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Bertie Ahern - a leader who fled a sinking ship

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Prior to the 2007 general election, it felt like it was going to be a line-in-the-sand election of the 1948 variety. But, instead of the ‘48 outcome, where the other parties (and the public at large) grew so weary of the long reign of the Fianna Fáil government that they all banded together to heave them out of office, something else happened. That thing was Bertie Ahern.

Even though his personal finances wouldn’t have been out of place in 1920’s Chicago, and even though he and his government ran the country in a fashion so lackadaisical it was almost Zen-like, on the two central acid tests of the election (the North and the economy) Bertie was deemed to have passed with a push and prevented the opposition from winning what should have been a slam dunk of an election. It also helped that a sizeable portion of the population seemed to think he was a puppy, as criticism of Bertie back then was often met with a loud chorus of “Ah would ye leave him alone, sure he’s only lovely!” Boy, was that a mistake.

Now, two years after the former captain of Ireland’s political Hindenburg fritzed out the controls and leapt off with the only parachute on board, Bertie Ahern announced on New Year’s Eve that he was officially giving up the old flying Zeppelins business. That Ahern won’t run in next year’s general election, thus bringing an end to his 34 year reign of inanity, is no doubt satisfying, but in so announcing he made some statements that brought my gorge rising levels back to 2007 standards.

“If I had seen the banking crisis coming. Nobody advised me, no economist, all those people now writing books saying ‘I told you so’ – none of them”, was one of his gems, for instance. For a politician with such a reputation for astuteness, he makes it sound as if he became Taoiseach as part of a TV talent contest with no prior experience in the field. While everyday politics is behind him he still has a promising career as a fantasy fiction writer at least.

Of course not only were there some economists, journalists and, amazing as it is to conceive, ordinary people waving red flags (or at least suggesting that which goes up might have to come down eventually) but they were steadily trashed by the economic gravity defying Ahern, who insisted “the boom times are getting even more boomer”. He actually said this. On one shameful occasion, he notoriously suggested that anybody unhappy with the state of the economy commit suicide. When he was taken to task on it, he grinned his stupidest grin and said he didn’t mean anything by it. In the spongy, brightly coloured ball pool Bertie calls reality, this makes it all OK.

If only he’d left his retirement speech with a merely galling “Sure how was I to know?” statement to satisfy his ego, but no, he had to out-git himself. In an interview with The News Of The World (the paper he writes a sports column/climbs into cupboards for) he criticised Brian Cowen’s leadership, intimating he wasn’t doing a good job at getting the government message out there and that if corrective measures had been taken by Cowen earlier or had a plan in place to make sure Ireland didn’t go the same way as Greece, Ireland may have dodged the EU/IMF bailout. Even by Ahern’s amoral standards, that is pretty extraordinary.
Say what you want about Brian Cowen, and you could say loads, but loyalty is something he’s put a high premium on all his political life, and with this interview Ahern has shown that loyalty isn’t in his mangled vocabulary. Brazen self-preservation however courses through his veins, and with his criticism of Cowen he’s trying to get people to think that he would’ve handled things differently (and better, naturally) while at the same time scrawling “Nothing to do with me, pal” on the walls of the Irish financial system. But hell, why privately relay your concerns to the man who replaced you when you can get your sainted, perceptive head in the papers instead, eh?

While those statements are enough to get the most mild mannered of people riled up, the one that really gets me is his response to questions about whether he will run for the Presidency later this year. “I don’t know. I honestly haven’t decided that”. Ahern knows full well that there’s more chance of William Shatner being elected Irish President than him, yet he couldn’t even answer that question honestly.

Presidential run or not, Ahern’s recent statements show that he is fiercely protective of his legacy, and will do or say pretty much anything to maintain it. While of course his part in the Northern Ireland peace process was distinct and valuable, he was part of a large ensemble cast, and as the other promises of his 2007 election campaign are now distant spectres, he’ll struggle to stop his name sliding inexorably into historical disrepute no matter what he does.

Ahern’s late constituency rival Tony Gregory used to commonly rail against various governments’ “Thatcherite” policies, and whether you agreed with the policies that word represented, you have to respect the fact that Thatcherite means something, that it stands for a certain set of values and principles and way of thinking that were resolutely defined. To what set of principles or causes of devotion would Ahernism correspond? It’s Ireland’s tragedy that during its’ most prosperous years we had a man in charge whose position was to be pro-being in charge and anti-someone else being in charge, whose policy was to vacillate and kick the ball down the field anything remotely contentious, whose philosophy was “Don’t over-think it, lads”.

In the eleven years he was in charge, with the money we had swimming around, we could have had a health or education or transport system the envy of the world. We could have led the charge on the big challenge of the 21st century: making renewable energy mainstream. We could have promoted better civic engagement, encouraged the valuable work being done by ordinary people in their communities, and made big strides in ending inequality and disadvantage. Instead we drifted along, purposeless, with only a catalogue of waste, pointless pet projects and blunders masked by the heady aroma of economic growth a mile wide and an inch deep to show for it.

That is Ahern’s enduring legacy. It’s a well-quoted fact that after securing a coalition deal with the PD’s in 1989, Charles Haughey called Bertie “the most cunning, the most devious of them all”. Charlie being Charlie he meant that as a compliment, but I’d go one better than that. Bertie Ahern is the most feckless, the most craven, the most ruthless, the most contemptible, the most noxious weasel of them all. Good riddance you wastrel, don’t let the doors of the Dáil hit you on the way out.

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