‘Thanks a million, big fella’

Daniel Finn writes about Irish politics in the wake of the ‘No’ vote

Bertie Ahern’s evidence soon took a melancholy turn when he appeared before the Mahon Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments after resigning as Ireland’s taoiseach. ‘I was out working, out doing my job as a political leader of this country, working my butt off,’ he said. ‘Not trying to make other than my own income and the few sums of money that I got from others. And then I end up with all of this. That’s the story of my life.’ He also claimed he had won some of the money in question betting on horses. The laughter that erupted from the public gallery suggested that the stock of goodwill which had helped him ride out the controversy for a time had finally been exhausted. As an accountant, Ahern should have realised that this explanation for his failure to provide any documentation about these ‘few sums of money’ would be greeted with incredulity.

Ahern’s resignation took effect a month or so before the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which the Irish political elite considered to be of vital importance. The steady trickle of awkward disclosures about Ahern’s personal finances risked compromising the effort to secure a ‘Yes’ vote on 12 June. With Ahern out of the way, it was hoped that his heir, Brian Cowen, could deliver the right outcome and allow the EU to end the unwelcome ‘period of reflection’ imposed on its leaders three years ago by the voters of France and the Netherlands. But when the votes were counted, it became clear that things weren’t going to plan. Gordon Brown might take some consolation from Cowen’s troubles: he had been barely a month in the job. Whatever hopes Ahern may have cherished that his self-sacrifice would be rewarded with a plum EU position disappeared. The Lisbon vote revealed a striking distrust of the main political parties, which despite holding more than 90 per cent of seats in the Dáil were unable to muster a majority of voters behind their loudly proclaimed consensus in favour of the treaty. This scepticism owes a great deal to the aspects of political life that have been illuminated by Ahern’s run-in with the Mahon tribunal.

Tribunals have been a feature of the Irish political system for almost twenty years, investigating matters from murky dealings in the beef industry to kickbacks in urban planning. They have claimed a number of scalps, including the Fianna Fáil TDs Ray Burke (a former foreign minister) and Liam Lawlor, both of whom served prison sentences as a result of investigations into their finances. Most famously, it was the tribunal system that uncovered the massive donations to the long-serving Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey by the supermarket millionaire Ben Dunne (the phrase ‘thanks a million, big fella,’ said to have been uttered by Haughey after an especially generous gift, quickly became shorthand for corruption). Despite these achievements, the tribunal system has often been questioned. It ‘has acted as a shock absorber’, Fintan O’Toole argues. ‘It’s been a way of institutionalising, and to an extent controlling, the way revelations come out. It plays out very, very slowly over time so each individual revelation gets dragged out piecemeal. It’s almost like we’ve subcontracted out moral judgment.’

Haughey was Ahern’s political mentor, but nobody expected Ahern to find himself exposed in the same manner. While Haughey had always cultivated a chieftainly lifestyle (he even had his own private island), Ahern went to the opposite extreme, nurturing a populist image as an ordinary bloke with simple tastes. Haughey wore shirts from an exclusive Paris tailor; Ahern preferred a scruffy anorak. That public image proved a vital asset when it emerged that the Mahon tribunal was investigating payments of around €50,000 to Ahern, made when he was minister for finance in the early 1990s. He gave an emotional interview to RTE, the state broadcasting company, in September 2006 which succeeded in deflecting much of the controversy. Ahern tearfully described his straitened financial circumstances after the break-up of his marriage, explaining that the money discovered by the tribunal had been the product of a ‘whip-round’ by sympathetic friends.

To their consternation, the opposition parties found that the more they attacked Ahern, the more his poll ratings went up, and in May 2007 Fianna Fáil won a third consecutive term in office. As the columnist John Waters said, ‘people chose to take the most benign view of Bertie Ahern’s situation because they thought he was a steady hand on the tiller economically. They didn’t trust the opposition, so they translated that into a trust in his integrity.’ Ahern had already imitated his friend Tony Blair by pledging to step down before the next general election. But the Mahon tribunal interrupted his dignified path towards retirement. Earlier this year, it found records of lodgments made by Ahern’s secretary, Grainne Carruth, into building society accounts belonging to Ahern and his daughters – lodgments she had denied making. It was Carruth’s bruising experience on the witness stand that finally prompted Ahern’s decision to resign.

‘To my mind it marks a temporary victory for political correctness, defined by Doris Lessing as that which was left when socialism died,’ the veteran broadcaster and former socialist Eoghan Harris insists. ‘Twenty years from now people will be incredulous that the Irish Republic spent three hundred million poking through the pissy little sums Ahern accepted from rich friends, for which they received nothing in return. Corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain, and no such abuse was ever proven, or is likely to be proven, in the case of Ahern.’

