Friday 21 June 2019

When it comes to living on Planet Bertie, charisma is not always refreshing

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern

Lise Hand

It was John Gormley, leader of the Greens, who coined the phrase 'Planet Bertie' in a fiery anti-Fianna Fail speech at his party conference in February 2007. "It's a strange place, Planet Bertie. So strange and so alien to our sensibilities, that it's a planet that we Greens would like to avoid," he declared to cheers.

But within four months, the irresistible gravitational pull of Planet Bertie had drawn them in, to orbit around a three-term Taoiseach as a coalition satellite. However, John Gormley need feel no chagrin, for Planet Bertie beckoned to many people as a nice place to dwell.

In fact, and in hindsight, it was a celestial body not unlike Pluto: both have friendly-sounding names and both are a mixture of ice and cuddly-looking heart-shaped topography, with a shifting surface seemingly unscathed by hurtling rocks. And despite being the subjects of intense scrutiny, both planets still remain remote, unknowable, but oddly fascinating.

On Thursday afternoon, as he bustled into Committee Room 1 in Leinster House as a witness in the Banking Inquiry, Bertie Ahern was still box-office - despite the passage of eight years since he stepped down as Taoiseach. The hair was whiter, but really, he didn't look markedly different. And as the inquiry proceeded, the rocks bounced off him just like the old days as he shape-shifted through some of his multifarious personalities. There was the plain-speaking Dub, the accountant reciting statistics, and the gas character chuckling over the Galway Tent: "You got a bit of food, it was a bit of fun... some people met their wives there."

He was also the Disappointed Captain, dismayed that his crew had failed to inform him about the icebergs ahead. And there was the iron fist in the woolly glove, the flash of steel in the direction of Eoghan Murphy: "To be honest with you, I hadn't got much competition in 2002 so I wasn't that worried about whether I'd be re-elected Taoiseach or not," he shrugged in reply to the Fine Gael TD's question on Fianna Fáil's hunger for power.

People tuned into the session online. Social media fizzed and boiled with loads of anger and some admiration. The Bert was back in town. And the truth was, without any but his most deluded disciples wishing for his return to the political fray, Bertie's presence was a reminder of something which is largely absent in Irish politics - that indefinable quality of charisma.

Leinster House is an earnest place these days. The frontbench - apart perhaps from Leo Varadkar who still hasn't entirely shed his tendencies towards unpredictability and forthrightness, and Joan Burton who enjoys the odd solo run away from the government handlers - are largely from the don't-scare-the-horses school of politics.

Nor is there much in the way of charisma emanating from the opposition side - there are characters galore to be sure, but that's not the same class of political animal. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's Marmite leader (love him, hate him, no in-between) has some, but it's mainly thanks to his interesting past rather than his current political persona. And the Taoiseach? Even ardent Enda-ites find him at best likeable and approachable.

Charismatic and Kenny are rare bedfellows in the same sentence.

Certainly, out on the hustings in 2007, when it looked as if Bertie was done for and Enda was fair set for government buildings, it was the Fianna Fáil leader who still, even during a campaign beset by tribunal troubles, drew the biggest crowds.

Quite when he morphed from scruffy lieutenant to charismatic captain is uncertain, but this version of Bertie was firmly in place by the election campaign of 1997, and it was formally launched by one image: he was canvassing in Galway with his usual verve, shaking hands, kissing babies and back-slapping the hard-working men. Then, up steps local lassie Helen Muldoon, who bypasses the handshake and lands a hearty smacker on a startled Bertie's lips, much to the delirium of the press snappers on Shop Street.

It was an image which chimed with the national mood - the economy was picking up, the country was emerging from the long shadow of the Catholic church, and the electorate were taken with this energetic, optimistic, man-of-the-people Dub, who wanted to rid his party of any past taint of corruption.

His old mentor Charlie Haughey had buckets of charisma too, but his was a dark, unsettling sort of allure.

This was new politics - at their Ard Fheis earlier that year before the election, the leader declared to rapturous Fianna Fail delegates: "We will write new ethics standards and independent enforcement into the law of the land."

Of course, it didn't turn out like that at all. But even as the storm clouds, created by revelations from the Mahon Tribunal (ironically set up by Taoiseach Ahern's government in 1997) closed in on him, such was the vividness of the mythical character of Bertie, that many found it hard to believe the revelations surrounding his finances.

How else to explain how a veteran interrogator such as RTE's Bryan Dobson failed to penetrate the surface of Planet Bertie in that infamous interview in September 2006? "It was a very dark period for me and very sad period for me," confessed the tearful Taoiseach.

Poor oul' Bertie. Sure he's just like one of us, trying to keep the wolf from the door and do right by his family. Okay, so the nuts and bolts of the various financial transactions were a bit muddled, but that was typical of the man. Wasn't he always tripping over his words?

Most people believed the story spun in that riveting performance, which no other politician would've had the chutzpah to pull off. And that belief bought Bertie more time to run the country as the property market boiled over and the banks ran amok, unchecked.

Charisma - sometimes too much of a good thing is just plain bad for you.

Irish Independent

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