Thursday 17 October 2019

It's showtime as 'Gang of Four' to appear at inquiry

Things are about to get interesting at the Banking Inquiry as four key players are due to give evidence

Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney
Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney
Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen

Shane Coleman

Bertie Ahern sat into the back seat of the new Mercedes to make the short journey from Leinster House to the Phoenix Park. Twenty years after first becoming a TD, he had just been elected as the youngest ever Taoiseach.

Also receiving their seals of office from President Mary Robinson that evening in Aras an Uachtarain 18 years and two days ago were his Tanaiste Mary Harney, Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and the man Ahern would one day anoint as his successor, Brian Cowen.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary time in Irish life. The Celtic Tiger was about to roar. The former sick man of Europe was entering a period of extraordinary prosperity. It would infamously end in tears. But while it lasted, it seemed like the best of times.

And together this 'Gang of Four' would dominate Irish politics for the next 14 years.

In a country, where political ideology was traditionally regarded with suspicion, and governments generally filled the role of administrators, the coalitions shaped by these four between 1997 and 2011 stand out - for better or worse.

In their pomp, they were untouchable. The opposition didn't compare. It was men (and woman) against boys.

Ahern, the greatest vote generator since Jack Lynch, was the most cunning, the most devious of them all. McCreevy and Harney together shaped fiscal policy in the same way Nigel Lawson had for Margaret Thatcher. Cowen was the rabble rouser at Ard Fheiseanna, but the sharpest of minds and tongues.

It would be Cowen, though still not leader, who almost single handedly pulled the 2007 General Election out of the fire for Fianna Fáil. How he must now dearly wish that he hadn't done so.

Perhaps the others do too. In the coming weeks, all four of them, like at the Áras in June 1997, will once again be in the same room. Only this time, not together.

The setting will be somewhat less opulent and certainly less elevated. The committee rooms in the basement of Leinster House 2000 are somewhat functional. It's from here the Banking Inquiry has been operating. There have been flashes of insight. Some compelling evidence. But on the whole, the country has shrugged its collective shoulders and got on with life.

That might be about to change as McCreevy, Cowen, Ahern and Harney - in that order - get set to take their place at the witness table. The job of the Banking Inquiry, we're told, is to get the bottom of why our financial system crashed and burned. But, thanks to the work of the Nyberg Report, and others, we largely know that already.

The suspicion lingers that the government set up the inquiry to stick it to Fianna Fail in the run-up to the general election. To remind voters, if a reminder was necessary, of that party's role in our economic catastrophe. The 'Gang of Four' though are likely to challenge that narrative.

The anointed one

The Labour party strategists sat rooted to the spot, listening with a mixture of horror and grudging admiration. It was in the final days of the 2007 General Election campaign. Richard Bruton, the man pencilled in to be Finance Minister in a new Fine Gael/Labour Coalition, was facing the incumbent Brian Cowen in an RTE radio studio.

The campaign had been disastrous for Fianna Fail, dominated by revelations about Ahern's unusual personal finances. But the tide had started to turn and people in Fine Gael and Labour felt power slipping away. With his leader hamstrung, Cowen grabbed the election, and the opposition, by the cojones.

That day, as he verbally belted Bruton about the studio, the Labour advisors back in election HQ winced. Cowen was both relentless and remorseless. They sensed the game was up. It was.

Against the odds, Bertie Ahern won his third election success. It was up there with anything even Dev had achieved. But this time, it wasn't the Teflon Taoiseach that could take the credit. Ahern's slightly deflated manner on count night spoke volumes. It was as if he sensed that only trouble lay ahead. The victory was all about Brian Cowen. If there were any doubts that he would succeed Ahern, they were now gone.

So much so that when, less than a year later, Ahern's position had become untenable because of revelations at the Mahon Tribunal, only Cowen could have delivered the coup de grace. We'll never know what was uttered between the two men when, on March 27, 2008, Cowen called into Ahern's home, 44 Beresford Avenue - the house at the centre of the tribunal's inquiries.

