Friday 4 April 2008

Ahern's Legacy as Taoiseach

I have never been a fan of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach, but I became, rather reluctantly, a great admirer his political skills. I don't believe he was corrupt in the rotten sense, but he failed to acknowledge the damage that political shananagans have wrought on Ireland and their inherent danger to democracy. He never grasped fully the arrival of the internet age of informed citizen-voters who expect from office holders the oxygen that democracy needs - transparency. And as such, Ahern had at times no little contempt for the machinery of democracy itself, such as the oireachtas, procedure and accountability, and dare I say it, the media.

He was the perfect man for the North. He carries no ideological baggage, even though he comes from a light green republican background, or not so light if you recall that his father fought in the War of Independence and was a supporter of the Old IRA who fought to bring down the Treaty. Bertie is shrewd and pragmatic. He has an acute political instinct. He was able to read the north and tread lightly on its delicate egg shells. He approached it with a genuine desire to achieve peace, not some pre-imagined political outcome that would please the greener wing of Fianna Fáil. And he didn't prejudge the other political actors, British, Unionist or Republican. He treated every man or woman as an equal. And he had honed his deal making skills in partnership talks. On top of all, he was a decent, likeable man. The result was stunning and the photo of his handshake with Ian Paisely is one of the most memorable images of any Irish Taoiseach. For all of this alone, Ahern's legacy is safe.

Ahern had extraordinary success in building a solid, modern political party from the ruin of two decades of infighting. The party had lost its way, and he put them back on track. The same ability to coax a consenus was magnificent there too. He united a fragmented party, and his personal, ordinary manish appeal made him popular with the nation at large. He drank pints, not Chateau Margaux; he was a lover of Man U, not a conaisseur of Rembrant; he lived in a semi-D, not a manor house.

That his parliamentary party are showing signs of fatique, and even arrogance is a symptom of success. Ahern's achievements for his party, which include 3 election wins in a row, are all the more astonishing for having happened in an era of fragmented interests, and competing loyalities. He leaves behind by far the best organised, most efficiently run, and most successfully modenised political apparatus in Ireland. Fianna Fáil scientifically burrowed into the unconquered corners of PR with STV. They became experts in vote management. They became media savvy, tuning in to the new obsession with, and necessity for, slick PR. Message, grooming, make-up.

Ironically those instincts which seal his place in history made him a poor leader in other ways. Ahern never seemed to take decisions. He would either wait until the decision was affectively taken already, or no decision at all would be taken. He never articulated any vision for Ireland in time to come, never outlined in detail what he wanted for his country in any sphere. There were slogans, peace and prosperity, more to do, but that's as far as it went. Even after 11 years with unprecedented financial resources at his disposal, no significant project is marked with Ahern's fingerprint: not in Health, not in education, not in transport. Ahern simply doesn't do vision. And in his wake our key public services lie creaking under the strain of antiquity, begging for reform.

In his cabinet too, his instinct was to offend as few as he could. Reshuffles had no meaning. This put a huge question over whether he rewarded talent or just kept people happy. As his grip on power weakened, and after a terrible, though ultimately successful, third campaign for government, Ahern resorted to doling out jobs for all and sundry. He expanded the number of junior ministries and multiplied the chairs and vice chairs of committees. Everyone he'd hoped, would be happy.

Ahern's term in office coincided with an extraordinary recovery in the Irish economy. Not much of this can be attributed to Ahern: the economy had already been set on a path to recovery, the Us and Britain were experiencing unprecedented booms, interest rates were low and energy was cheap. Moreover, much of the low tax strategy can be attributed to the PDs, and certainly not Ahern. The causes of the Celtic Tiger will be debated endlessly, but no matter. In the end, Ahern ultimately presided over a government that got the cardinal point right in matters economic: do no harm. And on top of that, his team done a lot of things right. Some people talk of the Clinton Boom in the Us. Bertie Ahern has at least as good a claim on the boom during his tenure as President Clinton has on the American surge in the 90s.

But Ahern missed or wilfully ignored other changes that were happening in modern democracies. People are no longer happy to hear pronouncements from Ministers or recieve curt replies from government agencies. Citizens are now informed and demanding. They know how things work and they want decisions explained and reasons given. Many government agencies have moved in this direction, in the inevitable tide of modernisation that has washed over democracies in the internet age. But Ahern himself always treated transparency with no little contempt -- his government gutted the Freedom of Information Act. What are all these explanations about, why should he have to answer to the media? He justed wanted to get on with the job, after his own manner. Conventions, such as the manner in which the Dáil is dissolved or new positions announced, were set aside willy nilly. In other words, Bertie governed with his own system, not the one that previous generations have honed. Like many leaders who are given a long run at the helm, Bertie began to treat the whole apparatus of government like his own little fiefdom: to hell with tradition, he would do as he pleases, and it was nobody's business to ask questions.

It is always wrong for senior office holders to take large donations. It is wrong now, it was wrong in the 90s. That everyone was at it, and that it was the culture of the time is a defence, but a weak one. The inherent risk of bribery and the obvious damage which can ensue for democracy has always been known. The McCracken Tribunal didn't invent Ethics. But even if it was acceptable then for a finance minister to receive enormous donations, it is not acceptable now. Ahern straddled two eras - the pre and post Haughey, and in the end those worlds collided. He stated after McCracken and the Haughey affair that office holders should not compromise themselves by taking money. He had done just that and was snared by Mahon. His response was a web of obfuscations and inventions that brought both hilarity and insult to the Irish people. Each new revelation wore another layer off his famous Teflon until eventually his denials looked naked.

In the end he, and undoubtedly his senior colleagues, realised the wisest course was to pass on the baton. And his exit is far more graceful than an ugly, prolonged defiance after the tipping point had been reached.


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Vince said...

Fan = Admirer. I'm not sure Bertie, himself, could split that equation.
But I do wonder, is an expectation like the Aga Khan, that an equal weight of gold be placed on a balance scales countering Cowan.

Tomaltach said...

I wrote the above piece more or less as I typed along, and without much reflection. One thing which I would like to correct is on the economic record, which I described in overly benign terms. Certainly Ahern and his team did not wreck the economy. But some decisions were made which set us up for a fall. (Again this is not to discuss tax and spend priorities which is an ideological issue and is a matter for another day). But one big issue was how spending increased massively without rigorous mechansims for oversight and delivering value. Under McCreevy's term spending almost tripled! Then there were issues such as Benchmarking and the insane decentralisation plan. Both of which were badly handled. Certainly benchmarking will have an economic effect in the way it ramped up costs without being properly tied to delivery and reform measures (as I said in an earlier post in Irish). Further, the government interferred significantly in the housing market over Ahern's term and nearly always with negative consequences for the medium term economy. For example, instead of just making stamp duty fairer, the government at one stage simply made significant reductions. Many argued at the time this would just inflate prices more when the market was already boiling. And so it happened. These are just some examples of economic mismanagement.

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