There’s been a lot of good journalism flooding the market in the wake of Bertie Ahern’s pre-announcement of his resignation. Fintan O’Toole’s borrows from Charles de Gaulle’s famous line, l’état c’est moi’ as a marker both of Ahern’s and Haughey’s premiership. Ironically, the former French president was also a (albeit a more distant one) scion of rural Ireland. For all the Ahern symbolised a significant brake with the past, O’Toole argues, in one respect he was the same as his one time mentor:
The notion of “l’état c’est nous” and thus, for the leader, “l’état c’est moi” never left him. The righteous fervour that made him King of the Poster Boys combined with the sense of personal entitlement he imbibed from Haughey to create for Ahern a fatal lack of distance between himself and the State he supposedly served. That identification of himself with the State was manifested when he decided, even though he was still married, to install his “life partner” as an official First Lady. It was hinted at when he tried to create a monument to his own sporting tastes by spending 1 billion of public money on the Bertie Bowl.
It showed when he announced, in all innocence, that he appointed his friends to State boards, not because they gave him money, but simply because they were his friends. It showed in the way he hung on to office long after his departure became inevitable, allowing the business of government to be held hostage to his personal drama.
It appeared in his willingness to allow all his senior ministers to sacrifice their credibility, and therefore the dignity of their offices, in their slavish defence of his.
It showed above all when he excused his acceptance of private donations while he was minister for finance by reference to his family circumstances, as if it were obvious to all that a crisis in his private life was a national emergency. When, in his resignation speech on Wednesday, he explained his extraordinary financial dealings in the mind-1990s by the fact that “my family, personal and professional situations were rapidly changing”, the elision of the personal and the political was striking.
THIS INABILITY TO separate his private comforts and interests from the high offices of State he occupied lies behind his apparently genuine belief that, as he reiterated on Wednesday, “I have done no wrong”. It is an attitude directly inherited from Charles Haughey, who remained, to his grave, sincerely unrepentant. At its root is the notion that, at least in its highest reaches, power is personal. It inheres, not in the office, but in the office holder. And it does not therefore matter much if the person holding it departs from the standards he sets down for others. Right and wrong are not objective categories, but expressions of what is good or bad for the person in power.