It was probably more the tenor of their conversation, rather than any specific words spoken, that dictated what happened next. It would take a few weeks to formalise, but as the two men shook hands and Cowen was driven off, power had changed hands. The King was dead, long live the King.

That probably marked the peak of Cowen's powers. We didn't know it then but the economy was already hurtling towards Armageddon and the new Taoiseach would be only one of hundreds of thousands of casualties.

In hindsight, there is something surreal and even grotesque about Cowen's tour of victory back in Offaly when he got the top job. It would be the briefest of honeymoons. The Lisbon Referendum was defeated a month after his election. With the public finances falling over a cliff, it was all downhill from there.

The thousand-odd days Cowen would spend as Fianna Fail leader was like a form of Chinese water torture, except there was a cascade rather than a drip-drip of bad news. It was a humiliating experience for a proud politician. He seemed hugely uncomfortable, temperamentally unsuited even, to the role of Taoiseach. Though, in retrospect, that he held his government together at all was nothing short of a miracle given the extent of the crisis.

The contrast between how he and Ahern reacted to the crash was marked. Ahern seemed oblivious to any suggestion he might carry some responsibility. If he was still in charge, he'd be knuckling down to solve things, was the line. Cowen visibly sagged. Nobody knows what goes on in anybody's head but it seemed he was weighed down by the knowledge that as Minister for Finance from 2004-08, the issues had arisen on his watch and he and his department hadn't dealt with them.

Which Cowen will we see at the banking inquiry? The bruiser who battered the opposition in '07 or the demoralised, almost apologetic figure of his final days in office? The word from those who know him is that it'll be the former.

He has questions to answer. Why didn't he initially want Anglo nationalised? Why didn't he move quicker against the banks' management? And, most crucially, what happened on his watch in the Department of Finance between 2004 and 2008?

There is a view history will be kinder to Cowen's time as Taoiseach, because of the tough decisions he took after the crash. But that may depend on how he performs on Thursday.

Never thought I'd end up here

If there was a moment where Bertie Ahern, to use an idiom from the world of television, 'jumped the shark', it was his role in an ad for the News of the World, squatting in a kitchen cupboard with the immortal line "Never thought I'd end up here, but I've the latest on today's big match".

He thought it was a bit of fun. But, not for the last time, the man who prided himself throughout his career on judging the public mood, got it horribly wrong.

Three years later in November, 2013, Ahern was enjoying a few beers with a group of friends when a man approached the group, taking a swing with his crutch. Ahern was unhurt but must have been shaken. The man feted as the people's politician, the true blue, salt-of-the-earth Dub now couldn't even enjoy a pint of Bass in a hostelry in his own constituency unmolested.

Ironically, the incident took place just around the corner from the Marlborough Street polling station where 30 years earlier there were fist fights between supporters of Ahern and George Colley, the FF old-guard figure Ahern's Drumcondra Mafia wanted to usurp in Dublin Central.

The progression from pretender to populist prime minister and then to pariah was complete. At the peak of his powers, in the 2002 election campaign, Ahern drew huge crowds. Peace had been achieved in the North. The boom was getting "boomier". He pumped hands, slapped backs and hailed "the working men" as he performed a blitzkrieg canvass of the country. Voters couldn't get enough of him.

But politics is the most fickle of businesses. Less than a decade later, a perfectly innocuous plan by his daughters to throw him a 60th birthday party at Croke Park was greeted with outrage on the public airwaves. Even his old mentor Charlie Haughey hadn't attracted such venom. It's difficult to know which damaged Ahern more - the extraordinary revelations about his personal finances from the Mahon Tribunal or his role in the economy's boom and bust.

If it's more the latter, there is no little irony in the fact that Ahern won three general elections by almost never saying 'no', by essentially giving voters what they wanted. Now those same voters had turned against him.

The old adage goes that the office makes the man, but the reverse can also be true. Though not yet 64, Ahern seems physically diminished by losing power.

