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10 April 2008 Edition

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Outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's political legacy

2008: Bertie Ahern tries to fend off questions from the media at the Mahon Tribunal

2008: Bertie Ahern tries to fend off questions from the media at the Mahon Tribunal

Friendly image masks a cautious and cunning conservative


By Mícheál Mac Donncha

THE political obituaries of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach have been almost unanimous in their bland conclusions. ‘He was great for the economy and the North; pity about the dodgy stuff in the early 1990s,’ goes the line. There has been no real examination of the political record and of how the policies pursued by Bertie Ahern since he entered politics have impacted on Irish society.
First elected to the Dáil in 1977, Ahern was a supporter of Charles Haughey and voted for him in the Fianna Fáil leadership election against George Colley after Jack Lynch resigned in 1979. He was Haughey’s lieutenant throughout the 1980s when, it was later revealed, Haughey was at his most corrupt. The ‘Big Three’ in Fianna Fáil in Dublin at that time were Haughey, Ahern and Ray Burke. Even though he was well aware of what was going on all around him, no mud stuck to Bertie’s teflon anorak. He co-signed the blank cheques for Haughey’s ‘Leader’s Allowance’, public money paid to party leaders to support their political work but misused by Haughey to fund his lavish lifestyle. If Ahern objected, he never gave any hint of it.
The Haughey lifestyle, funded from public money, generous bank loans and donations from business people, was symptomatic of the political culture that had developed in the 1980s. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians took bribes from developers who bought their votes, perverting the planning process for profit. We hear little of the social consequences of this. It resulted in the expansion of Dublin City in an appallingly ill-planned way. Property speculators and developers made big money while communities were moved into badly-built and often vast housing estates with few facilities. Low-paid workers and the unemployed were concentrated in suburban ghettos. In the devastated north inner city, Ahern’s constituency, the menace of heroin was growing and was soon to spread throughout Dublin and beyond. It was the communities themselves, not Establishment politicians like Ahern, who mobilised against the drug pushers.
Ahern’s first major post was Minister for Labour under Haughey in 1987. That government was responsible for savage cutbacks in health, education, social welfare and other public services. Fianna Fáil had campaigned in the 1987 general election with the slogan: “Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped.” It was Haughey, Finance Minister Ray McSharry and Social Welfare Minister Charlie McCreevy who were most identified with the cuts. Ahern, with the combination of guile and good luck which characterised his career, managed to dodge his share of responsibility.
He was insulated by his perceived good relations with the trade unions. The ‘social partnership’ process of pay deals involving government, employers and unions dates from that time and Ahern’s negotiating skills are constantly cited as being crucial to the survival of that process for over two decades. Less well remembered is the fact that he was responsible for the Industrial Relations Act, which restricted the right of unions to take industrial action. He is praised for being accessible to union leaders but he always refused to legislate for the right to trade union membership and for requiring employers under law to recognise that right.
The fall of Charles Haughey in February 1992 left Ahern (Finance Minister since the previous November) unscathed and he remained in Finance after Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach. Ahern played a key role in negotiating the coalition deal with the Labour Party after the general election of that year. Reynolds prioritised the evolving Peace Process. The Section 31 broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin was lifted; ground-breaking talks involving Reynolds, Gerry Adams and John Hume were held; and the first IRA cessation was declared in August 1994. Thus the foundations had been well and truly laid before Ahern became Taoiseach in 1997.
Ahern has rightly been credited with his work on the Peace Process in 1997 and 1998, leading to the Good Friday Agreement, and in the following years. But it is important to remember that the record is blank when it comes to any progressive action or utterance on his part regarding the conflict throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He never spoke out against the torture of republican prisoners in the H-Blocks. He did nothing to support the prisoners’ just demands during the Hunger Strikes of 1980 and 1981. He never spoke out for civil rights by opposing the political censorship of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. He served in governments that extradited Irish political prisoners to the British judicial and prison system while the Birmingham Six were still in jail. No doubt in private he made sympathetic utterances where he thought it would be to his advantage, but he took no political risks.
