By Eamonn Sweeney
Sunday April 27 2008
I could never warm to Bertie Ahern. Or maybe it would be more correct to say that I simply didn’t get him. The Taoiseach’s appeal, like that of the novels of Michael Ondaatje and the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, seemed absolutely mysterious. The charisma, warmth and intelligence of the man, so obvious to the nation’s political journalists, just weren’t apparent to me. I had come to wonder if this was a fault in myself and if perhaps our emperor really was decked out in a resplendent suit of new clothes.
Today, I don’t feel so alone. Because, over the past year or so, a great many people’s feelings about Bertie Ahern have progressed from affection through ambivalence to outright antipathy. This is something Bertie brought upon himself. It resulted not from what the Mahon tribunal revealed about the Taoiseach but from what the man revealed about himself in response.
It took just a little bit of pressure for the mask to come off and reveal a Bertie very unlike the easy-going media cliche of yore. When the heat came on, the Taoiseach resorted to three main modes of address: the sneer, the snivel and the snarl.
The sneer has never been far from Bertie Ahern’s lips, but this tendency became more and more pronounced. His outrageous statement likening those who complained about the state of the Irish economy to the suicidally depressed was one example; another was his dismissal (”pub talk”) of the possibility of an amnesty for Irish illegal immigrants in the States. I wondered why the man had to be so mean. If he didn’t agree with Niall O’Dowd and his cohorts, fair enough, but was there any need to rub their noses in it? Apparently, there was.
The snarl got its big outing on the night of the general election count when he stormed into the RTE studios and decided to lambast the media for reporting on the financial irregularities revealed by the tribunal. A bigger man might have regarded the hour of victory as a time to be gracious, but Bertie behaved as though the electorate had not just voted him back into office but had voted the judiciary and the journalists out of their jobs.
Looking at it, you couldn’t help feeling that there must be worse to come in the tribunals if the Taoiseach still felt the need to be scoring points. Who knows what would have happened had he been contrite instead of confrontational? It was a moment when he could have come clean and survived. Instead, he behaved like a man spoiling for a fight when that was the very last thing he wanted.
However, it was neither the sneer nor the snarl that defined Bertie’s final months in office, but the snivel, something at which he proved himself a virtuoso, rendering himself pathetic in a manner never approached by any previous Taoiseach.
The snivelling began with the infamous Brian Dobson interview. Bertie might have opted to tackle this in the manner of Roy Keane being quizzed by Tommy Gorman. Instead, he opted for the Princess-Diana- meets-Martin-Bashir approach. Generations yet unborn will cringe at the sight of a grown man attempting to give the impression that he’s on the verge of tears. The Taoiseach did everything except put his hand up to his eyes to check for moisture. This was how he was going to play it.
There was a precedent for this kind of ignoble tomfoolery. When Ray Burke first came under serious scrutiny for the way he did business, the Dublin North man turned on the waterworks in the Dail, bringing his dead father into it and bravely rebutting allegations nobody had ever made against him. The initial response from the political correspondents was that Burke had saved his political life with a masterly performance. They changed their minds when it became clear that the public reaction to this oratorical tour de force was that it would have made a dog laugh. The oul’ gra mo chroi shite didn’t save Ray Burke.
It didn’t save Bertie Ahern either. But the Dobson debacle set a pattern for the way in which the Taoiseach would defend himself against every allegation. He would, to be blunt about it, hide behind women. It wasn’t a particularly manly thing to do and it committed Bertie to the snivel rather than the sneer or the snarl, but presumably someone thought it was a tactical masterstroke.
Initially, the Taoiseach sheltered behind his wife and daughters. References to his marital difficulties almost seemed designed to give the impression that he had been going round with the begging bowl because his wife had skinned him in the separation settlement.
Perhaps it was an entirely accidental outcome, but this was the excuse hinted at by many of the Taoiseach’s backers in the media when it looked as though our hero might still spring free with one mighty bound.
It certainly won Bertie a lot of sympathy from the kind of self-pitying men obsessed with the cupidity of women who insist on getting a few quid to look after themselves and their children. One of the characteristics of these sorry souls is their persistent demand for gratitude from the recipients of their largesse. This could be called Look How Good I Am To You Syndrome. He mightn’t have meant it, but it was Bertie who made his separation the stuff of public gossip.
