Ahern, politics and a black hole theory of government…

This article was in last week’s Saturday edition of the Irish Times but it’s one of the most perceptive analyses of how things work on Planet Bertie. In it Fintan O’Toole describes (Subs needed) how Ahern’s lack of personal ambition is one of the essential ingredients in his winning a third term. By Fintan O’Toole

He lost seats, but gained strength. How? Because with Bertie Ahern, the normal laws of politics do not apply, writes Fintan O’Toole.

And so, the man they couldn’t hang lopes amiably onwards, doing what he has always done, turning apparent weakness into strength. If the result of the general election was an equivocal triumph for Bertie Ahern, the formation of the Government made it unequivocal by turning the obvious on its head. Parties that lose seats in an election are not supposed to end up stronger than before. Coalitions made up of disparate parties are not supposed to be easy for a taoiseach to control.

Yet, on what his new friend John Gormley calls Planet Bertie, these immutable laws of the political universe do not apply. Having suffered a small loss of seats, Bertie Ahern has manoeuvred himself into a position of even greater strength.

From a coalition in which he had to keep the Progressive Democrats onside, he has created a coalition in which he has to keep no one onside. All he has to do is to stop the PDs and the Green Party – parties with sharply opposed perspectives – from being so unhappy with anything he does that both pull out of the Government at the same time. He has locked both of them in by making it possible for either of them to leave. He is now in the position of the parent faced with the stroppy adolescent who is always threatening to leave home. If the moaning becomes unbearable, he can use the most effective line of all: “There’s the door. Who’s stopping you?”

There has been much talk of Bertie Ahern’s achievement in matching the record of Fianna Fáil’s founder, Eamon de Valera, by winning three elections in a row. What may matter more to him, however, is that he has now definitively surpassed his mentor and hero Charles Haughey in his domination of the political landscape. He learned a great deal from Haughey, and much of his populist political ideology derives directly from The Boss. But in one crucial respect, he moved in an entirely different direction. Haughey dominated Irish politics by making his own personality the great dividing line, not just within Fianna Fáil, but within the nation. He understood that being hated was a form of power, so long as the hatred produced an equal and opposite reaction of love and loyalty.

That has never been Bertie Ahern’s way. Where Charlie was a centrifugal force, Bertie is centripetal. Where Haughey carried a knife to cut the unfaithful away from the faithful, his protege carries a magnet. It is significant that he has reiterated recently that his favourite politician is Bill Clinton, with whom he keeps in touch, and from whom he received a glowing endorsement for his party political broadcasts. Clinton’s craving for love was extravagant and extraordinary. Bertie’s has been quiet and ordinary. But the impulse is the same: the desire to pull everything towards himself. His political method is to establish himself as the nucleus of pragmatic good sense, and attract disparate elements towards that centre.

Over the years, the force has been felt by the old anti-Haughey camp in Fianna Fáil, by the general public, by trade unionists and employers, by big businessmen and street traders, by Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, by the PDs, and now by the Greens.

The real evidence of Bertie Ahern’s power this week lay in his virtual invisibility. He had to do little but wait for the votes he needed to form a government to come to him. Planet Bertie spins serenely on its own axis, exercising its own silent gravity. Approaching objects, even those that once looked like potentially destructive meteors, fall into its orbit and take up their positions as compliant satellites. Media allegations about his personal finances ease his path back to government by neutralising the Mahon tribunal hearings, which would otherwise have made things awkward. The Greens, for whom coalition with Fianna Fáil would be a pact with the devil, ask meekly “Where do we sign?”.

FOR MANY FIANNA Fáil backbenchers, the deal with the Greens was puzzling because it was unnecessary. But politics is not the art of the necessary, it is the art of the possible. Bertie Ahern did it because he could. Every atom of his political instinct is honed on the spotting and taking of opportunities. He is, for all his seeming caution, a brilliant opportunist. The Greens could be taken with relative ease. He knows from football – his one true passion outside of politics – that you win the game by taking the chance when it presents itself. If you’re three-nil ahead (which, in political terms, Bertie Ahern was in the game of becoming taoiseach without the Greens), you don’t spurn an open goal for a fourth.

And, paradoxical as it may seem, Bertie Ahern was never so Fianna Fáil as when he was bringing the Greens into his orbit. In the back of his mind (and sometimes at the front), he still thinks of Fianna Fáil, not as a political party, but as the national movement, the Irish people meeting in one giant cumann. He knows that such rhetoric doesn’t wash in this more justly sceptical age of Irish politics. But he still believes it, and that belief shaped his impulse to bring this new, strange bit of Irish political culture, these youngish idealists with their own language and world view, into his fold. The attraction of the Greens was not that they are part of his world, but precisely that they’re not. They bring him something he doesn’t already have.

This matters because his Everyman persona is not, as it is often misunderstood to be, simply about being Joe Soap. The true Everyman is a complex creature, because he has elements of everyone else. Bertie Ahern’s leadership has been all about this capacity to absorb everything except the one true untouchable, Fine Gael. Faced with Labour, the trade unions and Joe Higgins, he declares himself a socialist. Faced with the PDs, he adopts right-wing economics and privatisation. Faced with Sinn Féin, he revives Fianna Fáil’s republican heritage by parading Kevin Barry through the streets of Dublin and restoring the commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Faced with the consistent, forensic criticism of Fr Sean Healy of CORI, he invites the turbulent priest to a party think-in and embraces him as a spiritual comrade.

