1st May 2017, marked the 20th anniversary of the election of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister. For the current Labour Leadership, a huge part of their existence is owed to a repudiation of the Blair years with its mix of missed opportunities and misadventures such as the War in Iraq.
Fianna Fail and Ireland face another anniversary over the coming weeks as the 6th June marks the 20th anniversary of the 1997 General Election which brought Bertie Ahern to power as the head of a Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition.
Much like Blair, Ahern played on a youthful image with his posters proclaiming that he was a “young leader for a young country” and that he would put “People before Politics.”
Ahern racked up many achievements, becoming the first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch in 1969 to win re-election and the first since Eamon deValera to win three consecutive elections.
He oversaw huge leaps forward in the peace process with the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of devolution in May 2007.
Fast forward to 2017 and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge.
As he left office the economy began going south with a deep recession following that brought down the government and saw Fianna Fail lose 58 seats at the 2011 election.
For Bertie personally, there was a the Mahon Tribunal which led to his resignation from the party.
At a time when Fianna Fail is looking to get back into government, you might think whether even noting the Ahern era is a useful exercise.
However, it would seem to me to be a supreme act of folly to ignore the fact that one of your most electorally successful leaders, who was a key player in one of your most significant and increasing relevant achievements (Northern Ireland) is at a historic milestone.
Taking a “Don’t mention the war” approach has not worked terribly well for Labour, nor would it be any help to Fianna Fail. From Owen Jones to Alasdair Campbell, right and left of the party have remarked that part of their current difficulties has been that since 2010, Labour has failed to defend their record on spending and public services.
The current leadership of Fianna Fail cannot make the same mistake. With Brexit, the collapse of devolution and increasing relevance of issues such as infrastructure, it will be difficult for the party to claim any substantive credibility on these issues, if it does not point to the Ahern era and remind voters of things the party did right in government.
In making this argument, I don’t suggest for a moment that the party take a rose tinted view of the Ahern era either. It is important to highlight the many achievements of those years in power, but also to point out where lessons have been learnt. In areas such as taxation and spending, the current leadership will want to point out what it is doing differently today.
Former Government Press Secretary, Mandy Johnston remarked this about the party just shortly after the death of Albert Reynolds;
In general, Fianna Fail are not very good at dealing with their past and in some respects who can blame them. At the moment, the past for Fianna Fail is a bit like the war for Basil Fawlty – you just don’t mention it. In fearing everything to do with the past, they have become a political party who are without solid foundations as they attempt to carve out a new narrative for themselves. At times, they seem like a completely new party but they are not a new party, they have a rich, diverse and chequered history. Their problem is that they simply cannot figure out how to deal with their immediate past and – because they cannot – have abandoned their entire record.
Next month, will be a challenge for some in Fianna Fail, when in reality it is an opportunity. The Ahern years, did show the failings of the party, but it also demonstrated the difference between having a Fianna Fail led government and a Fine Gael one.
As the current government limps on with a divided leadership, the 20th anniversary of Bertie Ahern becoming Taoiseach is a prime occasion to remind people, that as a party mistakes were made, but substantive achievements were made also and at a time when big decisions will need to be taken in the future, it’s important to remind voters that it matters who sits in the Taoiseach’s office and around that cabinet table.