News Analysis

Saturday 20 September 2014

Why should President take advice from Bertie and Brian on State affairs?

Published 29/07/2013 | 05:00

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Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

It's a sight to make the heart swell with pride: a parliament of wise owls is flocking to Aras an Uachtarain today to advise the President. Democracy in action is a joy to behold.

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Luminaries on the Council of State, convened by Michael D Higgins to discuss the abortion legislation's constitutionality, include our two former Presidents, along with chief justices past and present, and various other august figures.

The council is bursting with talent from the top branches of Irish life. Or so we're led to believe.

So how is it possible that some members who do nothing to enhance the body's reputation can also be spotted setting their sat-navs to the Phoenix Park?

In theory, the council is a group of eminent people on whom the President is able to rely for guidance. They should be titans in the Irish firmament, with a wealth of experience on tap for the Irish State's benefit.

However, a few minnows have swum in among these whales. The problem lies with the automatic inclusion of certain former public officeholders – their involvement never questioned, even if they did not serve with distinction.

The council comprises all former Taoisigh, as well as the current Taoiseach and Tanaiste, but it's high time the default membership rule was revised in the case of retired politicians.

It's not just that a number of them are the-day-before-yesterday's men. Or even that at least two are figures of ridicule. It's that those same two have longstanding questions to answer about the wrecking ball unleashed on the economy.

Step forward Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. Bizarrely, they are regarded as appropriate mentors to the President. This, despite engaging in policies which consistently prioritised populism above fiscal caution – with catastrophic consequences.

The time to challenge their established right to participate in the mechanics of the council is long overdue.

Bertie, in particular, is an unfit member. Not just because he was master builder of the most shoddily constructed boom in history. Not just because he persists in blaming dastardly external forces for Ireland's 'Apocalypse Now' landscape.

Not just because, during the critical period between 1997 and 2004, hundreds of millions of euro in subsidies or tax incentives were given away to builders and speculators.

But because the Mahon Tribunal made findings against him saying he failed to account truthfully for lodgements of cash to accounts connected with him.

And because he accepted that he appointed people to state boards who gave him money, while claiming he did it because they were his friends and was not influenced by their inexplicable generosity.

Bertie resigned from Fianna Fail ahead of a National Executive meeting to discuss his expulsion – there were those within his own party who considered him an undesirable element. Yet he is now an adviser to the President.

As for Cowen, his loyal lieutenant and successor, he had a close association with the banking and property bubbles. Under Cowen, the banks were allowed to grow past the point of no return, with no real regulation.

It's impossible to forget how he signed off on the blanket bank guarantee, which has cost the Irish people €62bn, and later threw open the doors to the troika.

Precedent is not reason enough for membership of the council – precedent should be overturned in the case of public servants whose legacy is a debt-ridden people forced to watch their children join dole or emigration queues.

We've known for 16 years that former Taoisigh can prove an embarrassment. In 1997, when the McCracken Tribunal found Charlie Haughey had misled it, he ought to have been forced to step down from the Council. It didn't happen. However, he chose never to attend another meeting.

Incidentally, Bertie called Haughey "a patriot to his fingertips" in his funeral oration. That's the same Haughey who took millions in "unethical" payments and granted favours in return, according to the Moriarty Tribunal.

The council is largely a symbolic body with no legislative or judicial functions. Symbolism matters, all the same. What does it reveal about our democracy's standards when politicians of Bertie and Cowen's calibre are invited to the Aras to offer their views to the President?

We don't know for certain whether they'll attend but it can't be left to them. A provision for dismissing members – or we could be kind and call it voluntary resignations – should be introduced.

Reform is in arrears. Today ought to serve as notice that surgery and reconstruction work must take place soon on the Council of State.

Irish Independent

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