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Credibility, the opposition and the future of Bertie Ahern September 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Irish Politics.
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I’ve shied away from discussing this issue. In a way I don’t see it as hugely political in any meaningful sense. Sure, it may or may not lead to resignation, yes there are issues regarding the handling of financial affairs when in high office and so forth. But to be honest one B. Ahern was also instrumental in ensuring through various guidelines that recurrences of the most egregious ethical lapses of the 1980s are unlikely to return. It’s certainly not central to the sort of politics I value which is ideological. But that said it is quite fascinating on a human level. Ahern’s tenacious grip on credibility is remarkable.

One of the most revealing aspects of the current situation as regards Bertie Ahern has been the way in which his personal authority and credibility has remained intact since the story broke a little over a year ago and his political capital was enhanced. In part that has been due to the curious mixture of the personal, the financial and the political that this affair has incorporated. Indeed each of those elements has acted at different times and in different ways as a shield to be deployed when and as needed.

When the opposition trundled forward last year around the time of the infamous interview it was the ‘personal’ which came into play. Later attacks were dismissed as being political and more recently – tellingly as the Tribunal drew closer – the financial was proposed as the key issue. In this way, and due to the effectivity of these defences, no significant damage was incurred by Ahern – indeed counterintuitively one might suggest that the attacks actually shored up and increased his support amongst the electorate and beyond that the general public.

I’ve pointed elsewhere to the way in which politicians live in a bubble. Anyone who has had any contact with those in government will know that the very process of being in government leads to a curious detachment from reality. Everything is provided, programmed and managed. Encounters are guided, appearances rationed. And in such a context – where the hand is never put in the pocket to pay for anything, the concept that a whip around among friends is legitimate can be regarded as entirely reasonable. The idea that because he didn’t keep the money in the bank it somehow imputes wrong is difficult to sustain. It doesn’t look great, but it is not beyond the bounds of credibility. Tangled financial transactions in the context of significant personal issues suggest motivations quite different to naked financial gain. A lack of records, unfortunate, but once more clearly not a crime. If anything surely what we see here is a clear warning about how political detachment can abrade natural caution and lead to actions that appear unwise.

All of which has helped no end in retaining the Taoiseachs credibility.

But credibility is a tricky thing. It can be spent much faster than it is earned. Politically we have a remarkable series of statements today. Eamon Gilmore called on the Taoiseach to resign. Meanwhile Trevor Sargent and Eamon Ryan offered a sterling defence on the News at One on RTÉ who suggested opportunism on the part of Labour while also arguing that the Tribunal process must be followed through ‘its proper course’. Although termed ‘brazening it out’, one might argue that there is a point to their defence. Fine Gael have yet to move on a motion of no confidence, which will inevitably be defeated.

And yet.

Seems to me that the situation has shifted somewhat over the past two weeks. And why would that be? Well, predictably the exposure hasn’t really done any favours to the protagonists. The SBP poll on Sunday indicated that 32% believed Ahern while 43% didn’t. It’s likely that those figures have always been more or less the actual level of ‘belief’ on the issue, but it is one thing is evaluating largely in the abstract whether a story holds up and then quite another in having it forensically analysed within the context of a Tribunal.

That the story appears to have changed, that there is no supporting evidence to underpin the story, that even Ahern’s own staff seem unable to remember these transactions, leads to something more than simple confusion in the public mind.

And yet, some of the supposed ‘killer’ facts that were meant to knock the story over the head, tie it up and deliver it helpless to the satisfaction of the Taoiseach’s detractors, the dollar lodgement, and so on have not been supported by any specific evidence. The Irish Times notes that ‘AIB’s remit records of the time, which show how much foreign currency was sent to currency services at the time of the transaction, were found to be inconclusive’ …. and in an analysis piece noted that although the evidence ‘clashes with available bank records of transactions’ and how:

“The topic is not easy to follow. Mr Maguire outlined how a bank witness, Rosemary Murtagh, had in her evidence agreed that certain of the facts concerning this remittance to headquarters “destroyed” the tribunal’s hypothesis concerning the remittance.

