Sunday, September 30, 2007


Late on Wednesday night right as the confidence debate on Bertie Ahern drew to a close we learned a lot about the leader of Fianna Fail.

He rose to his feet and spoke for a little over five minutes. But that's all we needed, nothing more. For in the course of a magnificent, spontaneous, and from-the-heart contribution we witnessed an immense force, an outburst of deeply impressive moral authority that is rare in an age like this.

The leader of Fianna Fail we are talking about is of course the next one, the anointed one, and not the current one.

Brian Cowen was magnificent on Wednesday and once again - as he has done all year - he recovered the situation when Bertie Ahern found himself in crisis. With Cowen, to quote Beethoven, what comes from the heart goes to the heart.

The recipe for Ahern's own speech earlier was a little less ambitious. It contained a couple of tablespoons of lemon zest. For its clear bitterness lingered in his mouth for that hours that he sat silently fuming as as the opposition branded him as a liar.

Cowen sat beside Ahern for the duration of the broadside against him, giving an air of a man who was weary of listening to all the platitude and cliché. For FFers, that was a big thing, a demonstration of Cowen's loyalty to the organisation, and, by extension, to its leader.

But when his turn came, he quickly departed from the script to give a sermon on political values and on morality. Cowen quickly branded the opposition as hypocrites and opportunists. In doing so, he made the credible argument that they had only discovered high standards and morality after the election. Before polling day, he argued, they back-pedalled from BertieGate more quickly than a professional cyclist on dope, because they knew that by taking him on on this issue was like walking straigt into a haymaker in the first round.

The general point of Cowen's was the default position of all the Government parties that day. To wit: "The Tribunal will be the arbiter. If we are to avoid arbitrary justice let the Tribunal proceed with its deliberations," he said.

Green leader John Gormley also used this argument. But you have to understand that he had no choice. When the Greens agreed to Government, they understood that it entailed a Mephistophelean deal. They knew, they just knew, that their condemnation of Fianna Fail's dubious moral compass in the run-up to the election would be rendered hollow. Gormley may have quibbled with the nuances of the Fianna Fail countermotion to Enda Kenny's motion of no confidence. But that was sophistry. The Green Party - for not the first time and not the last time - had to swallow hard and back the Government, even though they knew it meant a demeaning compromise.

The most potent moment of Cowen's speech came when he lectured his adversaries the following thought: "I know right from wrong".

It was utterly believable, utterly compelling. And it made his case as a natural leader for his party. What we witnessed was a person who was the personification of the heart and soul of his party and what it represents and stands for. The problem, from a Fianna Fail perspective, is that the jury is out on whether or not his boss stands for that, and if he can distinguish between those relative values of right and wrong.

Later on Wednesday night, I spoke to a couple of TDs who would consider themselves Cowen's most ardent supporters. And they spoke about his speech that night in much the same way as Kerry supporters spoke about Colm Cooper's magic in the All Ireland final. The other pretenders - Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan (Micheal Martin was playing an away fixture in the US this week) - all made perfunctory and pedestrian speeches during the debate. But Cowen in an unscripted and spontaneous way rose to the occasion, found the perfect pitch and tone, as he had done during Fianna Fail's darkest moments of the election campaign.

There's been a lot of old guff about the disconnect between us anoraks and Joe Public on this issue. I'm sorry but it's my belief that Bertie Ahern, the most successful Irish politician since the utterly unique Eamon de Valera, is now damaged goods, with serious questions surrounding his credibility.

A very senior Green politician to whom I spoke on Wednesday night offered the opinion that Ahern will step down during the Christmas recess. I don't believe it will happen that early, just as I don't belive that Ahern will stay on until he is 60.

Cowen loyalists at a senior level want Ahern to step down prior to the European elections in less than two years time. Like Gordon Brown, they believe the Tánaiste will need time to impose his imprint upon FF before the next General Election in 2012. Unlike Gordon Brown though, Cowen's loyalists do not necessarily speak on his behalf. For them, there is an element of proxy wish fulfilment. Sometimes you feel he is prepared to play the bridesmaid role forever!

Whatever, when he imposed himself on the debate this week, we witnessed a force, a force that's potentially strong enough to win a fourth General Election for Fianna Fail. It's time for him to get off the fence, to identify a date for a painless and seamless succession.

