“This is not personal”, Ned O’Keeffe wrote in the first line of the speech he never delivered on Wednesday night.
The phrase ‘It’s nothing personal’ has long been a cliché in Hollywood movies. It was usually uttered by a man wielding a gun just before he shot somebody. And the point of course was that it was always personal, as personal as it gets.
So when Ned O’Keeffe kicked off by saying it was nothing personal, you knew two things. Firstly, it was personal. Secondly, a political assassination was in the offing.
However, if Ned O’Keeffe’s one-man rebellion is seen as the first move of a political heave against Bertie Ahern, it’s going to be the longest shove in history.
Still, after ten years, there is the first whiff of cordite in the air. Ahern has had a lousy autumn and winter (both personally and politically) but it’s a testament to his complete dominance over his party that you can count the malcontents and mutineers on the fingers of one hand and still have a pinkie to spare.
Ahern has spread his anorak far and wide and given them all jobs to keep them happy. All of the TDS elected in 2002 and before were given some form of job and stipend (as a junior minister, committee chair, vice chair or a whip) with the exception of only two – Ned O’Keeffe and Jim McDaid. It reminds you of the old Balkan saying that goes: Keep your friends close but keep your enemies even closer.
Of course, there are other factors. The primary one is that Ahern – the classic consensus man - has united Fianna Fail in a manner not seen since Lemass and brought the party through three elections all of which provided a windfall of seats.
And his allies (of which he has many: paradoxically he has few close friends in the party) will tell you that the private grumblings of backbenchers are muted and passing – and more often than not relate to a single issue. And they’ll also tell you that the real dissidents are a tiny inconsequential rump. There are no gangs of four, or gangs of 22 or gangs of more than one within FF in the modern era.
His prime ally, naturally, is the man who Ahern has named to succeed him, in the grand Russian/Soviet style of Vladimir Putin and Nikita Khrushcev.
Cowen seems like he is happy to bide his time forever. But in the far distance there are storm clouds brewing and there are other pretenders starting to make subtle (and in Dermot Ahern’s case none-too-subtle) long-distance claim for the throne.
There have been similarities between Ahern’s third term and that of Tony Blair’s but there have also been differences. They have both taken massive hits. For Blair it was Iraq. For Ahern it has been a series of personal issues and uncharacteristic political blunders – especially his cack-handed defence of his extravagant salary.
The differences have been that Blair started his third term with the reforming zeal of the first; with new ideas on health and education reform.
Ahern is not a visionary, was never the creative force within FF (leaving that to others like Charlie McCreevy; Noel Dempsey and – in his one inspired moment on smoking – Micheal Martin). Ahern’s greatest attributes have been his skills as a consensus finder and his extraordinary strategic instinct – Ahern always knew what the party needed to do, and how it need to act, no matter what that situation. And in his third term he has continued on as he did in the first and second – but now there are real signs that that the Anorak that kept him in touch with the common weal is no longer working its magic.
His Tribunal woes could be capable of bringing his career as Taoiseach to a premature end. And we cannot be sure that he will survive intact from all the return visits to the lower yard of Dublin Castle (the next one takes place for two days just before Christmas), especially if new allegations are made.
His own credibility was serious challenged this week when former NCB stockbrokers head Paraic O’Connor told the Tribunal that Mr Ahern’s account of the dig-out loan was untrue insofar as he described him as a friend. That will create real problems for Ahern.
In fairness to Ned O’Keeffe, he had a speech in his hand on Wednesday night that the FF whips never allowed him to deliver during the no-confidence debate..
This is what he would have said: “The current health policy can now be summarised as confrontation, privatisation and Americanisation delivered by only two methods – the national treatment purchase fund and co-location, both, in my view fundamentally flawed.
"World class, centres of excellence, best practice and the messiah from Vancouver all sound great but they are no substitute for lack of capacity in existing hospitals which is the biggest single contributor to the present crisis."
O’Keeffe didn’t solely resign because of perceived slights to him. The health issue also struck a deep cord. Having said that, Ahern’s very generous reaction to his resignation (where he plied him with lavish praise) suggests calves are being fatted even as we speak. But to say that there was nothing personal in his resignation is like saying that if there was a dig-out for Bertie now, Dr John Crown and Tom Gilmartin would be the first two men queueing up to make their contributions.