Grace under fire for our imperfect Taoiseach
The ferocity of the attacks on Bertie has only made the media look grubby, writes Brendan O'Connor
'There is another lot who are so intoxicated with the idea of having the power to bring down senior politicians that they will grab at any excuse to exercise it." That was David Adams, a Northern Unionist, getting calmly and devastatingly to the heart of the Bertie Ahern affair in the Irish Times on Friday. And indeed it is significant that it takes someone from outside our tribe to bring a bit of perspective to the whole thing. Most people around here have the head completely, giddy with the thought of the ultimate scalp.
There was something else significant about David Adams's piece too. Adams admitted frankly what most people who support Bertie Ahern in his current troubles have at the back of their minds. Adams admitted that he is biased on Bertie Ahern because Bertie Ahern brought peace to this country. How quickly we forget even the biggest favour.
Interesting too to note that at the root of much of Bertie's current troubles is the work of Frank Connolly, a nationalist activist and journalist. Bertie Ahern, you will recall, not only brought peace to the North, he also pretty much wiped out Sinn Fein as a political force in this country. Is this payback time? And if there are sinister aspects to the attempts to destroy the Taoiseach then what the hell is the Daily Mail doing in the middle of it all? On one hand it is entirely understandable that the Mail is stuck in this. Here is a relatively new product, trying to gain a constituency, and its frequent frenzies about Ahern have given it something to rally around. Like any media organisation in this grubby world we live in, the Mail group is driven by commercial considerations and clearly the Brits reckon that this kind of lark sells papers. It's high-camp melodrama, is the thinking, and people enjoy a bit of that. You can't help wondering, though, if this is all going to backfire on them. This is not some jolly wheeze. This all has real consequences. And you'd have to wonder, when everybody calms down, if people are going to wonder about an English newspaper group coming in here and trying to destabilise this country's Government in order to sell some papers.
You'd also have to wonder if the Mail's campaign against Bertie is truly, really, in the spirit of the Mail. In Britain, the Mail is the newspaper of Middle England. It is the voice of Mondeo man, the slightly irate guy on the Clapham Omnibus. But somehow that seems to have got lost in translation somewhere over the Irish Sea. Middle Ireland may not believe Ahern 1000 per cent on all this but they ultimately have sympathy and they ultimately will have sympathy. Remember that Ahern was under a similar cloud to the current one when he won the last general election hands down. Indeed, the details that were emerging around that time, about what seemed like a sad and rather lonely life, probably helped Ahern at the polls. Middle Ireland refused to let the media do their thinking for them on that occasion and they will do the same again. And while they might get some kick out of the sport for now, it is very much a guilty pleasure and people will hate themselves for it in the morning. And they won't want to blame themselves for it, so they might blame the Mail.
People might also find themselves wondering about the possible knock-on affects of this kind of thing to our political culture. Politics in Ireland have always been robust but there is a feeling this weekend that a rubicon was crossed in the Dail the other day.
People were slightly shocked at the ferocity of the name-calling during the week. Having been primed by the media for a showdown, having bought the hype and the hysteria about the opposition's attack on Bertie Ahern, people kind of realised when it actually happened that there was a lack of decency about it all. The Taoiseach ain't perfect but he's our imperfect Taoiseach.
As smart as those guys over at the Mail are, you have to wonder if they're not being useful idiots on this one. The Mail's agenda is not as political as that of some of the people behind the attempts to destroy Bertie but somehow this bastion of conservative Little Britain has become enmeshed with sinister republican forces. Unwittingly done in fairness but still done.
Unwittingly too, Bertie's enemies have given him a great gift, something he never really had before. Remember when Bertie used be under pressure before? Remember how the street fighter would come out in him? Remember the touch of a snarl, the unsettling flashes of cornered rat? That's gone. You know what Bertie demonstrated last week, whether in the Dail or at the ploughing? He demonstrated one of the great traits of great leaders, grace under pressure. And his enemies brought it out in him by subjecting him to all of this. Bertie's enemies actually did the one thing that Bertie could never quite do himself -- they gave him an urbane sort of cool. They made him look better. But you'd worry that they made themselves look worse in the process.