Credit where it is due -- and not due
Ahern handled the untying of the SF-IRA Gordian knot deftly, though some claims for his legacy go too far, writes John A Murphy
Published 06/04/2008 | 00:00
ON JUNE 26, 1997, during his acceptance speech as first-time Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern said: "If I can help to make Northern Ireland a kinder and gentler place over the next five years, I will be well pleased."
His achievements in this respect far exceeded this modest expectation. His sincerity, likeability and lack of ideological baggage earned him widespread trust. His mediating skills, honed domestically over a decade, stood him in good stead in the critical period leading up to the Belfast Agreement. But the absurd claims now being made that the Agreement wouldn't have happened without him do him no real service and distort the historical record. To assert that Bertie Ahern was the unique and messianic deliverer of Northern peace is an injustice to numerous intermediaries and peacemakers (including nameless public servants) in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere over all these years. Besides, the main conflicting parties in the North had run out of steam and resources by the mid-Nineties and were already psyched up for an inevitable accommodation.
Another unsustainable thesis doing the rounds is that Bertie uniquely steered Fianna Fail away from irredentist nationalism and so prepared the party for acceptance of the Constitutional compromise of 1998. In fact, from Lemass through Lynch to Haughey, the leadership had been modifying the "national claim", though admittedly in an alternating forward-backward pattern. In any case, long before 1998, the FF rank-and-file and the southern populace generally were heartily sick of republican violence and of its sustaining ideology. Public opinion in the Republic was more than willing to accept a Northern compromise and didn't need a Bertie Ahern to persuade them of its merits.
But it should be recorded in Bertie's favour that he handled the whole SF-IRA thing very deftly over the years. This was a complex business. First of all, "republicans" had to be accommodated within the Northern political settlement. At the same time, the IRA as terrorists had to be regarded as a threat to this State, Bertie's primary concern. Finally the FF leader had to counter the increasing electoral challenge of SF to his own party. Holding "republicans" at arm's length as possible coalition partners, he outflanked them on other fronts. It was he, not they, who garnered the kudos of the St Andrew's Agreement before last year's general election.
Symbolically, he reclaimed the national flag from the blood-stained, sectarian clutches of "republicans". And he skilfully broke their monopoly on 1916 commemorations. SF are now in political retreat in the Republic, pursuing the ghost of a discredited anti-partitionism. The outgoing Taoiseach can take much of the credit here and we are indebted to him for this not inconsiderable service to the State.
Despite his family republican credentials and his own occasional rhetorical flourishes, Bertie Ahern is himself a post-nationalist politician, though dragging his heels on the question of a royal visit from next door. It is true that Patrick Pearse has an honoured place in his office, but Bertie has little in common with his strange fellow-Dub. Pearse occupies the same kind of talismanic position on Bertie's wall as a picture of the Sacred Heart would for a casual Catholic.
Nor does Bertie have any real interest in traditional Irish culture. Manchester United looms larger in his priorities than the Dublin Gaelic football team. His use of the cupla focal is even more perfunctory than his predecessors. Perhaps he finds his own colourful version of Hiberno-English Dublinese adequate to his linguistic and cultural purposes.
In other ways, he has personified the new Ireland of the liberal agenda. His affair with Celia Larkin, in effect his semi-official consort in national and international circles, raised few eyebrows. Twenty years earlier, such a liaison would have caused a dozen croziers to be brandished. But now (apart from a single cranky cardinal) the mitred heads kept silent, very much aware of the Taoiseach's immense popularity. Even more remarkable, this irregular behaviour came from an ostentatiously practising Catholic!
Just as the Northern scene was already set for the final denouement when Bertie arrived, so too the preconditions for our prosperous economy were already in place, fortunately for Bertie, when he came to power in 1997. Accordingly, he nurtured -- and took credit for -- the booming economy rather than creating it. All that is now drawing to a close and the question must be asked: Did Ahern, in his 11 years of power, make the most of this unprecedented prosperity for the public benefit? The answer can hardly be positive, given the present state of health, education and infrastructure, generally.
Last Thursday, Ahern boasted of his prodigious work-rate -- an incredible 70-80 hours over a six-and-a-half day week. One wonders how this breaks down, and how much time has been spent on constituency business, for example. The country at large doesn't seem to have much to show for this round-the-clock stuff. It may well be that Bertie Ahern's energy, like that of the historian Lord Acton, is enormous but circular. And for all his dedication to social partnership, the Taoiseach did little to address the profound social inequalities in our society. The only tented accommodation he has experienced has been at the Galway races. Like every other FF leader, not excluding Eamon de Valera, he lacked any social reforming fire in his belly.
In the early 17th century, Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon is said to have freely admitted taking bribes but indignantly denied that this influenced his judgement. In eloquent valedictory phrases that may come back to haunt him, the Taoiseach declared on Wednesday that he "never received a corrupt payment" and that he had "done no wrong and wronged no-one". The absence of a grand lifestyle, a la Haughey, does not necessarily indicate a shining integrity above reproach. When the McCracken tribunal pronounced that it was reprehensible for government ministers to benefit from private donations, Bertie enthusiastically endorsed the principle but rejected it in practice. Perhaps he saw no wrong in taking the few bob whenever it was on offer. Up to now at least, there seems to be a popular acceptance of this particularly Irish approach to corruption. But we leave further judgement to future historians benefiting from the perspective of time and a final report of the Mahon tribunal.
In conclusion, on a lighter note, I can envisage future history students being asked to compare and contrast Bertie Ahern and Jack Lynch in respect of popularity. As FF leaders, no-one else was in their league in that regard. (Thirty years ago Fine Gael's Liam Cosgrave graciously proclaimed Lynch the most popular Irish leader since Daniel O'Connell). Both have traded on their ordinariness, Bertie being more the fraternal mate, and Jack the genial uncle. Jack, too, had the edge in terms of personal dignity and charismatic presence (curiously, few of Bertie's starry-eyed admirers speak of his having charisma).
And which of them would you prefer to mind your store... and check your accounts?
John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at UCC