AND NOW, WITH no one else left to absorb, he goes Green. He sings along with Kermit the Frog’s moving Sesame Street anthem, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green: “When green is all there is to be/ It could make you wonder why but/ . . . I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful!/ And I think it’s what I want to be.”

Getting the Greens to sign up to a programme for government that is essentially the Fianna Fáil manifesto with a few aspirational twists is an especially brilliant stroke, but one that fits a pattern. One of his great political talents as Taoiseach has been his ability to present things he would have had to do anyway as gracious concessions. He has done this time and again in social partnership talks, giving trade unions, in return for wage moderation, commitments that Fianna Fáil would probably have had to make for political reasons anyway. He has done this with consummate, almost effortless, skill to the Greens. They get things that any Irish government would have to sign up to under international commitments. He gets their support as Taoiseach.

But he also gets more. The Greens ward off, at least for a while, the threat of political boredom. They allow him to present what is essentially an old Cabinet, with most of the same Ministers, as a new, exciting, youthful force. A deal with Labour would have cost a great deal in terms of policy concessions (on hospital co-location, for example) and cabinet seats. It would have had little novelty value, either in terms of the combination itself or of unfamiliar faces at the cabinet table. The Greens cost less and, at least for a taoiseach who has no political long-term to consider, offer more.

It matters little, of course, that the Taoiseach’s own coat of green gloss will be a very thin veneer. No Irish political leader has ever been so openly contemptuous of environmental concerns. This is the Taoiseach, after all, who complained in 2003 that every big infrastructural project has to “go through eight hoops, through all environmental, planning and blah blah blah, and every blah costs a few hundred million”. This is the Taoiseach who loftily dismissed all objections to motorway routes as being about “swans, snails and people hanging out of trees”, and who sighed with envy in Shanghai at the power of a Chinese mayor to bulldoze everything in his way: “Naturally enough I would like to have the power of the mayor that when he decides he wants to do a highway and, if he wants to bypass an area, he just goes straight up and over”.

What he will be hearing in his own head when John Gormley and Eamon Ryan sound off at a Cabinet meeting is more “blah, blah, blah” from people hanging out of trees. Their presence in his Government represents, on his part, not a conversion but a calculation.

THIS IS THE OTHER side of Bertie Ahern’s political genius. Just as the formation of the Government demonstrates his ability to turn a weakness into a strength, it also reminds us that much of his strength derives from a central weakness. His adaptability and opportunism, his talent for absorbing all sorts of forces within himself, have their source in a kind of emptiness. There is no great store of convictions or ideals to get in the way of his nimble manoeuvring. There is no hard core of moral passion to weigh him down as he shifts from friend of the rampant rich to sentimental socialist, from arch-developer to environmentalist.

The blankness has given him more than the ability to remain, for all the apparent permanence of his power, a moving target. His famous Teflon surface is really a blank screen onto which people can project an image they like. It is the image, not of a ruthless politician whose mentor was flagrantly corrupt, but of a character in a long-running soap opera. Such characters are meant to be people like us, except that an absurd number of dramatic things happen to them. Their marriages break down, they have complicated, drawn-out love affairs, their children marry pop stars and have twins, or become famous novelists overnight. Their careers follow strange paths, with incredibly dramatic twists in which the job they want is suddenly snatched from them before, following further trials, they finally get it. But they themselves remain solid, reliable, familiar. The things that happen to them are functions not of their character, but of the plot.

This is the way Bertie Ahern is seen, and it is the reason for his legendary invulnerability to scandal. When he signed blank cheques for Charlie Haughey, it wasn’t something he did but something that was done to him, as the innocent victim of an older man’s wiles. When he brought Ray Burke back into cabinet, it wasn’t a conscious decision, just an accidental twist in a complicated story of which he knew nothing. When he got money from businessmen, it was something they did to him, an event beyond his control. And when he had to explain it, he did so by shifting it back onto the soap opera territory of private life, in which he could no more help what happened than Ken Barlow in Coronation Street could help leaving Deirdre for Denise and then Denise for Deirdre.

This kind of Bertie is, for a man who looks set to have dominated the political landscape for the best part of 15 years by the time he is 60, a curiously powerless figure. He has one towering, genuinely historic achievement in his management of a peace process that he did not invent but that found in him the right man at the right time. It is, for the history books, more than enough to mark him as a figure of real significance. But, for the present day, his blankness has expressed itself in a strange lack of ambition. Big targets that he once set himself, like eliminating consistent poverty and creating 3,000 new acute hospital beds, have now been abandoned.

When he said, towards the end of his first term as taoiseach, that he wanted the legacy of the economic boom in Ireland to be his grandiose sports stadium, the odd thing was that he clearly meant it. When he came to imagine a historic achievement in the Republic, the Bertie Bowl was as far as his vision could stretch. Beyond that, his goal was to keep the boom he inherited going, to hold things steady, to manage crises and stay in power.

Asked yesterday by RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke how he would change in his third term, he spoke of more efficient management, not of new horizons.

Those are not the typical aspirations of a politician with a world-class electoral record. But perhaps the very reason he has been so supremely good at holding power is that he is so relatively unconcerned about what he does with it. Not worn out by pursuing high ambitions, he has preserved his political stamina. Not distracted by grand ideals, he has kept his eye on the prize. Now that he has gained power for the last time, he will take pride in handing it on intact, unworn by overuse, to his chosen successor Brian Cowen.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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