There were more women to hide behind. He made the suggestion that some of the money being called into question had been left to him by his dead mother. When it emerged that Celia Larkin had been given €30,000 of what were supposedly party funds to buy a house, Celia’s elderly aunts were deployed as human shields, with the suggestions that all these inquiries were making life unbearable for the old dears. Grainne Carruth was not the only person to be placed between Bertie and trouble as he acted like a B-movie burglar warning the coppers that if they come any close they would end up shooting the innocent woman in front of him.
The problem was that Grainne Carruth moved out of the firing line and, in doing so, gave the lawmen a clear shot at Big Bad Bert. This was not how that encounter was supposed to play out. I’d have a wild guess that Bertie may even have thought that the questioning of his former secretary would be to the tribunal’s detriment. Look at what they did, his supporters could say. They made a woman cry: finally, the tribunals have gone too far.
Let’s wind them up and not ask any more awkward questions.
Unfortunately, people tend to grow impatient with the Sniveller and his perpetual cry of, “Look what they’re after doing to me.” It wasn’t the tribunal people blamed for Grainne Carruth’s tears, but Bertie. Our hero had sheltered behind one woman too many.
There was a fascinating insight into how Bertie felt the scenario should have played out in an excellent interview by Aengus Fanning in this paper a few weeks back. You might have thought that divesting the burdens of office would have left Bertie free to move out of Sniveller mode. Not a bit of it. He caterwauled on about the fact that Ms Carruth is a mother of three, though why this information was in any way germane, nobody knows.
And he declared the questioning to have been particularly unforgivable because it took place on Holy Thursday . . .
It’s not the first time Bertie has brought religion into an argument, something which should give pause to those deluded liberals who believed that the fact of the Taoiseach being shacked up with his former secretary was some kind of bold gesture against the hegemony of the Catholic Church rather than a purely personal decision. Whether it was sanctioning a deal that allowed the Church to escape paying its fair share to the victims of institutional abuse or droning on about his connections to All Hallows, Bertie was never slow to wrap the papal flag around himself.
The most revealing part of the interview came when, after Bertie had banged on about how sorry he felt for Grainne Carruth, he was asked if he’d seen her since the ordeal. No, he said, I haven’t had the time. No? Really? Quelle surprise.
It’s interesting how few people have sought to portray the Taoiseach’s downfall in a tragic light. (Except for himself. Do you think all his ministers really did cry when they heard he was resigning? It sounds to me like someone’s been reading too many of his daughter’s books. Next, he’ll be telling us he cheered them up by bringing them shopping, cracking open a few bottles of lambrusco and singing I Will Survive while dancing around Mary Harney’s handbag.) It wasn’t tragedy but farce: the whole caper was far too cheap to be tragedy.
That cheapness was most evident in Bertie’s inability to depart the scene with any modicum of dignity. Even Charlie Haughey was able to summon up some form of gravitas when he had to fall on his sword. By contrast, Bertie snivelled as he went. You had the description of the tribunal as indulging in “low life stuff.” Better again, you had the unconscious comedy of the Taoiseach wittering on about the fact that Grainne Carruth was paid very little money. Well, old son, you were her boss. Perhaps if you hadn’t given Celia that thirty grand there might have been a few bob to pay Grainne Carruth. It’s just a thought.
There was more. He affected to find great significance in the fact that the act governing the conduct of tribunals was actually “a British law”. You almost expected him to suggest MI5 had put it on the statute books in the hope of snaring an as yet unborn Taoiseach.
This kind of childish anglophobia was bad enough coming from Bertie’s old mentor CJH, but coming from a man who probably owed his re-election to the big deal his followers made out of his House of Commons speech it was downright ungrateful.
The “British law”, he explained, came from a time when the little man couldn’t get justice in this country. Good old Bertie, leader of the country and still thinking of himself as a little man. Because when you’re a Sniveller, you’ll always see yourself as the underdog.
And you’ll reach for anything that might protect you from your pursuers. It’s not just that
famous suit that was yellow.
There were also complaints that Enda Kenny had been insufficiently gracious in wishing Bertie all the best in the future. Ungracious? Hang on a second and I’ll give you ungracious. Bertie only became leader of Fianna Fail because Albert Reynolds resigned after inadvertently misleading the Dail. In the light of his successor’s behaviour, it’s questionable whether Albert should have resigned at all. The Longford man had the unusual distinction for a Fianna Fail leader of having perhaps been too scrupulous.
