Credibility, the opposition and the future of Bertie Ahern September 25, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Irish Politics.
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.
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.