This is a rather charitable interpretation, and Brian Cowen clearly felt it was sensible to avoid the ‘rich friends’ for a while. Fianna Fáil has long been in the habit of setting up a tent at the annual Galway races. The guests have included a significant number of property developers, among them Michael Bailey, a regular guest at the Mahon tribunal, who negotiated a €25 million settlement with the Revenue Commissioners following an inquiry into unpaid taxes. Cowen cancelled the show this summer, and the tent is unlikely to be pitched again. Jim McDaid, a former Fianna Fáil minister, disagreed with the party leader’s actions. He told the press that ‘the tent was a very amenable way of getting quite a large amount of funds into the coffers. It was absolutely nothing to do with corruption.’

But it isn’t so easy to distinguish between the two. As Fintan O’Toole says:

the legal definition of corruption requires you to show a connection between a particular payment and a particular action. It misses the point that the broader purpose is to maintain a connection between big business and the government. There’s a lack of understanding of how these things work, as if you hand over a cheque and get your reward in the form of legislation a week later. There’s a lack of understanding of access, of information, the idea that you have friends in positions of influence when you might need them.

Fianna Fáil certainly makes full use of opportunities to raise money: in 2007 the donations disclosed by its elected representatives were greater than those to all the other parties put together. Not that the published figures come close to giving a full picture of party finances: Fianna Fáil spent €3.6 million on last year’s election campaign, but disclosed the origins of just 18 per cent of the donations that made up their war chest because sums below €5,000 do not have to be declared.

The connection between big business and the government obviously has implications for public policy. During the Lisbon campaign, for example, Ireland’s largest trade union, SIPTU, said it wouldn’t campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote unless the government introduced a union recognition bill, arguing that the right to collective bargaining enshrined in the treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights was unenforceable unless backed up by domestic law. The weekend before the Lisbon poll, the front page of the Sunday Independent, part of the media group controlled by one of the country’s wealthiest men, Anthony O’Reilly, warned Cowen not to surrender to ‘blackmail’ from SIPTU. Before the 2007 election, Cowen and Ahern had held a meeting with O’Reilly after which the Sunday Independent’s attitude to the Fianna Fáil-led government became noticeably more positive for the rest of the campaign. Cowen seems to have heeded the paper’s warning: there is still no sign of a union recognition act.

Cowen won’t want to be seen to be choosing between business and the unions. Fianna Fáil has always won more working-class votes than its rivals and likes to describe itself as a ‘centre-left’ party. A few years ago party leaders began to worry that they were in danger of losing these votes: Charlie McCreevy, an abrasive Thatcherite, was removed from the finance ministry and packed off to Brussels as Ireland’s European commissioner, and Ahern declared himself to be ‘one of the few remaining socialists in Irish politics’. The UN Development Programme currently ranks Ireland 18th out of 19 OECD states on its poverty index, partly as a result of the country’s high rate of functional illiteracy: more than a fifth of the population is unable to perform basic literacy tasks. Almost a fifth of citizens have incomes below the poverty line set by the European Commission. Public spending is the third lowest in the OECD as a proportion of GDP, and has shrunk in relative terms since the early days of the Celtic Tiger. Ireland spent 7.5 per cent of its GDP on health in 2005, compared with an OECD average of 9 per cent; the country has 2.8 acute hospital beds per thousand people, well below the average of 3.9 across the OECD. Meanwhile, tax cuts have been given priority: as finance minister, Brian Cowen reduced the top rate of income tax from 42 per cent to 41 per cent, giving up €186 million in tax revenue.

Until 2007, Fianna Fáil implicitly blamed such policies on its need to keep its coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, happy. They were content to accept the blame: a small party with an electoral base in some of the most affluent areas in the country, they didn’t mind being presented as determined neoliberals who had shifted Fianna Fáil much further to the right than it wanted to go. But in last year’s election the PDs were reduced to two seats, making it impossible for Fianna Fáil to continue to blame them for its own actions.

The former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald declared that the vote on the Lisbon Treaty was ‘more class-divided than any other’ in modern Irish history. It seems that the majority of those who voted against were from the lower social strata. ‘You could possibly see the “No” vote as the beginning of a necessary unravelling of an atrophied political system,’ Fintan O’Toole says. But, he adds, the parties of the left were divided by the outcome: Labour campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote, unlike Sinn Féin and the radical left. Who knows what will happen now? The only certainty is that people no longer feel they owe loyalty to any party. Fianna Fáil, and the rest, will have to find a way of dealing with that disaffection.