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Bertie Ahern to resign

by Frank Schnittger Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:32:50 AM EST

An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (the Irish Prime Minister - 1997-2008)) is to resign on 6th. May after a long running scandal concerning his private finances.  He is the most successful Taoiseach in Ireland's history and was previously Minister for Labour (1987-1991) and Minister for Finance (1991-1994).   Brian Cowen, Minister for Finance, (to the right in picture above) is his most likely successor. [update] See also Colman's front page story


ireland.com - Breaking News - Taoiseach to tender resignation on May 6th

Amid mounting pressure about his personal finances, Mr Ahern said he was proud of his political achievements but denied any wrongdoing in relation to his personal finances.

Flanked by cabinet colleagues Brian Cowen, Mary Harney, Martin Cullen, Noel Dempsey, Brian Lenihan and Green Party leader John Gormley, Mr Ahern said a "constant barrage of commentary" was distracting the work of Government.

He said his decision was "solely motivated by what is best for the people" and was "solely a personal decision...inspired by the desire to refocus the political agenda".

"I've been priviliged to serve my community, party and country for many years," an emotional Mr Ahern told reporters in Government Buildings.

He said he was proud of his work on the Northern Ireland peace process, on successive social partnership agreements, on delivering a modern economy and
of Ireland's involvement in the European Union.

He also said he had "ended the myth that Fianna Fail is incapable of sustaining a coalition government" and paid tribute to both Mr Gormley and Mary Harney.

However, the work of Government had been "distracted by my life, my lifestyle and my finances".

Mr Ahern was set to come under pressure in Dáil this afternoon as the Opposition parties sought an explanation for evidence given to the Mahon tribunal by his former secretary.

The Opposition was due press Mr Ahern on the sterling payments lodged to his Irish Permanent building society account by Gráinne Carruth.

The tribunal is investigating claims that Mr Ahern received money from property developer Owen O'Callaghan. The claim by Tom Gilmartin has been repeatedly denied by Mr O'Callaghan and by Mr Ahern himself. However the tribunal invetigations have thrown up questions on lodgements to Mr Ahern'spersonal accounts in the early 1990s.

The total value of lodgements and other transactions that have to date been queried by the tribunal in its public inquiries into Mr Ahern's finances, exceeds £452,800. The lodgements and transactions occurred between 1988 and 1997, although the vast bulk of the money was lodged in the period to 1995.

The total is the equivalent of €886,830 in today's terms, applying the consumer price index for the period 1994 to 2008. The total excludes lodgements where the tribunal has been shown the money was transferred from one bank account to another, but includes such lodgements where neither Mr Ahern nor the tribunal have been able to find independent confirmation as to what occurred.

Mr Ahern said he would be "comprehenisely dealing with these matters at the tribunal" and denied any wrongdoing.

"Never in all the time that I served in politics have I ever put my personal interest ahead of the public good," he added.

"I have never received a corrupt payment...I have done no wrong and wronged no one".

Last week, acting Progressive Democrats leader and Minister for Health Mary Harney and Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley said Mr Ahern needed to clarify the situation in relation to his finances.

"All political careers end in failure" Enoch Powell once famously said, but few would have thought such a successful political career would end in such a humiliating failure.  On the face of it you would think that this was a straightforward case of political corruption leading to a deserved downfall, but things with Bertie Ahern are never quite that simple.  Once described as "most cunning, the most ruthless, the most devious of them all" by his political mentor, former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Bertie Ahern was a successful Minister for Labour and Minister for Finance where he pioneered the concept of National Social Partnership and laid many of the foundation stones for the Celtic Tiger.

After his third General Election victory as Taoiseach last year, I wrote:

ireland.com - The Irish Times - Mon, May 28, 2007 - Aftermath of the general election

Madam, - An extraordinary election. Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin all tread water and come back with roughly the same number of seats. Fine Gael gains 20 seats and yet Fianna Fáil is feted as the victors.

Having said all that, if you had told me 30 years ago that a government would effectively solve the Northern problem, the unemployment problem, the emigration problem, the foreign debt problem, and raise living standards to the highest levels in the world - and still fail to win by a landslide - I would not have believed you. How expectations change! -

And that is perhaps the key to understanding the Bertie Ahern phenomenon.  The objective achievements of his period in office are phenomenal, but it has also led to a sea change in public expectations.  Few younger voters now can imagine the abject poverty of Irish political life in the early 1980's with a corrupt Government led by Charlie Haughey; unemployment, inflation, and interest rates approaching 20%; huge levels of foreign debt, taxation, and emigration;  divisive referenda on abortion and divorce; and the continuing degradation of political life and civil liberties by "the Troubles", chiefly, but not exclusively in Northern Ireland.

