Monday 18 February 2019

Politics today is all about survival, and Bertie is a true master of the art

YOU need a few thousand pounds, or euros as the case may be, to settle a bill for legal costs. Some friends offered to stump up the money.

Have you thereby placed yourself under an obligation to them? Of course you have, even if they are your closest friends.

Who among us has not whispered a name in the right ear? It helps the world to spin.

But if you are the Minister for Finance, that puts things in a rather different light.

Bertie Ahern knows that. He made it clear in 1997, early in his tenure as Taoiseach. Public representatives, he said, must not be under a personal obligation to anyone.

Then on Thursday he seemed to contradict himself. "None of your business," he told the media.

He was right in one respect, details relating to his legal separation are none of our business.

But obligations entered into in 1993, no matter how informally, by the then Finance Minister who is now Taoiseach, are everybody's business.

We heard a lot of nonsense on a similar subject during the uproar over Charles J Haughey's finances. The former Taoiseach received money from a "golden circle" of businessmen. The sums involved totalled millions, not thousands.

But that is irrelevant. And so are wild allegations made at a private sitting of the Mahon Tribunal about unlikely millions paid to Mr Ahern.

Haughey's apologists claimed that he did no favours in return. That has been disproved, but the question in any case is the receipt of the money and the obligations it created.

And there is a further question. Mr Ahern is the Teflon Taoiseach - nothing sticks to him.

He promised to reform the "culture" of nods and winks, brown envelopes and offshore accounts. People believed him who never believed Charlie Haughey. They may still believe him, but at the very least they will have doubts about his judgment.

They will wonder how a finance minister, of all people, could have been so thoughtless.

And there is a four-letter word which answers all the Fianna Fail party's protestations about reform and a new culture. That word is "tent". No doubt most of the guests in the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races this year were as squeaky clean as Mr Ahern himself.

Known tax dodgers, however, were equally welcome. This does not square well with the Taoiseach's condemnation of materialism and selfishness.

Having thought a bit more about it, he might have realised that materialism and selfishness are inescapably linked with a boom of historic proportions which, by chance, had its origins in that interesting year of 1993.

His government has done nothing to curb the feverish economy or diminish these consequences.

His ministers do not declare openly, with Gordon Gecko that, "greed is good", but some have gone very close.

A boom of such magnitude has another inevitable effect. Temptation increases in proportion to the billions in spare money sloshing about. Many will succumb.

That is human nature. Corruption is not a probability but a certainty. In another 20 or 30 years, tribunals will be inquiring into it.

In the meantime, worse things have happened than the growth of materialism and selfishness.

People's faith in all institutions, notably parliament, has dwindled. Starved of moral leadership, they allowed themselves to lapse into cynicism about democratic politics and forget that we owe our rights and freedoms to the system.

In a strange way, the Fianna Fail party profits from this. So does a certain other party, in an indirect but dangerous way.

Voters say that politicians "are all the same". They are not. Most are honest, though a good many bend the rules. Fianna Fail are the past masters, not so much at bending the rules as at hinting that they do so to better effect.

But, paradoxically, for roughly 10pc of voters Sinn Fein are exempt from this criticism. The 10pc blind themselves to the deep dishonesty at the heart of that party's posturing. It is a reflection on the mainstream parties that they have allowed it to happen.

Can they redeem themselves in this and other regards in the forthcoming Dail session? The chances are poor.

The heart sinks at the prospect of clumsy traps laid for the Taoiseach, his reaction swinging from obfuscation to genuine or pretended anger, silly and offensive remarks flung across the floor of the Dail, and the proper governance of the country relegated to last place.

Not that the proper governance of the country was ever going to be a priority in this session.

BEFORE Bertiegate, the government had only one thing on its collective mind: the general election. Now it has two. Neither is fruitful ground for calm and rational debate, much less rigorous analysis of suitable policies for the country's needs.

And when the tumult dies down, as it will, Bertie Ahern will emerge from the smoke of the battle, a little bit smeared and battered, but unbloodied.

He will carry on with his daily round of mind-numbing engagements, and Michael McDowell will carry on with his solo runs, and Brian Cowen will carry on planning how to bring in a giveaway budget and call it prudent.

Irish politics in the 21st century is not about straight answers. It is only about survival.

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