OUR embattled Taoiseach, it seems, will survive. Some kind of long-term damage may be done, but rectifying that is a matter for another day. For now, he, his Fianna Fáil colleagues and his PD partners - perhaps to a lesser extent - will be celebrating a true triumph of personality over principle.The very word ‘embattled’ doesn’t look right next to the name Bertie Ahern. It’s a bit too grand somehow, too far removed from the commonness that has come to define him. The commonness that has now saved him.
If the country ran on principles alone, Bertie Ahern would be the ex-Taoiseach this week. But there’s more to it than that. For the electorate, Bertie’s ‘common touch’ is his most endearing quality. His down-to-earth manner, his inability to pronounce a whole host of words properly, his inability to use a whole host of words in the proper context, his simple lifestyle and even his personal difficulties seem to be the things the people of Ireland value most about him. Safely assuming that is not the same list of criteria most of us work from when deciding who to vote for in general elections, it must be concluded that Bertie somehow has the country, unwittingly, in thrall. During his nine years in power, we have been lulled into a sense of security and contentment by his homespun decency and ordinariness.
But that’s only half of it. If his colleagues in Government and his foes on the opposition benches felt strongly enough about principles, his broad public appeal would not have saved him. There was no equivocating when it came to Charlie Haughey, Liam Lawlor or Ivor Callely. All three were readily condemned. ‘Thou shalt observe the highest standards when holding public office’ became the eleventh commandment.
Why no rush then by fellow politicians to hang Bertie last week? Why all the posturing, instead of all-out assault? Because of the unwritten and unspoken commandment of all politicians: ‘thou shalt always uphold and defend principles, except when it suits your own personal ends not to do so’. His Fianna Fáil colleagues know he is the party’s strongest card and the person most likely to see them retain power next year. The Progressive Democrats need more time to build themselves up ahead of the General Election, in order to return to Government with Fianna Fáil as a stronger force.
And as for the opposition, well, they had a lot to weigh up last week. Yes, it was a great opportunity to dethrone common old Bertie - oh, and to be the defenders of the highest standards in public office - but the danger of an attack backfiring and causing more damage to themselves than to the Government was too great. So instead, they tut-tutted a little at first, and then a lot, about what bold Bertie had done, but never went for the jugular.
Comical though it all is at one level, a dangerous precedent has been set. Billions of euro have been spent on tribunals in Ireland in the past decade, tribunals which were set up to investigate corruption at many different levels and to unearth the truth about deals that were done and payments that were made. They were set up so that, henceforth, transparency and accountability would reign.
There is no indication that any political favours were sought by any of those who gave money to Bertie Ahern in 1993/1994, nor is there any reason to believe that favours were given by him (his revelation that he appointed some of the donors to State boards because they were his ‘friends’ raises other questions, however). But he knew these payments were made and he knew there was a chance they would be brought into the public domain at some stage, yet he did nothing to address the situation in the 13 intervening years. Instead, he waited until it came out and then relied upon the buoyancy of public sympathy to rescue him when drowning.
While the mistakes he made 13 years ago might be pardonable, due to personal circumstances, the way he has allowed the office of the Taoiseach to be tainted by this controversy, due to his own inaction, is less easily forgiven.