However, [Des] O’Neill [SC, Counsel for the Tribunal], in his comments yesterday, seemed to indicate his view that the examination of the remittance records failed to resolve the matter one way or the other.”

This inconclusiveness is no small matter. John Waters in a piece in yesterday’s Irish Times suggested that this was an unreasonable hounding of Ahern. Des Fennell made much the same point in a letter to the Irish Times. It’s difficult because what we see is a situation where Ahern has done nothing wrong. All is implication, all is inference. I have considerable sympathy for him. He might well, and with some reason, ask what justice he is being extended in the context of trial by insinuation in an adversarial context where he has been charged with nothing. But if there are further shifts in public opinion then his political capital will start to be expended. So far that is relatively unscathed, perhaps can even remain so. The public memory may skate across the last number of days at the Tribunal, may come to the conclusion that the confusion over these financial dealings is the product of an understandable conjunction of personal and other issues.

Looking at his expression as he left the Tribunal it certainly seems as if Ahern hopes that that is the case.

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1. Damian O'Broin - September 25, 2007

True, there is no conclusive evidence that Ahern has done anything wrong – if by wrong you mean clearly taking bribes or obviously tainted money. But…

An allegation was made that he had received a corrupt payment for planning favours. When the tribunal investigated they turned up a series of ‘unusual’ transactions which Ahern has failed to clearly explain, changed his explanation and surrounded with his trademark obfuscation.

And at the centre of this is the fact that he received substantial cash payments (I reckon roughly 10 times what my annual salary was at the time) while he was Minister for Finance and Taoiseach in waiting. He clearly fails the McCracken test on what is appropriate.

And I think one of the reasons Ahern is still standing is the corruption fatigue we’re all suffering. If it’s not REALLY horrendous it doesn’t grab the attention any more. After Burke, Haughey, Lawlor and Dunlop, Ahern doesn’t look so bad. But if all this had come out at the start, back in 1997, I reckon Ahern would never have been Taoiseach and would now be sitting above up in Fagan’s nursing a lonely pint and muttering ‘I coulda been a contender…’

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2. Simone Burns - September 25, 2007

The tepidness of the left on this issue has been very disappointing and has served no purpose. Mr Ahern is on a course of attempting to renormalize corruption. This stuff about him establishing rules which somehow has made political corruption less of a threat is a red herring. He is asking the Irish public to make a moral judgement on what he has done, which is basically except large amounts of money from sources unknown, and say this is actually acceptable in Irish political culture. If he succeeds in this sort of moral regression it negates any legal frameworks he has been around for that could counter corruption. While we have been focused on the non-issue of whether someone in his situation should ‘sling their hook’ – of course they should – tax dodger, corrupt fundraising and possible founder of new corrupt political dynasty Michael Lowry, thorough his unpublished deal with Ahern, is having input into national expenditure. Not to mention that already flourishing corrupt political dynasty in Mayo and the preferment of the Lenihans. It should have been a no brainier for Rabbitte just to say this was not on. Instead he ties himself into a deal with Enda What instead of courting the Fianna Fail politicians which will rally around their leader now but would have given him the heave ho sharpish post election for a coalition deal with Labour.

Anyway opportunity missed but fair play to Gilmore for getting stuck in. This is a Left issue, ‘honesty’ is a left issue, but even more of a left issue is not allowing ideology to drop from politics, in that the Left will defend principles no matter the political damage, there moving Irish society on at stake here, not just votes – there’s right and wrong.

For Republicans is there no concern over the fact that he who serves the elites without any regard to any genuine ideological beliefs is a threat to our bloody ‘national security.’ (to use a yank phrase). Where did the $45,000 plus mass of Sterling really come from? Who could have knowledge of this information and use it to persuade Ahern on certain issues? Who suffered due to his ‘class traitor’s’ activities?

