Sunday 15 September 2019

People turn their back on Bertie

New poll spells disaster for the Taoiseach unless he hands back his pay rise, writes Willie Kealy

The Taoiseach catches up on work in his constituency headquarters of St Lukes, Drumcondra, on Dublin's northside
The Taoiseach catches up on work in his constituency headquarters of St Lukes, Drumcondra, on Dublin's northside


THE people who can't stand Bertie Ahern couldn't stand him six months ago when he was trying to win an historic third term in office.

They attacked him viciously over the allegations made against him at the Mahon tribunal and his sometimes stumbling attempts to explain complex details of his financial affairs over a period of years a long time ago.

But the people who can't stand Bertie Ahern didn't matter. There weren't enough of them.

And there still aren't. The majority of people do not hate Bertie Ahern, and in their fair-minded way, they had some sympathy for a man on the rack over allegations that were, in most cases, nothing more than small suspicions, and on the big issues, baseless slurs.

So the majority of people put these issues aside and decided that they wanted him to continue on as Taoiseach. Fianna Fail got 78 seats and 46.4 per cent of the vote against all predictions. And this level of support was confirmed in subsequent opinion polls throughout most of the past six months.

The people who voted for Bertie Ahern knew that there was a downturn in the economy coming. They still decided they wanted him back.

They would probably have liked to see him and his Finance Minister, Brian Cowen, being a little more pro-active on the housing market, but they did not panic. They'd had good days. They could take some bad days. And the good days would come again.

Bertie had said he would like to go on for another four years and then step down at 60, giving his successor a year to prepare for the next general election.

In the meantime, he would lead his party into the European and local elections.

Then suddenly, dramatically, Bertie Ahern fell from grace. It had nothing to do with the Mahon tribunal. It had nothing to do with the fact of the downturn in the economy. It was all down to one dumb, stupid decision that seemed to indicate that Bertie Ahern had all of a sudden lost his political nous.

We can speculate on why this happened . . . has he no one to give him advice anymore; is he not listening to them or to the people; or has he stopped caring now that he doesn't have to lead his party into another general election?

That dumb, stupid decision involved accepting a recommendation by an assessment committee that he and his colleagues should be paid an immediate and massive increase in their salaries.

The nation's jaw dropped. Could he be serious? He was just about to enter negotiations with the social partners where he would urge restraint in pay demands.

Brian Cowen told the trade unions: "A realistic approach to wage demands is essential if competitiveness and living standards are to be maintained."

ICTU general secretary, David Begg spoke for many when he replied: "This is not a message that will carry much weight."

The many had already expressed their opinion in an Irish Times poll, which showed Mr Ahern's popularity plummet by nine points.

Then last week a Prime Time survey of Fianna Fail representatives -- mostly backbenchers but including a few junior ministers -- revealed that one third of them no longer want Mr Ahern to lead them into the European and local elections in 2009. This means they want to see him gone sometime next year.

Last Thursday night, the Sunday Independent carried out a nationwide poll of 500 homes to try to assess the mood of the people. It produced no comfort for the beleaguered Taoiseach. They want to see the back of him and soon, according to 59 per cent. It was chilling too, that of the 41 per cent that would be happy to see him carry on until he is 60, many felt this was only because they feared the economic consequences that the disruption of replacing him might bring about.

It did not take a political scientist to divine the source of this sea change in public opinion. A massive 73 per cent were of the opinion that the Government was totally unjustified in reneging on its promise to begin a programme of easing taxes and PRSI in next month's budget.

Fianna Fail will say that this was a promise to be implemented over the life of the Government and that it would depend of the resources available. That is true but it is also a process that Fianna Fail promised to begin in this Budget.

Much as that issue clearly pissed off people, much as Noel Dempsey's mishandling of the drivers' licences issue bemused them, and much as the cancer misdiagnosing scandal disgusted them, it is probable that all of these matters could have been dealt with without inflicting such serious political damage.

But the sheer arrogance and insensitivity of the decision by a Government struggling to deal with the economy, the health service, and the shadow of Mahon hanging over its leader, that the belt-tightening rules we all must accept from time to time for the good of the country do not apply to them, was a step too far.

We asked those polled on Thursday whether they thought the Taoiseach and his ministers should postpone this increase, cancel it or accept it. Ninety one per cent felt that it should have been either postponed or cancelled altogether. Ninety-one per cent! You cannot argue with 91 per cent. Not only that, but it is not a surprising figure.

It has been clear since the Taoiseach opened his mouth on the subject that he had angered the people. And it has been clear for some time that that anger is growing. Part of that process sees Bertie Ahern now taking the blame for all the issues that beset his Government.

There was a chance to pull back from the brink. Some ministers said they could live without the increase. Some suggested the Cabinet could talk about it again and maybe change their minds. But Bertie was not for turning. It could be that he hadn't a clue and will be taken aback by the opinion poll result on this issue. But that is incredible.

No, the Taoiseach knew the people were appalled, that they felt betrayed so soon after they had placed their confidence in him. Maybe he needs the money. Whatever his reasons, he turned his back on the people. And now they are turning their backs on him.

Foregoing the money is the only way to win back their trust.

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