Tuesday 22 October 2019

What delivered his greatest success was also his big failing

Bertie loved to be loved, a political insider once told Daniel McConnell, who says maybe that was what led to the country's problems

Former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, after the signing of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement 10 years ago (John Giles/PA Wire)
Former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, after the signing of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement 10 years ago (John Giles/PA Wire)

Daniel McConnell

It was in the run up to the crucial 2007 General Election, and I was on the campaign trail with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

A whistle-stop tour of Kerry on a Saturday saw him, and us, bound our way through Listowel, Tralee and Killarney with crowds of people flocking to shake the 'Bert's' hand.

The pace was frenetic; it was a constant gallop with never more than a "howaya lads" or "yiz are hard at it" as he raced on.

Despite the raging controversy of his own personal finances, he remained box -office, and the good people welcomed him with open arms.

I remarked to one of the poor unfortunate party handlers designated to "mind the boss" that he seemed to thrive on the canvass.

"Bertie loves to be loved," came the response.

In a way, it was the perfect summation of Bertie's way of doing business as a Minister for Labour and later as Taoiseach.

From his early ministerial days with the rumpled anorak, to his make-up laden days as an international statesman, Ahern's modus operandi was to buy people off.

Appointed by Charlie Haughey in 1987 as minister for labour, then a full and important Cabinet position, Mr Ahern was involved in delivering the first of the national wage deals.

Concluded in October 1987, the Programme for National Recovery (PNR) was the first in a series of three-year national agreements on pay and aspects of economic policy, agreed between the government and the 'social partners': unions, employers and farmers.

But Ahern also had to wade into a series of dirty disputes, including the ESB and Dublin Fire Brigade and also sought to intervene in the Irish Press dispute.

The ESB dispute was a particularly bitter affair, resulting in blackouts and electricity shortages.

During his tenure as Taoiseach, Mr Ahern always kept a foot in the industrial relations camp, making several critical interventions in the striking of agreements.

Cynics often claimed, with some degree of justification, he was only called in when the final outcome was already known, but it suited all sides to be 'seen' to be driving a hard bargain requiring the Taoiseach's personal skills to save the day.

But Ahern's Mr Fix-It reputation was exactly what was required during the fraught and difficult negotiations to establish the Good Friday Agreement.

The principle was the same, with two sides having to be delicately dragged together to strike a deal.

And after mastering the industrial relations lexicon of 'retrospection', 'parity of esteem' and the peace process vocabulary of 'normalisation', 'strands', 'twin-track approaches' and 'conflict resolution' flowed naturally.

But it was during the boom years, with the farcical 2002 benchmarking process and allowing social partnership to dominate government policy, that Ahern's desire to be loved was a primary cause of the economy becoming derailed.

Government ministers of the day would often remind you of Bertie's diktat that everyone must do all they could to "keep the unions happy at all costs".

The 'one-for-everyone-in-the-audience' culture, which went into overdrive, was solidified when Ahern managed to pack Charlie McCreevy off to Europe in 2004 and Brian Cowen was installed in Finance.

Ahern knew that in Cowen, he would have a far more biddable lieutenant in Finance, as McCreevy had become too truculent and resolute in his desire to rein in government spending for the Taoiseach's liking.

Next Thursday, Ahern will appear before the Banking Inquiry to account for his time in office and defend the decisions he took.

It is expected he will spread the blame for the crash far and wide rather than do what he should do and accept it was primarily his fault.

Even more than Cowen, he will have to defend the indefensible.

Because, Ahern, not Cowen, was the grand architect of Ireland's boom and bust.

It was his desire to be liked by everyone, or at least by as many people as possible, that drove policies that were neither prudent nor sustainable.

Ahern has made numerous utterances since stepping down from office in 2008 that things would have been very different had he remained on in office.

I would agree with him, but not in the way he thinks. If Ahern had remained on in office, things would have been much, much worse.

Since leaving office, Ahern has become something of a pariah. He is no longer a figure of adoration but one of derision. He no longer commands the widespread respect of the Irish public.

He has been physically attacked by members of the public while on the street and has become the 'bete noire' in chief for many people.

Given how loved and revered he was, it is a remarkable fall from grace.

So, for the 'aul Bert', next Thursday is a high-stakes affair in which he looks to salvage his legacy on the economy to some degree.

Many in Fianna Fail, given that he is deeply embittered about his forced resignation from the party in 2012, are genuinely afraid of what he is likely to say, with less than nine months to go to an election.

Ahern can, if he wants to, inflict real damage on his former party and its current leader Micheal Martin, and many at the top end of the party fear he may seek to extract some form of revenge on those who he feels betrayed him.

Cowen has gained some praise for how he handled himself before the committee. Ahern could do worse than follow his example.

Sunday Independent

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