Friday 15 December 2017

A victory for good politics over bad

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

FRIDAY THE media still maintains that the Taoiseach only shaded the TV debate. Actually, his aura of authority reminded his audience that there were no real structural reasons to change horses - no rise in interest rates, no massive drop in jobs, no unusual hikes in utility bills. Meantime, I am preparing for The Late Late Show and an audience of some 700,000 people.

First comes the problem of content. What do I actually believe about Bertie Ahern? Aristotle advises that there is nothing like a long walk to clear the mind. And in the course of a long walk on the West Pier I come to a core conclusion. Ahern is all about class.

Class in every sense. Ahern himself is a class act who does not come from the correct class. And the correct class, which controls the media, is basically a politically correct class.

That being so, I suspect that some of them sneer at Ahern the same way they sneer at the Sunday Independent. Big mistake. Because Ahern and the Sunday Independent are in touch with the Irish people.

By and large, Irish people do not like the new Puritan priesthood of the media which calls politicians to a public life of Platonic perfection which it will not apply to its own profession. And what mostly bothers people is that the media class, having abandoned Christianity, seems to have no hierarchy of higher and lower sins. To the media, all sins are mortal and all sins are the same. A loan of a few thousand from friends to Ahern is no different to a loan of a million from Ben Dunne to Charles Haughey. All are subject to the same condemnation by the Robespierres of RTE and the inspectors of the Irish Times.

That is why on The Late Late Show I will support Ahern against the witchfinders of the Irish media. Not because I am against Fine Gael, for whom I have the highest regard. But because the Mahon tribunal has been abused to create a new McCarthyism.

Now I know what to say, I must figure out a strategy for saying it. I decide that I will appeal to Eamon Dunphy and John Waters to draw a distinction between Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail. And I am still not satisfied.

Every spindoctor needs a spindoctor. So I turn to my two old trade union comrades, Oliver Donohoe, a former media advisor to the ICTU, and Liam Cassidy, currently an official with the Sales and Marketing Union. They tell me two things.

First, if Dunphy gets down and dirty they tell me to give him a rub of Ronaldo. Second, they tell me to wear a collar and tie. As Liam says, "middle-aged cleavage looks messy in both sexes".

And so, armed for battle I make my way to Montrose, to make a mark on the General Election of 2007.

Sunday morning confirms the rumours of an Irish Times poll, taken on Friday and Saturday, which gives Fianna Fail a boost of five points. The pundits profess themselves baffled but put it down to the television debate - which they had previously argued Ahern had only won on points.

Actually, the truth is that the public has always been behind Ahern. But while the media waged war in the first week of the campaign, the public held back, watching to see whether Fianna Fail would come over all faint or fight to a finish.

Alas, in the first week there were far too many faint hearts in Fianna Fail to convince the public it could give itself what I call "permission" to commit fully to Fianna Fail. But by the end of the first week that machinery of permission had been set in motion by three separate interventions.

First, by the combative press conference where Brian Cowen, Dermot Ahern and Michael Martin took a hard line. Second, the Taoiseach's Westminster speech, which slowly worked its way into the public psyche. Third, the TV debate which Ahern won, and which was followed by The Late Late Show where three panellists, divided by policies, agreed in their admiration for Ahern.

Sunday also brings media sniping. The Sue Denham column in the Sunday Times (getting greener and greener under the twin ministrations of Frank Fitzgibbon and Damien Kiberd) mocks me for betting some of my SSIA money on Ahern, under the title, 'What a waste of SSIA money as wager on Bertie defies the odds'.

'"I've taken a substantial sum from my SSIA savings and put it on Bertie for a third term" the 'Sunday Independent' columnist blustered last week. Oh dear, by Saturday, when Fianna Fail TDs have been scattered like skittles, he'll be volunteering himself as a guinea pig on Hobbes's [sic] rescue programme 'Show Me the Money'.' (As I write this, Saturday has come and gone and my SSIA money still looks as safe as Bertie's house. Maybe the Sunday Times wrote the story a tad too soon. Like a week before they went to press?)

Sunday night. Dermot Ahern rolls up his sleeves and puts in a polished performance on The Week in Politics. A stand-up guy with the guts you need to be Taoiseach.

Morning Ireland trots out two of their favourite pundits, Harry McGee of the Irish Examiner and Pat Leahy of the Sunday Business Post , to figure out with Charlie Bird why the election turned out different to the way the media thought it should.

But then, out of the blue, Charlie Bird suddenly bleats out what is really weighing on their worried minds. "I mean, there's no use blaming the media!" Ah yes there is, Charlie, because nobody else is to blame.

Luckily, I don't switch off, because later Pat Kenny brings on three PR types to talk about why people changed on Ahern. Somehow, Terry Prone and Paul Allen can't pin down the point of change. As the show ends, Caroline Kennedy praises my performance on The Late Late Show. Suddenly, the studio fills with nervous laughter as Prone and Cullen are forced to take formal notice of the elephant in the room.

Caroline's comment has clout, both because she is married to Tom McGurk (about whom I sometimes say hard things by way of business) and because recently I was a bit hard on her too. Caroline must be one of those rare PR people who are not born begrudgers.

To Belfast. At Tim Smyth's brilliant bookshop at Queens University, I launch two books on the Orange Order before an appreciative and largely Unionist audience - most of whom seem to think more highly of Ahern than Blair. One of the books (jointly written by Prof Eric Kaufman of Birkbeck and my old friend Prof Henry Patterson of NUU) is called Unionism and Orangeism in Northern Ireland since 1945. And If that sounds dry, the night that followed was not, for all that Henry comes from a Presbyterian background.

After a walk around Belfast on Thursday morning, I travelled back down to Dublin in time to make my mark for Ahern - an act of which Henry Patterson strongly approves. After all, without Ahern, as Henry points out, we would not have been able to walk around a peaceful and prosperous Belfast that booms like a Lambeg Drum.

The early results fill me with energy. Not just because Bertie Ahern beat the begrudgers, but because in doing so he consolidated the Fianna Fail vote, which then crushed Sinn Fein in a vice between Fianna Fail poll-toppers like Pat Carey, and Fine Gael's Brian Hayes.

So much for Fionnan Sheahan's story in the Irish Independent last week titled 'Sinn Fein emerge as likely king-makers in next Dail'. And pigs will fly the tricolour. In the real world of the Irish republic, General Election 2007 is a victory of good politics over bad politics.

Eoghan Harris

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