“Sure, Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern, they stand for nothing!” I said.
He pondered for a second before replying.
“That’s not true. They are the party of Government. That’s what they do. So they stand for everything.”
We need to re-order our phraseology. When the term ‘permanent government’ is used, it refers to the civil service. But in Ireland it could almost mean Fianna Fail. The party has been in government for all of 75 years now, save for a couple of interruptions. And failing some mid-term disaster, its latest run will have been for a full quarter century minus the two and a half years of the Rainbow.
How does FF and Bertie Ahern do it? What is the trick they use? Does the anorak turn itself inside out to reveal a magic multi-coloured dreamcoat? Not quite. But like racing pigeons, Fianna Fail has its own version of an inbuilt homing device that makes sure it reaches its rightful destination – Government Buildings, 1 Merrion Street, Dublin 2.
Over the past 15 years, it has swayed a bit to the left (to accommodate Labour), a little bit to the right (for the PDs) and a little bit to the left again when Ahern (ingeniously) copped on that Charlie McCreevy, in the eyes of the Irish electorate, was beginning to look more Boyzone than Westlife.
So he was ditched. A long way out – as far back as its think-in in Sligo in September 2005 – Fianna Fail decided that what would win the election was what every other government or prospective government use to win elections – the economy.
And it was the economy that ultimately won it the election, with a dollop of the ‘caring and sharing’ strategy that came post-McCreevy. It out-trumped the referendum on health. It out-trumped the media’s exposure of Ahern’s credibility gaps. It out-trumped the so-called crime crisis. It out-trumped all the quality of life issues that had parents hold parties for their kids at 6.30 in the morning before getting ensnared in traffic, congestion and 24-7 hassle.
It’s been pointed out before but where FF won most spectacularly was where all those problems were supposedly at their worst, in Dublin and in the constituencies that necklace the capital. Fianna Fail supporters now include a new genus, or class of human being. In the Thatcherite eighties, it was called Sierra Man... the working class man who was able to afford a Ford Sierra thanks to Thatcherism.
Our version here is called Breakfast Roll Man, as Ivan Yates neatly coined it - the guy with his own house in the suburbs (mostly far-flung) who has done alright from Celtic Tiger Ireland, but works very hard for it (hence the early morning breakfast roll) and worries that it may all disappear.
Last weekend, Bertie Ahern pointed out that he was now the father of the European Council. There was a teensy-weensy bit of self-preening there, a subtle reminder that he outlasted Schroeder; Berlusconi; Chirac and even Blair.
Looking at it from the outside, the most solid possible combination, numbers-wise, would be a link-up with the Greens, the two remaining PDs, with the two ex-FF independents thrown in. But that involves a few problems that may prove to be insuperable. Going in with the Greens would mean forfeiting at least one more ministry on top of the one given to Harney.
For me, there would be an attraction to the Greens being there – because sometimes you suspect FF’s policies in on the environment sound like nought but mouth (or should that be nil by mouth?). But then there’s an antipathy to the Greens that extends from its rural backbenchers to the two men at the helm, Ahern and Brian Cowen - both of whom have railed against the Green’s criticisms of FF’s relationship with the construction industry.
For them, to echo Ciaran Cuffe, treating with the Greens would be a deal with a devil. However, there are a few others – notably Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey – who would be more enthusiastic about a coalescing.
What FF really want is a long-lasting government that is tribunal-proofed. But that’s where the real problem lies. Sure Ahern has seen off Tribunal accusations twice – emphatically both times. But you can’t get away from it – there’s a discrepancy between his last statement and the Tribunal’s opening statement this week. He says Celia Larkin lodged 30 grand sterling. The bank branch’s own records show only £1,900 sterling came in that day.
That’s a major problem. And in the normal course of events, you would expect the PDs to raise it. But there’s nothing normal about the situation the PDS find themselves in. The party’s quandary is can you afford a moral conscience when the name of the game is survival? This will also pose difficulties for the Greens, should they be asked to the party. Will they look for assurances, or be content to await Ahern’s evidence to the Tribunal?
Sure, Ahern has had two whopping wins on this issue. But Haughey saw off his detractors in spectacular fashion before limping out tamely in the end. If it drags on, there’s a chance that Ahern’s legs will begin to go and he will find that he – like all the others – is obsolescent. Remember it’s a party of permanent government not of permanent leadership.
A version of this appeared in this mornings Irish Examiner