Tuesday 16 January 2018

Last night’s TV: The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fail

The first part of the TV3 story of Fianna Fail did Bertie Ahern no favours, says Diarmuid Doyle

Hanging’s too good for him. That more or less was the public reaction when news emerged last week that a portrait of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had been hung alongside paintings of his predecessors in Leinster House.

Why was the man who ruined the country being celebrated in such a way? Why were we paying for such expensive portraits when the country was banjaxed? If we had to surround ourselves with such trappings, could we not do a nice photograph instead?

Ahern has only to appear in public these days to bring the full force of public outrage down on him, and his cause wasn’t helped last week by the release of comments he made about the “useless good for nothings” he used to know in Fianna Fail.

Had these been his cabinet ministers he was talking about, people might have agreed with him, maybe even sympathised. But when it transpired that he was sniping about ordinary cumann members, public anger spiked again.

The comments were taken from The Rise And Fall Of Fianna Fail, TV3’s new three-part history of Ahern’s party, which began last night.

Most people who tuned in will have done so hoping for more scenes of Bertie Ahern in full self-destruction mode. Every good show needs a villain, and there no better man to hiss and boo at currently than Bertie.

Cleverer politicians would have refused to talk to presenter Ursula Halligan on the basis that no good could come of it. But Ahern is fighting a one-man campaign to protect and preserve his reputation currently and believes he needs the publicity.

He’s “one thousand per cent certain” the Mahon Tribunal will find him innocent of the most serious accusations against him, he said last night. His unusual practise of cashing his salary cheque, rather than putting it in the bank, could easily be explained away (“it’s not rocket science”) by his need to keep his financial details secret from his wife. He has done nothing wrong. End of story.

Despite his defence of himself, however, the first episode of The Rise And Fall Of Fianna Fail didn’t do him any favours. The opening half was a breathless history of the party, a kind of Fianna Fail for Dummies, which finished up by interviewing some of the dummies.

Willie O’Dea, his moustache quivering like a cornered hamster, talked of his lack of trust of Charles Haughey. “I heard a lot of rumours”, he said, looking slightly amused by it all, although he didn’t tell us what they were.

Former TD Martin Mansergh described Haughey, the most corrupt politician in the history of the Republic of Ireland, as a “substitute father figure”.

Ahern wasn’t interviewed about Haughey (last night, anyway) but the programme did feature footage of him praising his immediate predecessor at his funeral and defending Ray Burke in the Dail.

It was passionate stuff on both occasions. It was impossible to avoid the view that Ahern only saw what he wanted to see, and that this lack of curiosity about people badly affected his judgement, of other people and of his own deeds.

His past came back to haunt him in other ways. Celia Larkin, his former girlfriend, has clearly decided that it’s time she had her say about the relationship and she comes enthusiastically to the task with a Hallmark card in one hand, and a dagger in the other.

She’ll give little poems of praise to her ex where they are deserved, but she’s never far from knifing him with a sharp stab in the ribs.

His achievement in persuading Irish republicans of the merits of the peace process were staggering, she acknowledged, while being scornful (and unbelievably patronising) about his lust for power, which he extended, “like notches on a bedpost”, for as long as he could.

The problem with last night’s programme was that the fall is always more interesting than the rise, so that it only really got going after 35 minutes when the history of Fianna Fail, very familiar territory, was out of the way.

On the bright side, it’s clear that many of the interviewees – Larkin, David Andrews, O’Dea, maybe even Ahern himself - have spoken more frankly about the party and the individuals within in than they ever did before; the next two episodes promise to be fascinating.

Halligan and her production team have done a phenomenal amount of work in a short space of time over the summer months to have the series ready for the start of the Autumn schedule. As last night’s programme picked up pace as it went along, it was clear that the best is yet to come.

Behind The Walls, RTE1’s history of the Irish mental health system, suffered from similar problems but didn’t cope as well with them.

This was history pure and simple, with no new revelations, and nothing really to say about the system in the present day.

It was brilliantly written, very well put together, and full of shocking vignettes and stories about how we have treated the mentally ill in the past. But it was also obvious that we were being brought back over some very well-worn ground.

Perhaps next week’s final part will come up with something very new, but interesting and all as it was in parts, the subject matter in Behind The Walls felt too familiar to be truly gripping.

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