Free now to speak his mind, there is a waspish quality to Ahern's utterances lately, as evidenced by the interview he did for the recent documentary on Brian Lenihan.

More of the same in the banking inquiry would only give further ammunition to his many critics. Perhaps Ahern's biggest difficultly has been adjusting to his new circumstances. Never thought he'd end up here.

The nexus at the heart of government

For seven years from 1997 to 2004, Bertie Ahern headed the FF/PD coalition. But there was an alternative power base at cabinet wielding just as much influence. Mary Harney and Charlie McCreevy were close friends and an extraordinary double act. Like Harney, McCreevy had opposed Charlie Haughey but he ultimately chose to stay with Fianna Fail. Arguably he was more useful to the PDs that way. If he had left FF, he would never have become Finance Minister.

In many ways, he was an auxiliary PD at cabinet. When the coalition nearly fell in 1999 over the Sheedy Affair, it was McCreevy's shuttle diplomacy that mended fences between Harney and Ahern. He and Harney shared the same low tax, pro-business, pro-competition philosophy. Together they shaped the economic direction of the coalition.

Ahern, in contrast, would have been seen as more to the left. But the political pragmatist in him had no problem with cutting taxes and increasing spending. Not that his views seemed to matter too much. The Taoiseach seemed to be largely out of the loop when it came to McCreevy's seven budgets.

Most of the time, that wasn't a problem. But the two men weren't close and there were tensions. McCreevy's individualisation budget of 1999 left Bertie Ahern fuming as what should have been a good news story about a giveaway budget was overshadowed by accusations of an attack on single income families. That wasn't the Bertie way.

He bit his tongue though as long as McCreevy was delivering politically for the Government. Up to 2002, he did so in spades. With the mantra of "when you have it, you spend it", the colourful Kildare man delivered huge income tax cuts, a halving of the capital gains tax rate, SSIAs and massive increases in spending across all departments. In the year prior to the 2002 general election, spending rose by an eye watering 21pc. Given that the economy was already over-heating, it was clearly hugely reckless.

To be fair to McCreevy, he recognised the dangers and once the general election was out of the way, he pulled in the reins, introducing modest cutbacks in spending. The public, believing they had been duped in the election campaign, weren't impressed. The government's poll rating plummeted and Fianna Fail had a disastrous local elections in 2004. Ahern decided change was required.

The perception is that Ahern had a Pauline conversion on the road to Inchydoney (the location for the soul-searching FF parliamentary party autumn gathering of '04) dumped the McCreevy/Harney neo-liberal ideology and became a socialist. But the reality is a little more mundane. The next general election had to be won. And that meant more big increases in spending and more tax cuts. McCreevy couldn't be relied upon to do so. A clean slate and a new image was required, so he was sent off to Brussels. Cowen took his place.

Politically it worked, turning the coalition's fortunes around. But those four budgets introduced by Cowen between 2004 and 2007 remain his, and Ahern's, Achilles heel. If McCreevy had been able to hold that line, Fianna Fail would have lost the '07 general election, but the party, and probably the country, would be in better shape now.

It maybe wouldn't have affected the PDs, which didn't survive long past that election. But it would have improved their legacy. The PDs' economic philosophy is regularly blamed for the economic crash. But the reality is that the party was supposed to be about fiscal rectitude. It delivered on tax reductions, but it failed utterly to stop spending getting out of control.

On Wednesday, the irrepressible McCreevy will be the first of the Gang of Four to appear, followed by Cowen on Thursday and again the following Wednesday. Ahern and Harney are both up later in the month. Whether we'll learn much new is doubtful.

But their presence, the reminder of times past, will make it fascinating. After a fair amount of stodge and lots of huffing and puffing, things are about to get interesting at the banking inquiry. To borrow a famous line from that FF/PD heyday, it's showtime.

Shane Coleman presents 'The Sunday Show' on at 10am.

Sunday Independent

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