Bertie Ahern is the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, a position he has held since 1997, roughly the same amount of time that Tony Blair has been in power in the UK. By any standards, he has been one of the most successful politicians this state has ever seen. He was centrally involved in the resolution of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, his economic policies helped to prolong the country’s amazing economic boom, industrial relations have never been so good, and he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to work successfully with other political leaders. It’s hard not to like and admire the guy. On the political front, he has maintained a strong lead in the popular polls throughout his entire tenure. Opposition parties could only seethe with frustration when he grew his political support base during his second term in government. Very rarely in the last 9 years have they been able to land any punches in his direction.
It’s a pretty amazing record for a man who doesn’t, on face value, look like someone who could run a country. He is from a relatively humble background in north Dublin, he has few, if any, academic qualifications. He is not a good public speaker by any stretch of the imagination. He is self-deprecating, quietly spoken and he doesn’t much like conflict. And yet, he has this common touch and ability to work hard that makes him accessible to people in some way. He’s had a remarkable career in politics. Bertie is known here as the Teflon Taoiseach – nothing that has ever been thrown at him has been able to stick for very long. Compared to Tony Blair, who has aged visibly during his tenure over the UK, Bertie still seems fit and healthy.
However the last two weeks have been hugely difficult for Bertie. Information was leaked into the public domain that allege that he took payments from friends and businessmen during the 1990’s. The reason for this was the breakdown of his marriage and his subsequent separation. Under pressure to disclose the details of these payments, he made what he thought was a full public statement, but this only ended up in him getting into deeper water. He revealed during the course of the statement that some businessmen in Manchester had paid him £8,000 for personal use. He has since had to make further public statements, and now with a drip-drip pattern emerging about his personal finances, it seems as if his tenure as Taoiseach, if not quite dead, is in serious trouble.
Even though the country is likely to lose a good leader, this whole incident gives me a strong impression that Irish democracy is quite healthy. Our political class are not above criticism and our media still are able to do their job, irrespective of how it affects the sensibilities of the ruling elite. Ireland went through a period in the 1980’s where businessmen passed huge amounts of money to politicians with a clear expectation of political favours being performed down the line. Planning decisions and rezoning decisions were made that beggared belief, while 20% of the adult population were unemployed and 50,000 people a year were leaving the country. Some of these payments have been revealed through a number of public inquiries but we will never know the full extent of the corruption that existed at that time. When attempts were made by journalists to discover the truth, it was the journalists themselves who ended up in court.
Even though the Bertie incident is minor by comparison with all this, we need to be very careful about introducing a culture of tolerance for all this back into political life.