Soon afterwards, Albert sought the Fianna Fail presidential nomination. Had he got it, he would have been elected to the office and given a just reward for a decent, if truncated, time as Taoiseach. Instead, Bertie and his allies shafted him and gave the nomination to Mary McAleese. Not a lot of grace there, and not a lot of gratitude. Bertie will hope he is treated a bit better by his own successor. He probably will be, because there’s no sign so far that Brian Cowen subscribes to the particular Dublin Fianna Fail model of politics whose most notable contemporary practitioners were Ray Burke in the North, the late Liam Lawlor in the West and Bertie Ahern in the centre. They were more than Charlie Haughey’s supporters, they were his disciples.
One positive aspect of the downfall is that we won’t be burdened further by the repetition of that Haughey quote about his factotum being “the most cunning and the most devious of them all”. It was always a stupid quote anyway, used as though it was to Bertie’s credit when the abiding lesson of the CJ era should have been that cunning and deviousness are qualities Irish politics has been disfigured by for too long.
In the end, it turned out not to be true. Confronted by the tribunal, Bertie was neither cunning nor devious enough. Instead, he looked sleazy, slippery, slimy and completely incompetent. Day after day, the news told us that the Taoiseach had endured a bad day at the tribunal as new inconsistencies emerged in evidence. It was all a bit like Whack A Mole, the game where the more you strike the titular animals on the head with a mallet, the quicker others pop up on different parts of the board. You almost wished Bertie would have just one good day, one day when a witness turned up to confirm that he had at least been telling the unvarnished truth about something.
Even those of us who were sceptical about the Manchester dig-out story couldn’t have imagined the bad turns the tribunal would take for the Taoiseach. Anyone who’d suggested back then that Bertie had probably sanctioned the handing over of party money so his girlfriend could buy a house would have been derided as the crudest kind of conspiracy theorist. When all this started out, no-one could have imagined that Bertie operated a private account in his constituency, imagined the amounts of money involved or how blatantly ridiculous some of his explanations would prove to be. And, let’s face it, there’s probably worse to come.
It was striking how, as time went by, the Taoiseach didn’t even bother giving explanations for the money that was being uncovered. Haughey, you felt sure, would have ducked and dived a bit better. He’d certainly have shown a bit more fight. Then again, for all his faults, Bertie’s old mentor was not a Sniveller.
The problem with Snivelling is that it puts you on the defensive. The “look at what these terrible people are doing to me” gambit only works as long as people feel sorry for you.
When the sympathy wears out, as it invariably does, noble suffering begins to look like self pity.
The worst thing for Bertie is that his behaviour is going to look a lot worse as we enter a recession. Because when everyone was riding high on the hog it was easier to blink an eye at politicians who put the paw out to developers and businessmen. It will be different when recession bites.
One of the articles of faith of the right-wing economic creed espoused by Bertie and his government is that people have to look after themselves and not expect others to bail them out. It is a noble thing, this code of sturdy self-reliance, and we were assured after the last election that members of “the Coping Classes” had kept Fianna Fail in power.
Which is an irony, because if there’s one thing Bertie is not, it’s a member of the Coping Classes. Whatever story you believe, one thing is indisputable. When Bertie ran into a few
financial problems he put the paw out and accepted donations left, right and centre. Some of these people were allegedly his friends and some of them were businessmen who simply liked giving their money away for no reason. Bertie took it all. Even when he had a great deal of money in the bank, he was still collecting the loot.
This runs counter to everything modern Ireland is supposed to be about. Because the Coping Classes are not a myth. They exist and their core belief is that you pay your own way and don’t look for favours. They deserve better than to be represented by politicians who have taken the exact opposite attitude for most of their careers, people who don’t pay their way if they can get someone else to do it. To this class Bertie belongs, to the political class that fastened their fangs into the necks of their victims and sucked for dear life. It was a miserable existence for a miserable bunch of bastards.
In reality, the taking of that money is itself a form of corruption. For all the talk of Bertie’s great empathy with the plain people of Ireland, he wasn’t one of them. Because if property prices keep going down and unemployment continues to rise, the plain people of Ireland will be on their own. There will be no one handing us big sums of cash. That’s how we live our lives. That it’s not how our Taoiseach lived his was his shame and his downfall.
He couldn’t fool us forever. The plain people of Ireland are not plain stupid.
As Bertie snivelled his way into imminent obscurity, he declared that his great regret was not to have built a national stadium. No, you heard him right. He’s not losing any sleep over the state of the health service, public transport or education, he’s miffed that he didn’t get to build a white elephant no one asked for and no one’s felt the lack of since.
It’s not surprising we don’t have a contemporary equivalent of Scrap Saturday. Bertie made satire redundant.
Goodbye Sniveller. And good riddance.
- Eamonn Sweeney