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James Downey: Bertie wanted to deliver ultimate two-finger sign

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USELESS good-for-nothings! Oh well, there are plenty of them about, always have been, always will be. But in the Sean McDermott Street Cumann of the Fianna Fail party?

For most of us, that's a new one and a puzzling one.

Not one person in 100 ever heard of the Sean McDermott Street Cumann until Bertie Ahern aired the subject on Thursday night in a clip from the forthcoming TV3 series on Fianna Fail, which starts on Monday.

From this clip we learnt that the cumann's handful of members all lived south of the Liffey. They discussed the state of the world at tea parties. They avoided their own supposed constituency, Dublin Central. They did not relish visiting Sean McDermott Street, or even driving through it.

Bertie thinks that everybody knows who they were. I doubt that. In fact, I doubt very much if he was talking about this specific group of people at all.

I think -- or rather, I'm sure -- that he was talking about the Old Guard of Fianna Fail, in Dublin Central and nationwide. From his earliest days in politics, back in the 1970s, Bertie set out to overthrow that Old Guard, starting, of course, in Dublin Central.

His methods were simple but involved an unbelievable amount of hard work. He built up an incomparable ward system and compiled a unique dossier of information about voting patterns and constituency problems.

He didn't just know how you voted, he knew what you ate for breakfast.

Central to the system was his own control. He had to possess everything available -- first in the constituency, then in the city as lord mayor, finally in the nation. He had to have his own councillors. He had to get his preferred running mate elected. He had to choose his successor.

What drove him? In the 'Frost/Nixon' movie, Richard Nixon tells a bemused David Frost, whom he sees as someone much like himself, that "they" once excluded the two of them and will never accept them. For Bertie, "they" were the Fianna Fail Old Guard, with their tea parties and their snooty Southside accents. He'd show them! And show them he did.

He pulled the party back off its knees. He reunited it, at least in a manner of speaking: it was in a mood for unity after decades of squabbling. He led three coalition governments. When he reluctantly resigned, the rulers of the US, Britain and Europe rushed to pay him tribute.

He claimed (I paraphrase) to have found Ireland Zimbabwe and left it Switzerland. It was more the other way round. But economic crashes, like political failures, are written in the stars and we have to live with that.

Bertie doesn't seem to have any capacity for self-analysis, much less self-doubt. He doesn't believe he did anything wrong. He won money backing horses. The dog ate his homework.

This kind of stuff is common enough among politicians. The really intriguing Ahern story emerges in his comments on the presidency in the TV3 series. In the same series, his former partner Celia Larkin says that he was obsessed with power. He saw the stages in his political advance as "notches on the bedpost". That comes very close to the nub of things, but I have a reservation.

His own take on the presidency is extraordinary. He finds the date of this year's presidential election, October, inconvenient. He says that a premature general election has come in front of it and "snookered" him.

Let's analyse that. If the outgoing Dail had lasted its full term, the likeliest general election date would have been the spring of next year. But the presidential election date would still have been October 2011. If Bertie had hung on as Taoiseach until October, his successor would have had almost no time to "play himself in".

My own belief is that when the crash came, he was as much in denial, about the political situation as well as the economy, as his successor Brian Cowen. He had no real intention of resigning as Taoiseach, but waited until he was pushed.

I also believe that over a period of years he had contemplated running for the presidency -- not altogether seriously, but seriously enough to think about a tentative timetable. Such a timetable might have included resignation in the summer of 2009. In that case, what "snookered" him was being pushed out of office in the spring of 2008.

But the real question is this -- why would a man who had for so long relished a life crammed with business and incident opt for seven years, or 14 years, of powerless and boring imprisonment in the Phoenix Park?

My answer is that all those notches on the bedpost did not mark stages of greater power, merely stages of higher office. And the Park would have been the ultimate two-finger sign to the poor old Sean McDermott Street Cumann.

So much for the mixture of Greek tragedy and low farce that has passed its sell-by date. In real life, the hapless Micheal Martin has to choose between various approaches, all unpalatable, to the presidency, and Bertie has not helped him.

No doubt he would like to forget about the presidency and concentrate on the Budget and what he rightly calls rebuilding and renewing Fianna Fail so that it can remain a force in Irish public life. But he won't be allowed to forget. And he won't be spared the temptation of daft ideas.

You might have thought that after the Gay Byrne fiasco nobody in Fianna Fail who has any brains left would have suggested backing an Independent candidate. The campaign is farcical enough as it is.

The Sean McDermott Street Cumann may have had their faults, but I'll wager they all had better sense than to think you can be in the game and out of it at the same time.

Irish Independent