Often criticised for his nearly unintelligible "Bertie Speak" he is an amazing negotiator who was adept at overcoming personality, political, ideological and cultural antagonisms and never failed to cut a deal.  He cultivated the image of the common man wearing his anorak down to his local pub and his pint.  His lack of affectation, pretentiousness, and obvious ego are perhaps unique in political life anywhere.

His major contribution to the Northern Ireland Peace Process is perhaps his most lasting achievement, but he was also the pivotal figure in negotiating 20 years of National Social Partnership agreements which have transformed the economic and industrial relations scene in Ireland.  Once famous for our strikes, there are many trade union officials and managers in Ireland today who have never experienced a strike in their working lives, but who have become adept at using a range of statutory instruments, institutions, processes and procedures to resolve or prevent the escalation of a wide range of disputes.  This does not, of course, mean that industrial strife is absent in Ireland, but nevertheless the economic environment and disputes resolution procedures created, in part, by the Social Partnership concept have enabled Ireland to achieve one of the lowest strike rates and highest levels of employment and standard of living in the world.

His Presidency of the European Commission in 2004 resulted in significantly improved relations with the US post Iraq, inter-governmental agreement to a new European Constitution, and the appointment of Barrosso as President of the European Commission (after Bertie Ahern himself turned it down).  Whether it was plying Gerhard Schröder with Irish Coffees or playing off the egos of Chirac and Berlusconi against each other, Bertie managed to create situations where everyone felt they could claim credit for successes that had eluded previous, more vainglorious, Presidencies of the Council.

However he was in some respects also a dinosaur from a previous political age.  As General Secretary of Fianna Fail (the dominant Irish political party) he had become used to writing blank cheques with which Charles Haughey could use party funds to buy Charvet shirts in Paris whilst at the same time urging the general populace to "tighten their belts".  He saw no problems with accepting wads of cash from party supporters and admirers, often ostensibly as political donations, but which he converted for his own use. He went through a difficulty divorce in the 1990's (he is the first  senior divorced politician in Irish politics) which may have put some pressure on his finances, but in reality he saw nothing wrong with accepting gifts and loans from admirers and those who wanted to feel close to the centre of power.

The irony is that no evidence of obviously corrupt behaviour on his part has ever been convincingly demonstrated, despite an extensive tribunal of enquiry which was set up to investigate planning corruption but which has come to focus almost exclusively on his private affairs.  That the Irish planning system was (and perhaps still is) corrupt is not in doubt - merely that Bertie Ahern does not appear to have been directly involved in that corruption.  As is so often the case in such matters (Ref. Ken Starr) the main focus of the inquiry becomes unstuck for reasons almost wholly unconnected with the original allegations, in this case the acceptance of gifts and "loans" which do not appear to have been declared to the tax authorities.

There was (and to an extent still is) a culture of non-compliance in Irish society, a legacy of the times when the State was a British Colonial regime, and where cheating on tax and the black economy was tolerated and sometimes those engaged in doing so were lionised for their exploits.  That culture has been changing fast, helped in part by the exposure of corruption in the planning process, but to some extent Bertie's activities 10 and 20 years ago are being judged by the standards of today.  

Nevertheless there were also many who were at all times scrupulously honest in their dealings, and who abhorred the fast and loose culture which seemed to be endemic in Fianna Fail at the time.  If Bertie Ahern's political passing is to serve some useful purpose, it is to underline that such double standards are simply no longer acceptable at any level or sector in Irish society.

So what of the future for Bertie Ahern? He is still aged only 56 and could no doubt make a lucrative career on the lecturing or Boardroom circuit. However he has shown little interest in the trappings of private wealth and could still look to a future career - possibly as President of the European Council.  It all depends how damaged he will be perceived to be by the scandal around his private affairs, but it may very well be that his resignation as Taoiseach will come to be seen as sufficient atonement for his misdeeds.  He is still popular amongst many in Ireland and certainly has the required skills as a negotiator and mediator.  However he doesn't speak any European languages (and that includes English, as far as many people are concerned) and might be seen as too close to the Anglo-Atlanticist wing of the political spectrum.

The reality is, however, that he is the supreme pragmatist and has shown his ability to get on with everyone from Blair, to Schröder, Chirac and Berlusconi, as well as the leaders of the accession states.  Don't underestimate the man.  His negatives will be much less that Blair, and he will not have dirtied his bib too much as far as many European leaders are concerned.  He would not be an inspiring leader of Europe but will appeal to many who do not want a high profile leader such as Blair.  He would make the institutions work, which at the end of the day, isn't really such a bad thing.  Many will laugh at the man and his foibles, but his track record of achievement in Ireland and on the current European Council is second to none.

