Bertie: Power & Money, by Colm Keena, Gill & Macmillan, 288 pp, €16.99, ISBN: 978-0717150694
Bertie Ahern is currently the subject of a good deal of scorn. He might well be genuinely surprised at this, since he can point to some rare successes as Taoiseach, not least his central involvement in the peace process, which for most leaders of Fianna Fáil would have been enough of an achievement to retire in glory. He would also argue that he oversaw a huge economic boom. Again this might have been enough for most political leaders to be confident that historians would judge them favourably.
We know that it is most unlikely that historians will judge Ahern favourably. Even members of his own party have made plain their desire to airbrush him from its history. This is partly because of his increasingly ill-tempered interventions in debates about Fianna Fáil’s performance in the last election: the argument that “it was all fine when I left it” seems increasingly ridiculous, while his “Lehman’s” defence has failed to convince anyone outside Drumcondra.
Given his central role in Irish politics from the early 1980s, from one recession to the next, and the reasonably successful ‑ if not resolution then at least uneasy peace ‑ in Northern Ireland it is no surprise that we have had a good number of biographies of Ahern and also some studies of the collapse of Fianna Fáil. Colm Keena’s book is welcome because unusually for Irish biographies it does seem to have a thesis; or if not a thesis then at least a focus that goes beyond a plain narrative of Ahern’s life and deeds. It is broken down into different parts that focus on tribunal evidence, the political career, and management of the economy. Keena, public affairs correspondent with The Irish Times, covered the Mahon Tribunal for that paper and can claim to have had more than a walk-on role in Ahern’s downfall. The book gives a very good account of the former Taoiseach’s dealings with the tribunal and tells a good story of the finances and operations of the Drumcondra Fianna Fáil machine. Keena of course knows more than most about the tribunal and so is a good guide to what otherwise is a legal quagmire. The eventual report probably won’t tell us nearly as much, at least not in so few pages.
The book certainly gives some insight into Ahern’s character and its formation, but is arguably too concerned with the story from the tribunal for it to develop as a serious biographical assessment. The title Bertie: Power & Money refers more to Ahern’s personal power and his own money than the money he controlled on behalf of taxpayers. His handling of the 1993 devaluation is given almost no space ‑ less than a page ‑ and Keena accepts the view that he acted responsibly and got a good result in helping increase the competitiveness of the state. Others might point to rather loose statements given to international financial journalists at the time which arguably cost Ireland many millions, if not more. The final section on the management of the economy reveals little that any reasonably alert observer of Irish politics won’t already have been exposed to.
We get the story of the Drumcondra political machine, or mafia as it is sometimes called, and how Ahern successfully took over the local party. We see some early evidence of his extraordinary ability as a politician, not least the talent for organisation and attention to detail that would serve him well later in his career. But at times unusual and irrelevant details are given prominence: it is not clear why we need to know about Paddy Duffy’s ‑ a trusted adviser of Ahern’s ‑ assessment of Rome and Catholicism in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Keena also drops in arguments that are never really developed; he notes that it is interesting “that Ahern’s background involves strong links with republicanism and the Catholic Church, two institutions that predate the state and are notable for their views on the limited extent of its authority”. One assumes this is meant to suggest that Ahern himself had limited respect for the state and that it might perhaps explain his alleged willingness to use it for his own personal or his party’s needs; but coming as it does sandwiched between passages on his youth in Church Avenue, it is not clear if this is a central argument or an ephemeral observation.
There is also the absence of references and footnotes. Except when Keena mentions in the text that he has had a conversation with someone or other we don’t know whether the information he is offering comes from primary sources or other books. It is a pity that so few popular books on Irish politics include references, even if just to say the information they are conveying is gleaned from private interviews ‑ in the way Andrew Rawnsley’s accounts of New Labour in Britain do. Long exposure to the tribunals and their language seems also to have rubbed off on Keena, who refers to himself as “the present writer” rather than just “I” or “me”. His use of “the former” and “the latter” is also awkward and suggests a legalese the book could do without.
The book seems to depend largely on sources antipathetic to Ahern rather than also having access to him or his supporters ‑ though Duffy is possibly an exception. It may have been difficult for Keena to get access to those close to his subject given his position as the person who broke the story that ultimately led to his downfall. But the use of other journalists’ stories and assessments, while useful and interesting, make one wonder to what extent he has been able to find the “real” Bertie Ahern. Inevitably, this centres on his attitude to money. Ahern successfully built a persona in which he was the ordinary Dub for whom money counted little except in so far as it allowed you to buy a few pints and head to Croke Park on a Sunday.
Until 2007, most people would not have thought of him as someone for whom money was important. But what we later learned shows that he may have been obsessed with financial security. Certainly taking a private jet to watch Manchester United play from a private box in Old Trafford is hardly normal behaviour for the average Dub. Yet in a way Ahern perhaps became the embodiment of the dream of the Celtic Tiger – he could enjoy doing the stuff that had once seemed out of bounds but that ordinary Dubs were now, in the context of the economic “miracle”, beginning to aspire to. The assessment of this book and of the interviews in it, and of those in documentaries such as the 2008 Bertie, more than hint that money was an important factor in Ahern’s character. And there is good evidence to back up this assessment in the tribunal account, but too often we seem to be relying on anecdotes and about Bertie not paying for a round of drinks or looking for the change back from the price of a bag of chips.
In trying to extricate himself from the public relations disaster that befell him in 2007 Ahern’s political acumen temporarily left him and he made basic political mistakes. His explanation that he won money on the horses was perceived as cynical and evasive, and his willingness to push through pay rises for ministers was politically naive. But that political skill returned with his now infamous Bryan Dobson interview in St Luke’s, which elicited public sympathy. It is perhaps for this reason that a journalist reported in the book could claim that Ahern was the most human of politicians.
