Tuesday 23 October 2018

Tearing down a leader is an event to dwell on

We should be more willng to discuss openly the events of Bertie Ahern's
departure from office before we consign it to history. Credit: Ray Cullen
We should be more willng to discuss openly the events of Bertie Ahern's departure from office before we consign it to history. Credit: Ray Cullen
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We moved in unseemly haste from eulogising Ahern to celebrating the new Taoiseach, says Brendan O'Connor

Do you remember your first funeral? When you were a kid? Remember how it seemed a bit shocking that there was general chat and laughter as well as mourning? And then there seemed to be a bit of a party? And it all seemed a bit inappropriate to your young mind? Because you expected a funeral to be more, well, funereal?

It's hard not to be reminded of that feeling at the moment. There is a sense of indecent haste in the way we have buried Bertie Ahern. On the day he announced he was stepping down there was much talk from his Fianna Fail colleagues about how this was Bertie's day. Brian Cowen and Dermot Ahern and co admirably refused to speculate on the leadership of Fianna Fail, for example, because they said this was Bertie Ahern's day. The media gave him his day too, with lots of crocodile tears and cnamh shawling by those who had hounded him out of office.

But really Bertie's day was just that, a day. Twenty-four hours later everyone had moved on to celebrating our new leader, Brian Cowen. Almost celebrating too much, you would have said. It was that kind of mad-eyed determined celebrating people do when they are not really celebrating inside. It was all a bit unseemly and a bit suspicious. People kept talking a bit too much about how we had to now move on. After a decade of Ahern, we apparently had to move on after one day.

And I found myself again last week feeling like that too-serious child at his first funeral, a little bit puritanical about the unseemly rush to move on, about coming directly from the graveside to have a party and look to the future.

But then the rush to move on was understandable in this case. It was as basic as this: None of the brave mob who hounded Bertie Ahern out of office wanted to dwell on it at all. The media mob knew that if there was too much of a post mortem people would have turned on them. So like all guilty parties at a funeral they mourned a bit too hard, a bit too quickly and then became obsessed with moving on. It was a kind of a sleight of hand.

I'm not quite ready to move on yet. Call me crazy but I think that the tearing down of a great Taoiseach is something we should dwell on a little. In fact, I think it is crucial for our moving on that we examine and acknowledge the anatomy of what happened here. If we can spend over 10 years and €400m on dwelling on Bertie Ahern's personal finances over a couple of years then surely we can give a week or two to pondering something much more significant in the bigger picture. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we cannot actually move on until we have discussed this properly. To do so would be leave a fault line under politics and media discourse in this country. And before we go building new edifices over this faultline we need to fix it. Otherwise it will erupt sometime. We need to acknowledge the wound here and we need to let it heal by exposing it to the fresh air and the light. Otherwise it will fester.

So as much as it might be difficult for the people who perpetrated this lynching to talk about it right now, a little bit of work on it while it's fresh could save an awful lot more trouble down the line.

Funnily enough, the Irish Times appears to agree with me. This past week, in its own quiet way, the Irish Times has been attempting to address in some kind of real way what happened Bertie Ahern 10 days ago. The Irish Times, who had a hand in all of this, is either being very brave, and questioning its own actions here, or it is being opportunistic, and willing to pick around Bertie's bones only because it knows that this is not going away and it wants to start putting on the record that they know it was a bad bit of business. In other words, the Irish Times sees which way the wind is blowing on this one in the medium to long term and it wants to protect its legacy, make sure that the first redraft of history is good to the Irish Times.

It started in a fairly fluffy way on Monday with Anne Marie Hourihane musing on how "in fact we [the media, including presumably the Irish Times] adored him". Anne Marie went on to extol Bertie's "considerable charm". Things were firmed up a bit more by Wednesday with a hard-hitting double whammy. Firstly, the prestigious Irish Times leader article, as it welcomed Brian Cowen proclaimed that Cowen "has a hard act to follow after Bertie Ahern", going on to wonder if Cowen can "think and appeal outside the Fianna Fail box, as Mr Ahern did so well."

But most extraordinary, on the same day, was a piece by the IT's tribunal expert, Paul Cullen, that could have been written by Eoghan Harris and that echoed, if slightly less passionately, many of the things that Harris has been pointing out to us in recent months: how "the tribunal's role in Bertie's departure should give any right thinking citizen pause for thought"; how Ahern had never been charged with any offence or been found to be corrupt; how Ahern was not allowed the presumption of innocence that should be paramount in a democracy. Cullen even defended the Taoiseach's handling of his personal finances. The reality of political conduct in those days was, said Cullen, that "financing was conducted on an ad hoc basis and little distinction was made between personal and political monies." He defends too Ahern's conduct towards the tribunal, pointing out that to criticise Ahern for not cooperating "assumes that the tribunal functions normally, and that it moves at a reasonable rate, which it doesn't." He went on, incredibly and admirably, to baldly admit what no journalist apart from a few would dare admit, "unlike the media, which has been singing off the same hymn sheet, the public was happy to accept that the questions surrounding Ahern's finances arose because of his marriage break-up."

While Cullen has always been uneasy about Mahon, this was trenchant stuff indeed, the kind of stuff we have rarely seen outside of the Sunday Independent, the only quality newspaper that demonstrated any diversity in the Bertie Ahern debate. It certainly wasn't the kind of stuff you would have read much in the Irish Times before Bertie went.

So what changed there? I'll tell you what changed. It's all in Cullen's chilling last sentence: "My advice for those who prosecuted this unseemly campaign would be to find a new target for their bile, let their guns be turned on themselves." So it's a class of a suicide note by the Irish Times, in a strange way.

You could argue that this is all crocodile tears and hypocrisy by the Irish Times but, you know, better late than never. I could have told the Irish Times all this months ago, and indeed I did. But we have to allow that there are slow learners around the place, and we should welcome them when they do catch up with the rest of us, because at least they're trying.

You could also unfavourably question the Irish Times' motives in all of this. But then, what's to question, its motives are clear. The Irish Times is smart enough to recognise that behind all the forced jollity of moving on there is a genuinely sour taste in this country about the appalling treatment of a man who did so much for us in terms of public service; a man who most people think is fundamentally decent.

The Irish Times has also probably heard all the talk doing the rounds among journalists that there is more stuff coming against Bertie, that Frank Connolly has more alleged dirt to leak, that this thing isn't going away. They are also well aware that when Bertie Ahern comes up against the tribunal again, as a private citizen who has been hounded out of his job, he will be a very sympathetic figure. They know that further leaks by Connolly or whoever, and further aggressive grilling of Ahern by Mahon, will not look pretty to people. Given that Connolly and Mahon et al have got Bertie to resign from politics, further attacks could now just look like torturing a guy for the sake of it.

And the Irish Times is running a mile from it. It is putting as much distance as it can between itself and its previous self and its previous self's allies in hounding Bertie. If Mahon didn't get the message on Wednesday that he is now on his own, he had it hammered home to him on Thursday by David Adams' Irish Times piece in which he talked about how it was debatable whether the electorate had lost faith in Ahern; about how there was no sense of public animosity towards Ahern during all his troubles, more affection and sympathy.

So watch out Mahon, the Irish Times has fallen to the popular mood, the Mail, which is in a frenzy of patriotism at the moment in order to re-establish its credentials as a local paper, could be next to see which way the wind is blowing and waver. Soon it could be just you and Frank Connolly trying to explain yourselves to an increasingly angry and disillusioned public, a public that wants to move on but finds it cannot until it gets some answers as to why it was made impossible for Bertie Ahern to do his job, the most important job in the country.

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