This is my column from Saturday's Irish Examiner


Joe Public said...

“There's been a lot of old guff about the disconnect between us anoraks and Joe Public on this issue.”

How exactly is it guff? It seems obvious to me that there IS a disconnect between you and the public – most (not all) journalists take the opposition line that Ahern should resign straight away and most (not all) members of the public do not believe he deserves to lose his job. Where’s the guff?

Given that your review of the Ahern/Kenny leaders debate was so strongly at odds with what the public saw, I think a little more humility might be in order.

Tomaltach said...

Hi Harry,
You write that Ahern "is now damaged goods, with serious questions surrounding his credibility". I would agree that he has serious questions regarding his credibility, but I'm not convinced this is (yet) eroding his support among the public, and certainly not among the faithful (not speaking here of parl. party). I have a question Harry. Do you feel then that Ahern's inability to clear the confusion in the recent sittings has helped nudge the centre of gravity towards Cowen and away from Ahern? If I read you correctly, you think that the cash controversy has given sufficient fodder to a renewed opposition and to the media that the noise from it will provoke Cowen into an earlier mobilisation? Or in a softer approach, spur Cowenites to sow the seeds for Bertie's earlier than planned resignation?

Harry McGee said...

Dear Joe Public,

1. I have written before about the disconnect between the media view and that of the public. The strategy of Fianna Fail in relation to his finances was that of deflection - by promising that all unanswered questions would be fully dealt with by him at a Tribunal.
2. The disconnect was this. A lot of the media (including myself) thought it was wrong and inappropriate for a serving Minister for Finance to take loans that he was never going to pay back and a whip-around of £8,000 for an informal q and a session in Manchester. Some of the public saw no wrong with that. Others thought it was wrong but they forgave him because of the unique circumstances and the traumatic legal separation he was going through.
3. FF Ministers including Ahern himself are relying on the experience of the previous two controversies to argue that there's a disconnect. But there's no evidence to back that up. And what's at stake here isn't just the public judgement on whether he should have taken the money or not. It goes beyond that, to the very ropey account he gave to the Tribunal in 17 hours of evidence.The question is a more serious one for a serving Taoiseach. Is he giving a truthful and honest account or an untruthful and dishonest one? And that's why I have argued that there may be no big gap between the views of the media and that of Joe Public.
4. Like most other journalists humility has never been my strongest suit. But as a matter of fact, I called the debate for Bertie on the night (saying he had edged it) and in the newspaper the next day. I even pointed out and numbered the five debating points where Ahern had scored big. If you want you can check my blog for the night of the debate, Thursday May 18. I had put up a reaction within an hour of it being completed. If you follow the links below, you will also get the relevant blog entries. and

Harry McGee said...


In a way you are addressing the same question as Joe Public (the person who responded to this blog as opposed to the masses!).
Will he suffer and will it lead to an erosion of support for his leadership? My inclination is to say that it will. I think he just didn't clear the hurdle inthe honesty and truthfulness deparmetns. My instincts tell me (and I'm as fallible as the next person) that for the people, it's one thing taking payments, another being economical with the verite.
True, Ahern enjoys an affection in the hearts of Irish people which is unique. And there is an innate suspicion of the media and its motives - and for some, it boils down to smartass journalists being hell-bent on downing Bertie.
So, there's an honesty question. There's also the fact that his business with the Tribunals has not yet concluded and he will be back again to explain other payment and transactions. That will gouge away at his support at the margins.
Also the Tribunal is expected to report on this module(but don't hold your breath) within two years. If he's criticised he's going to be in serious bother. And some within FF will want to head that one off at the pass.
The Ahern-Cowen dynamic isn't like that of Blair and Brown. Cowen is beginning to assume many of the leadership traits and certainly does want to become leader and Taoiseach. A couple of his arch-supporters in the parliamentary party are eager for an earlyish transition, but Cowen ultimately takes his own counsel.
I think it was a mistake for both main opposition parties to shy away from this issue during the Election campaign (did that lily-livered attitude make any difference ultimately?).
There are absolutely no electoral considerations now. As well, the scenario we know now is vastly different, is possibly more puzzling and his telling of it just doesn't sit right (with the media and, I'd argue, with the public).
For all of those reasons, I can't see Ahern staying on beyond 2009.