Saturday 21 September 2019

Ethics are for wimps in this age of pragmatismPolitics has now been effectively privatised, writes John Drennan

The atmosphere surrounding a motion of no confidence should be one of lust mingled with fear, as TDs and ministers carry barely sheathed knives while sulphurous whispering in dark corners veers between the closely related themes of seduction and murder. Sadly, we do things differently now.

In fairness to the Opposition though, last week's confidence motion in Bertie Ahern was as exciting as a debate on the future of Europe. And, for once, they were not at fault.

There might have been initial concerns that Labour's Eamon Gilmore would engage in a display of angry red man from Dun Laoghaire-style polemics.

However, in a speech that was as subtle as it was lethal, Gilmore spared us from yet another narrative detailing Bertie's complex fiscal affairs. Instead, he cut to the core of Ahern's political dilemma as he noted that when "most of his own deputies and the public clearly don't believe" the Taoiseach's "bizarre and shifting tales" about all the money he received from "strangers", the only real issue that Ahern had to face was the date of his resignation.

In contrast, Ahern's musings about "unvarnished truths" and the mystery of the human mind with its "minglings" and its "mistakes in recollections" was simply embarrassing.

Ultimately, the Taoiseach's performance didn't matter and it didn't matter for more reasons than the simple fact that the Opposition didn't have the numbers.

Once again, it was Gilmore who posed the great question the Opposition must confront, when he asked how we can "have a situation where, when it comes to the (taking) of large sums of money from persons unknown, the Taoiseach's word is not believed" and yet nothing happens?

Surprisingly enough, Enda Kenny supplied the answer. He claimed Bertie was the new icon of a new culture of "sure who gives a damn, I'm all right, Jack".

Sadly, though Enda might not want his children to grow up in a "cursed, convenient no man's land of permissiveness", where "nothing is ever right or wrong", the Fine Gael leader is already too late.

Last week's furore may have looked like a classic example of Groundhog Day politics. A decade ago, Bertie Ahern's first months in government were dogged by Fianna Fail's unethical past to the point where the FF/PD coalition almost collapsed.

In fact, there were two critical differences between last week and the events of a decade ago. In 1997, Fianna Fail was being harried by history. Last week, however, was all about the alleged improper behaviour and perjured testimony of a serving Taoiseach. This made the second difference all the more surprising.

In 1997, the last out-workings of the Haughey era appeared to pose a genuine threat to the government. Last week, the realpolitik of the motion of no confidence was summarised by an Opposition TD's comment that "we're on the road to no-town here".

In Leinster House, there was genuine puzzlement over the absence of any sense of drama. However, the reason is simple. The great age of ethics that took out two FF taoisigh, FF's chief bruiser Ray Burke, a FG leader-in-waiting called Michael Lowry, James McDaid, Hugh Coveney and even Phil Hogan is over.

Ethics was the great Moby Dick of Irish politics for two decades. The culture was so pervasive that FF even briefly succumbed to its clammy embrace. During FF's brief stint in opposition after the fall of Albert, they sought the resignation of Ruairi Quinn over £100 lunches for businessmen, and excoriated Michael D over an innocent race-night fundraiser.

Last week, however, as Bertie escaped in a cloud of sympathetic clucks about the Taoiseach experiencing the modern version of the Terror of the French Revolution, it was clear we have entered a different era.

Bertie Ahern was never going to be in trouble because we now live in the brave new age of pragmatism. The Opposition could quote all they wanted from Abraham Lincoln and the rest of the dead American presidents.

But we live in a time where even Garret's Green grandchildren have rejected ethics in favour of policy initiatives. No one should be too hard on them either, for if pragmatism is the dominant philosophy in every sphere of Irish life, from education to health, why should politics be left out?

Those remaining scattered idealists in FG and Labour might be infected by "gauche"

beliefs about the desirability of our political leaders being "better than us".

However, the new pragmatists know that in a post-modern society, ethics are for wimps. Their talisman is the family values-supporting Italian minister who refused to resign after he was found sharing a bed with two hookers because this didn't affect his capacity to do the job.

Bertie Ahern may be in trouble over a slightly different series of entanglements, but his current "best-man-for-the-job" defence is the same.

However, before we get too carried away by the delights of the new age of pragmatism, we should realise this brutalist political philosophy has hidden side effects.

If a Taoiseach can be the protected pet of shadowy businessmen without consequence, who can object in the future if a group of rich businessmen decide to sponsor a politician as distinct to, say, a race-horse or a GAA team?

Like education, health and the law, politics has now been effectively privatised. Surprisingly, the ethos of pragmatism may yet comfort those who are too "old fashioned" to be carefree about a scenario where the voters appear to be at ease with the sight of a Taoiseach lying to a tribunal of inquiry so long as it's not made official. Bertie Ahern may have survived last week, but his position on the political landscape is shaky. Last week, in an implicit vote of no confidence, not one minister was prepared to say they would have acted in the same way as their Taoiseach.

The problem for Bertie is, even in the pragmatic society, once everyone thinks the Taoiseach is a liar, his authority is irredeemably compromised. Ahern is now at the mercy of events in a way he has never been before.

If all continues to go well, Ahern will survive. However, should things turn rough, if the Taoiseach's authority is so compromised by history, if he cannot make the hard decisions needed to retain our grip on the coat-tails of the Tiger, FF will not allow any nostalgic feelings to cloud the necessity for a pragmatic decision.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss