a referendum of the EU’s Nice Treaty in 2001 (it got through in a re-run in 2002), and the Europhile elite here was worried that Bertie’s tribunal travails might weaken the campaign for the new Lisbon Treaty in this June’s referendum. (The peculiarities of Ireland’s constitution have made it necessary to hold public referenda on EU treaties: the Irish people are the only Europeans who will go to the polls on this latest restructuring of EU institutions.)
The sentimentality has come thick and fast and implausible in the hours since Ahern’s announcement. But everyone knows politics is a vicious game, and must have noticed that Fianna Fail public support for him was getting weaker in the last week, with the increasingly conspicuous exception of his brother, also a politician.
After today’s outward sorrow and inward giddiness, attention turns to Bertie’s likely and anointed successor, Brian Cowen, a man who as foreign minister smashed Irish neutrality on the altar of the War on Terror, and one whom Ahern might easily have called “the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all”.
HARRY BROWNE lectures at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be reached at: email@example.com