Sunday 26 October 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Derided, reviled and shrouded in failure

Published 31/12/2010 | 05:00

Bertie Ahern leaves the Mahon Tribunal. Photo PA
Bertie Ahern with Tony Blair

BERTIE Ahern did his best to defy Enoch Powell's prediction on the end of political careers -- but he too failed.

Often misquoted as "all political careers end in failure", the controversial Tory MP actually wrote in his 1977 biography of Joseph Chamberlain: "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."

In Mr Ahern's case, he got away with standing down as Taoiseach before the economic, fiscal and banking crisis got into full flow.

But the damage from his 11 years in power set the country on the path to where it finds itself today -- dependent on an international rescue package to pay the bills, high unemployment and crippling debts.

Last night, when he sounded the deathknell on his career, it was an inglorious end to his political life. The most electorally successful politician of his generation will go down in the history books as one of the most derided.

The Bertie Ahern era will not be remembered fondly and his style of leadership will come to be remembered as representing all that was bad about the populist politics of the Celtic Tiger period.

Mr Ahern himself still chooses to blame the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank in New York for sparking a global crisis which sucked in Ireland.

However, the reality of this country's predicament, in the view of most right-thinking people, is vastly different.

Mr Ahern led a Government which spent too much, taxed too little, reduced the regulation of the banking sector and fuelled a property bubble.

Again, last night, as he formally announced his retirement at his St Luke's headquarters, Mr Ahern attempted to gloss over the bad times and focus on the halcyon days.

"The truth about the achievements of the past decade and about the prospects for the one unfolding in front of us now is that despite what the critics may say, neither extreme of arrogant over-confidence or self-defeating pessimism is justified or helpful."

Mr Ahern continued: "Ireland is not 'banjaxed'. Ireland is not 'an economic corpse'. Ireland is a country of real achievement and, yes, of real and pressing problems.

"The truth is that our country will recover. We will regain our stride and we will succeed in holding on to many of the gains we have made together."

Similar to his successor, Brian Cowen, Mr Ahern is incapable of accepting the failings on his part or contemplating an apology to the nation for his part in the current crisis.

"I dearly wish there was no crisis. I realise that it would have been better if some things had been done differently. But I will not denigrate the good that has been done, or belittle the effort it took to achieve it.

"The onward trajectory of this island's destiny is forward-moving, it is progressive, it is the fairer and republican society we aspire to," he said.

Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail always took credit for the good and blamed someone for the bad. When the balance is on the plus side, they got away with it -- but not any longer.

In his own inimitable fashion, he can try and blunder and bluster his way out of accepting any blame but the verdict of many is damning.

Mr Ahern will fade away into retirement with a whimper. Like his mentor Charlie Haughey, Fianna Fail will write him out of their own history in years to come for fear of reminding people of his influence -- a sad decline to a highly successful political career.

Sections of his party are embarrassed by his leadership and ashamed of the blight it has left on Fianna Fail's reputation.

The glory days are forgotten.

Winning three general elections in a row -- the best record in the modern era -- he brought his party into three successive coalition governments and came close to securing an overall majority.

His 'all things to all people' style of leadership was both his greatest strength and weakness.

The building of consensus, which he mastered in his first ministerial portfolio as Minister for Labour, served him well over time -- in healing a riven party, putting coalitions together and sealing partnership agreements.

But did it always serve the country well? Not having someone to take a firm stand for the national interest did damage for which we're paying now.

His record on the economy is in tatters and his beloved social-partnership model is blamed for many of the excesses.

Northern Ireland will be the part of his record that emerges with favour. The enormous personal commitment he dedicated to bringing about a lasting peaceful settlement there was unquestionable.

He made an enormous contribution to the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent implementation, which now sees the North run by a power-sharing government, headed up by unionists and republicans.

But his personal character has taken a battering. The grubby details of his personal finances, as revealed by the Mahon Tribunal, stripped him of credibility.

He survived the initial flood of developments in September 2006 and the 2007 general election on the back of a wave of public sympathy. But the rot had set in. Even as he vindictively marked the election victory, he knew his time was limited and he began to pave the way for the succession of Mr Cowen.

The tide of public opinion turned with the sobbing of Grainne Carruth, the loyal secretary who was forced to give testimony about his banking transactions.

By the time he was claiming to have won a substantial sum of unexplained money on a horse, he was reduced to a laughing stock, even among his formally ardent supporters.

The tribunal report itself may prove to be a cruel judgment.

Always a good judge of the public mood, he knew it was time to go and stood down as Taoiseach in April 2008.

Falling back to his comfort zone of his Dublin Central constituency, the backlash was merciless. His brother Maurice was brutally beaten in the 2009 by-election and Mr Ahern's Drumcondra Mafia power base was virtually wiped out in the local elections on the same day.

Facing into the 2011 General Election, Mr Ahern would have expected to get elected, but he would have needed to draw upon the reserves of personal work over the years as his success was not guaranteed.

While his personal organisation may have been highly successful during his time, it is unlikely to pass to another generation.

The notion of him running for President of Ireland next year is derisory.

Paying tribute to Mr Ahern last night, Mr Cowen said his decision not to contest the next General Election "truly marks the end of an era".

No tears will be shed for this ending.

Mr Haughey accurately described Bertie Ahern as the most skilful, most cunning, most devious of them all.

Not even these attributes could prevent him departing from politics with a tarnished legacy.

Irish Independent

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