Thursday, 3 April 2008

Bertie is no Gorby

Like Ian Paisley before him, Bertie Ahern’s announcement that he will resign next month has been greeted with a plethora of political obituaries. Paisley’s resignation was presaged by suggestions of improbity and to say that there was a whiff of fiscal impropriety hanging over Bertie Ahern would be quite an understatement. Nevertheless these retrospective articles have in the cases of both men, at times bordered on eulogy. Columnists and colleagues alike, once a resignation has been tendered, have instantly begun to downplay and ignore the unfolding scandals which caused them.

With Ahern, unlike Paisley, the praise has been unambiguous and almost universal. Fintan O’Toole’s article on Comment is Free has been completely atypical:

“Allegations that he had taken large sums of cash from private donors while he was minister for finance in 1993 and 1994? That he had failed to pay tax on at least some of that money, even though he was in charge of the tax system? That he had been brazenly untruthful in a set-piece TV interview he gave when the Irish Times first broke the story in the September 2006? That he had misled parliament on numerous occasions? That his sworn evidence to a tribunal of inquiry investigating corruption in the planning system in Dublin has been, at best, highly evasive and, at worst, almost risibly incredible?”

More representative is Henry McDonald’s article in the Guardian, which praises Ahern’s statesmanship, ascribes his downfall to petty local difficulties (that’ll be difficulties in his main job of honestly running the Irish Republic) and even compares the outgoing Taoiseach to Mikhail Gorbachev. Today’s Newshound links countless similar news pieces and a clutch of fawning editorials.

The issue of Ahern’s honesty, or lack thereof, is for the most part swept aside. O’Toole is not as forgiving. He highlights Ahern’s early interdependence with the reprehensible and crooked Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey.

“The performance was so magisterial that it was almost forgotten that he was the political protege of the flagrantly corrupt former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. When Haughey admiringly referred to Ahern as "the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning", the remark was treated as a joke. It is only now, when the tribunal of inquiry is looking into unexplained transactions totalling almost €900,000 in today's terms, that we realise just how cunning he really was.”

The issue of honesty is surely integral to assessing how fit a person is to retain high political office? It is not enough simply to sweep aside such allegations by pointing to economic success or involvement in the peace process.

But that appears to be precisely what is happening with these evaluations of Ahern. The peace process has been adopted by commentators as an emblematic and absolving motif for Ahern’s career. One of Ahern’s most prominent contributions to that process was removing the constitutional claim on Northern Ireland from the Republic’s constitution. This helped to enshrine acceptance of the principle of consent and removed a central tenet of nationalist ideology in the process.

If Ahern bears any comparison to Gorbachev it is because both men dismantled the more offensive aspects of an outdated ideology. In Gorbachev’s case his progressiveness and foresight contributed to his downfall, in the case of Bertie Ahern we would do well to remember that his more laudable actions played no part in his demise.

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