The Fianna Fáil/Labour Government collapsed in November 1994 and Ahern replaced Albert Reynolds as Fianna Fáil leader. As leader of the Opposition he confronted the ‘Rainbow Government’ led by Fine Gael’s John Bruton and Labour’s Dick Spring. His criticism of their handling of the Peace Process was one of the factors that helped him to reunite and rebuild Fianna Fáil, burying the legacy of factionalism under Lynch, Haughey and Reynolds. Luck was with Ahern in the timing of his accession to the Fianna Fáil leadership. The foundations of the Peace Process were laid and the economic upturn was about to take off.
While the timing of his election as Taoiseach in 1997 was lucky for Ahern, the Irish people were unlucky with the politics and personality of the man who was to preside over a decade of unprecedented economic development. Ahern had neither the vision nor the courage to use economic prosperity to create a more equal society. The tax system he had failed to reform saw the wealthiest rewarded with generous tax breaks while loopholes remained wide open and the management of schemes of tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (illegal) became one of the biggest growth industries.
As is now becoming very clear, Ahern’s governments put all their eggs in the one basket of property development and construction. Housing was inaccessible for the low-paid and for many on even good middle incomes while others were saddled with massive mortgages. The bad planning of the 1980s was exceeded in its damaging social consequences by that of the boom years.
Ahern has trumpeted his years of public service but look at what happened to public services under his governments. There were the disastrous privatisations of Eircom and Aer Lingus. And what can we say about the health services in which Ahern once worked as an accountant in the Mater Hospital? He and his governments of over a decade are directly responsible for the shambles of the public health system. Ahern was in a unique position to replace the two-tier system with a truly reformed, single-tier system with equal access for all based on need alone. But this cautious and cunning conservative refused to consider such a fundamental change. Instead, he made his Progressive Democrats coalition partner, Mary Harney, Minister for Health and Children. She has pursued the Government’s health privatisation agenda while taking the flak for Fianna Fáil, an arrangement that suited Ahern perfectly.
In their 1997 election manifesto Fianna Fáil pledged opposition to the state joining NATO’s so-called ‘Partnership for Peace’ (PfP); in government, Ahern joined the PfP. In 2001, Ahern suffered the biggest single setback of his terms as Taoiseach when he was defeated in the referendum on the Nice Treaty. Sinn Féin played a key role in the successful ‘No’ campaign, a major embarrassment for Ahern. Refusing to implement the result, Ahern held another referendum the following year to get the ‘right’ answer. We were told that Irish neutrality was safe. Then, in 2003, Ahern provided key support for the US invasion of Iraq by allowing the Bush regime to use Shannon Airport as a military staging post. When the largest demonstration in Ireland in decades opposed the war and the use of Shannon, Ahern said he agreed with the protesters but carried on his collaboration.
The Government’s loss of the first Nice referendum was followed by a ratcheting up of the anti-Sinn Féin campaign, whose main voice was Ahern’s Attorney General, Michael McDowell of the PDs. Ahern and Fianna Fáil were happy to let McDowell do the running while hoping the campaign would lessen the electoral impact of Sinn Féin. Increasingly, concern at the growth of Sinn Féin, North and South, as seen in the EU and local elections in 2004, dominated Ahern’s approach to the Peace Process. He never fulfilled his commitment to provide for Six-County representation in the Oireachtas. He lacked the political motivation needed to promote and prepare for Irish reunification.
Ahern’s general election success in 2007 brought Fianna Fáil back to power but already the shadow of the Mahon Tribunal was looming on the horizon. The corrupt political culture which prevailed when he began his political career had come back to haunt him. We must wait and see what more is revealed about the extent to which he participated in that culture.
The departure of Ahern is the end of an era in terms of political personalities. He was the most successful of Irish conservatives. Only a political realignment, ending the domination of both conservative parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – can bring about real change.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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