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3. WorldbyStorm - September 26, 2007

Damian, I tend to agree that timing is all in this context. As you say, if this had broken in 1996 then the past ten years might have been very different. There are arguments, very different arguments to the ones Waters and Fennell make, for seeing the Tribunal system as less than wholly adequate for dealing with this sort of situation. The protracted nature of them can lead to obfuscation or confusion, engender sympathy and so on and so forth. But be that as it may, I tend to think that it is probably best to reserve judgement until the Tribunal report. Even one that was merely harshly unsympathetic to Aherns evidence would tell its own tale.

I know where you’re coming from Simone. A couple of thoughts. I don’t think it is a red herring to say that Ahern oversaw the implementation of much stricter rules regarding finance, etc. The counter charge is – obviously – why the left when in power didn’t if ‘honesty’ is a left issue and core principle. From 1982 to 1997 Labour was in power for what, eight or nine of those years with Fine Gael during a climate where corruption was clearly extant in local government and arguably at higher reaches. I think the lack of appetite to tackle it tells us much about the general political culture, not just FF. Frankly I disagree with that Ahern seeking ‘acceptance’ of his actions by the Irish poilitical culture is irrelevant (and if it is so then the Election gave him vindication on that score). The guidelines are in place – I know because I’ve seen offshoots of them in action – that they are followed and implemented. The Ahern case is interesting because the events fell during a time period where they were ‘legitimate’ if not laudable. Let me reiterate, he could not do the same today. Full stop. I’m curious as to why the Lenihans raise your ire, of all groups within FF they strike me as the most instinctively left/populist (with one glaring exception).

Having said that I actually entirely agree with your point about Rabbitte seeking to deal with FF in order to progress the left and perhaps change the landscape. But, surely you’re then entering into a slightly more murky world of realpolitic…

Incidentally I’m not sure that he is stating that the sources of the money were unknown. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he is unable to provide the public with a coherent explanation as to the manner in which he received the money, the purposes to which it was put, etc, etc. The confusion is such that the Tribunal has been unable to clearly rule out, or at least do so at this stage, Aherns argument. Which leads me back to the point that the Report will be crucial.

But it also suggests that one way or another Ahern is a goner and his reputation as he moves towards leaving office will be lesser than it was even 12 months ago.

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4. soubresauts - September 26, 2007

About the Labour Party’s failure to confront the corruption issue in the past… is the evidence not compelling that more than one Labour councillor accepted brown envelopes, in Dublin alone?

On the other hand, if the Greens had not done their extraordinary capitulation, I mean, deal with FF, what might Rabbitte have achieved? A lot of things might have been utterly changed.

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5. sonofstan - September 26, 2007

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly FF start moving towards a post- Bertie era; Young Dev has already distanced himself; i wonder when a major figure in the party will put some clear water between himself and the lame duck by the Tolka. My money is on Dermot Ahern, who i would imagine has leadership ambitions and may not just roll over and let rubberlips in unopposed.

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6. Ed Hayes - September 26, 2007

Once again FF benefit from the quality of the opposition. If the only newspapers really sticking it to you are the Times and the Daily Mail then Joe Free State is not going to be impressed. The Mail’s stuff in particular has a bit of a ‘those silly Paddies are so stupid that they can’t recognise corruption when they see it’ whiff to it.

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7. Craig - September 26, 2007

“The Mail’s stuff in particular has a bit of a ‘those silly Paddies are so stupid that they can’t recognise corruption when they see it’ whiff to it.”

Are you talking about the UK Daily Mail or the Oirish Daily Mail?

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8. WorldbyStorm - September 27, 2007

I’d go with that Ed. Certainly the Opposition can’t rouse themselves from their slumbers in any meaningful way. Sonofstan that’s also an interesting point. I don’t know though, Ahern (D) over Cowen? Maybe…

Soubresauts, I think that had Labour done the deal I can name at least one issue which would have been dealt with to our satisfaction – perhaps a couple more. So little ambition though…

Craig, Oirish version…

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9. San idirlinn, sa Phoblacht na mBananaí… « Splintered Sunrise - September 28, 2007

[...] about my views of the Tribunal system (apologies for the repetition), and I also direct readers to WorldbyStorm on this issue. Just to recap, the Tribunals, apart from their dubious constitutionality, have [...]

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