There is a school of thought that if the report of the McCracken Tribunal into Charles Haughey’s venal trousering of other people’s money had come out a couple of months earlier, then politics would have had a different complexion over the past ten years.
The Report was published in August of 1997, over two months after the General Election of June 6. Some say that the findings of the report were so potentially catastrophic for Fianna Fail and for Bertie Ahern that if the report had been published before the election (in April or May of that year) that the three-party Rainbow coalition would comfortably have been returned to power.
I’m not so sure, not so sure at all. For one, Bertie Ahern was only a bit player in the saga surrounding payments to Charlie Haughey. Besides his little cameo (he unwittingly signing blank cheques for the party leader’s allowance) did not come to light until the Moriarty Tribunal began probing other aspects of Haughey’s personal finances.
There’s a well of forgiveness and understanding that exists in Irish society for public figures that just can’t be compared with any other democracy. My own instinct is that it’s because Ireland is a much smaller, more familiar, more intimate country than, say, Britain. And that people instinctually brand people who find themselves in sticky situations as ‘poor old divvils’ rather than ‘unmentionable so-and-sos’.
In Britain, we have seen so many ministers fall on their swords, sometimes for relatively minor transgressions. In Ireland, it needs to be in the neighbourhood of one of the seven deadly sins before it becomes career-threatening. And that's what happened to Haughey. He had long dried his well of understanding before he shuffled off this mortal coil. Posterity will recall some of his achievements but he will be primarily identified as a rogue.
The selfsame school of deep thought has made a return this week to ask the same ‘what if’ questions about Bertie Ahern. Would FF have saved the election if he had been called as a witness to the Tribunal earlier this year? Would he still be Taoiseach?
And of course, because he still is Taoiseach, there’s a second strand of reasoning. A couple of hits below the waterline might mean he will never make it to port. And this particular port of destination of course is September 2011 when Bertie Ahern reaches his 60th birthday. But of course nobody ever believed that this is feasible, that he will hand over the reins to the anointed one, Brian Cowen, eight or nine months shy of a general election.
In the best tradition of the ‘king is dead, long live the king’, there has been ongoing speculation about when Bertie Ahern will step down. Most predictions tend to hover around 2009 in or around the time of the local and European elections as a time of natural cleavage, to allow Ahern’s successor to bed himself or herself in.
The fly in the ointment is the planning tribunal and Bertie Ahern’s increasingly Byzantine explanations of those mysteriously big payments that went in and out of his account. The thinking has gone that if he fared badly at it and lost face, his tenure as leader of FF would come to an end within months.
For a long time, his Tribunal appearance looked like it would be a short sharp shock. But now it looks like it will grind on into another week, and that it will conclude just in time for the return of the Dáil and for an angry opposition to go onto the attack.
And it’s certain that he has shipped damage this week. His own protestation that he begged and pleaded and bended his knee to accommodate the Tribunal sounded a little bit hollow when Tribunal lawyer Des O’Neill made public a couple of home truths. To wit, he only made the Tribunal aware in April this year that there were foreign exchange transactions involved in three of the four lodgements being examined. He also, according to O’Neill, did not include all the relevant information (particularly the fact that Celia Larkin was operating an account on his behalf) in an affidavit of discovery. Also, yesterday morning, it became apparent that at a very early stage in the process, on New Year’s Even 2004, he himself identified all the payments totalling E85,000 which now form the basis of the inquiry into his finances but did not disclose that information to the Tribunal for a long time.
But the question remains: what will it take to down him? My own sense is that it would have to be enormous and that is not likely to happen. His famous Teflon will suffer some deep gouges this week but not enough to render him inoperable. The opposition will go after him.
But career-ending? It was wrong and unethical of him to take non-repayable repayable loans from friends, and a large sum from businessmen in Manchester. Especially since he was a high officer of State, the serving Minister for Finance. I, for one, think that taking money like that should be career-ending.
But I'm not the Irish public. And the Irish public have forgiven him, in opinion polls, elections, and – I’m sure – in opinion polls again. The Irish public has a very special relationship with its political head, that’s closer to the cult of personality found in the middle east and some South American countries. The blows to his credibility are undoubted. But ultimately they are glancing rather than fatal.