Ahern knew that people could relate to and forgive the personal story he told. It is natural that we have a tendency to personalise explanations. It is easier for us to relate to stories than to abstract arguments or explanations based on systems. And so we conclude that it is the people at the centre of politics who are crucial. The “great man theory” of political leadership is still one that has attractions, but it is too one-dimensional to be adequate as an explanation. That is not to say that leaders and their personalities do not matter. Human agency, the ability of humans to determine their actions, is crucial, but we might argue that at times we pick leaders for the job we expect them to do. Someone like Margaret Thatcher could not have done what she did had she not emerged at a particular time and in what were trying economic circumstances for the United Kingdom. Her ability to exploit those circumstances is interesting, but so too are the circumstances. To argue that her successor, John Major, was a weak leader is to miss the point: he was chosen precisely because the Tory party needed a consensus- not a conviction-driven politician at that time. Leaders matter, but perhaps not in the ways we think they do.
In Ireland we seem to have agreed to heap the blame for economic meltdown on the persons of Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, without considering the circumstances in which they governed and the constraints they may have felt important. In the tendency to blame Bertie for everything we might be rushing to judgement. If we think about his position in a more analytical way we might argue that his role was less important. Certainly he was a masterful politician who was able to manage not just Fianna Fáil’s governmental coalition but also the party’s coalition of interests within Irish society. He had more resources available to him than any other Irish leader to refashion Irish society as he wished – his self-proclaimed socialism and adherence to the views of the political scientist Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone) surely meant he was not without ideas. Many claim that he was constrained by the desire of the PDs and liberal ministers in his cabinet to cut back the state. This misses the point that the social partners, including the unions, were central to the call for tax cuts, and also ignores the fact that the size of the state grew enormously under Ahern. As neoliberals go, the PDs and McCreevy were either not very good at it or less powerful than is sometimes thought.
The coalition of interests which Ahern cultivated also constrained him. If he had any desire to reform, say, the health system (and there is no evidence that he did) he would have encountered opposition from the unions and professional bodies, at all levels from hospital porters to consultants. Of course he could have shown some leadership and pushed through changes or tried to convince those concerned of the necessity of reforms, but he didn’t, because he didn’t need to. There was money for everyone and everyone’s pet project could be supported. Opponents could be brought into the tent under the auspices of social partnership, and what might have been critical voices were bought off by making them publicly funded. In this way organisations like Combat Poverty Agency were perhaps more muted in their analysis after they became part of the state.
This was not new to Ahern. Social partnership in its latest form was set up by Charles Haughey in 1987 and can be said to have been reasonably successful in facilitating improvements in Irish economy and society. But even before this Fianna Fáil was closer to the trade unions than the Labour Party. The party formalised links with the unions in the 1960s and 1970s to bring about wage agreements, which according to Gary Murphy in his book In Search of the Promised Land, were maintained as long as this was politically beneficial for Fianna Fáil.
Fianna Fáil was always willing to maintain this coalition of interests, which allowed it to dominate Irish politics and society for so long. From as early as the 1930s, it was simultaneously the party of the working man and the party of business. This coalition of interests came under some strain at times, such as during the 1950s, but in the 1960s the party successfully renewed its appeals to both constituencies: successfully, because the economy was relatively buoyant and choices between the two groups did not have to be made. Fianna Fáil’s control of the state could be exploited for the party’s benefit. The former ombudsman and Irish Press journalist Michael Mills claimed in his memoirs that Donogh O’Malley announced that if there was a job to be given out and it was between a Fine Gaeler and a Fianna Fáiler, the Fianna Fáil man would always get it. It is easy to see how success bred success.
Some clues are given in Keena’s book to the way in which this system worked in practice. The patronage available to Fianna Fáil through its control of the state was used to give party supporters jobs. So we see Royston and Cyprian Brady’s father gets a job as a security guard in a departmental building when the security contract for the building is offered to a Fianna Fáil supporter in Dublin Central. The company getting the contract is also expected to fund Fianna Fáil’s operation in the constituency. This use of the state’s resources for the party or for personal needs is potentially much more serious when the suggestion is made that confidential maps showing what areas will be given special tax designation go missing. The allegation that they went to Ahern’s department and may have been used inappropriately was initially investigated by the tribunal but the investigation never completed.
Keena is well able to link the two topics of Ahern’s personal finances and his rise within Fianna Fáil. Other than through his actions as leader and Taoiseach, he had possibly another major influence on the long term organisational health of Fianna Fáil. If the political commentator Noel Whelan is to be believed ‑ and he is a generally good guide to all things to do with Fianna Fáil ‑ Ahern broke the link between the party and local organisation, making the local organisations much more centred on individual TDs or candidates and creating a loyalty to a single individual rather than the party. It had been almost unheard of in Fianna Fáil before the 1970s to have canvassing for an individual. Ahern’s takeover of Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central meant membership was henceforth more likely to be due to a link or loyalty to an individual. We can see this at work in Fine Gael too where when Michael Lowry left the party, the vote stayed with him and the party vote collapsed. It is a major concern for Fianna Fáil that its organisation is thus; and with so many senior figures now gone and the prospect of control of the state apparatus quite remote, it is possible the once dominant Fianna Fáil party may similarly dissolve.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. He is author of “Contemporary Ireland” (Palgrave 2011) and co-editor of the forthcoming “Governing Ireland: From Cabinet Government to Delegated Governance” (IPA 2012). He has previously reviewed the autobiographies of Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds for the Dublin Review of Books.