Poll
The Next President of the European Council will be
. Tony Blair 0%
. Jean-Claude Juncker 28%
. Bertie Ahern 14%
. The usual Benelux compromise 28%
. Carla Bruni 28%
. Please make further suggestions in comments below 0%

Votes: 7
Results | Other Polls
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The last thing Bertie can take credit for as Taoiseach is the "Celtic Tiger", which is the result of a number of historic forces and decisions (some of which he was involved in) over the previous couple of decades - notable the entry to the EU and the benefits accruing from it. If anything, in thrall to the neoliberal PDs and the business wing of his party. he helped squander the increased income rather than wisely reinvesting it.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:43:14 AM EST
The issue of a Prime Minister taking credit for what happens during his term of office is always problematic but nevertheless the "Celtic Tiger" happened almost exclusively under his watch.  Yes, there were many factors involved and also a good deal of Government incompetence - the development of an infrastructure capable of supporting rapid growth chief amongst them.  However when you compare Ireland now to Ireland in the 1980's would you really want to go back there?

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:50:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your question doesn't follow: Bertie shouldn't get credit for something that happened before he took power. Whether what happened was a good thing or not is another matter. Might as well give Jack Whatshisname the credit for brining the Irish soccer team to the World Cup and improving morale.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:55:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well his period in office goes back to 1987 when he was Minister for Labour and when he negotiated the first National Social Partnership agreement - i.e. some time before the Celtic Tiger period began.  Also Ireland had been a member of the EU receiving huge subsidies from 1973, and yet was a basket case in the 1980's.  Much of that aid went to the Agricultural sector which has been in continuous relative decline.

Some factors are very long term - e.g. "free" secondary education in the 1960's - and others are more immediate - e.g. improved industrial relations.  The factors underlying the Celtic Tiger are really a subject for another diary - perhaps already written by someone else here - but it would be curmudgeonly not to accept the fact that Bertie was a key player in that success for much of that period.  

Sure the reduction in Corporation Tax was a "neo-liberal" reform not necessarily applicable at all times and in all places, but in the context of Ireland of the 1980's it worked in attracting foreign investment and expanding the tax base to such an extent that tax revenues increased notwithstanding.  The risk now, of course, is that such tax competition could lead to a "race to the bottom" but we were at the bottom in the 1980's and would have given anything to get to where we are now.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 09:14:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Coming from non-NATO Ireland but being close to the US/UK without appearing to be would stand to him in looking for the Council presidency.

My feeling now is that the Lisbon Treaty is very likely to pass in Ireland. Do you concur?

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:45:29 AM EST
His resignation will help to remove a huge anti-government vote from the equation which may have influenced its timing.  Whatever about Bertie's chances of a European career if the referendum is passed, he has very little prospect of a job in Europe if it is not passed.  Yes, I agree, it will probably pass decisively now provided there is a reasonable turnout.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:53:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
His Presidency of the European Commission in 2004 resulted in significantly improved relations with the US post Iraq, inter-governmental agreement to a new European Constitution, and the appointment of Barrosso as President of the European Commission (after Bertie Ahern himself turned it down).  

Which of those was a good thing?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 08:48:35 AM EST
From a purely negotiating skills point of view it doesn't really matter - the fact is Bertie managed to broker agreements when no one else could.  Unless you take the view that no Government is good government and EU paralysis is better than action (a not uncommon view amongst British Euro-sceptics) you can praise him for achieving agreement even if you have doubts about the correctness of the decisions made.  The fact is someone with his skill-set will be required to make the EU institutions work.  If you have problems with the content of those decisions blame the institutions and how they are constituted, the democratic deficit if you will.  But someone has to make them work until the member states can come up with something better, and in that context, Bertie wouldn't be the worst.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 09:01:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You credited Bertie with Barroso multiple times. Could you write more on this? It was my understanding that this came to be out of Bliar's wish to torpedoe the French-German-BeNeLux choice(s) (e.g. Juncker and Verhoeven), with the full backing of most EPP members from other countries than those.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 11:26:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll have to read more and interview a few people to get more on this but my recollection is not dissimilar to yours.  "Old Europe" wanted Juncker/Vehoeven, and Blair was prepared to veto this.  I have first hand evidence Ahern himself was offered the job as the agreed compromise, but he didn't want the job.  As President of the Council it was up to him to find an alternative at least minimally acceptable to all, and because of his good personal relationships with all the key players, he was able to cajole them into accepting someone no one really wanted, but whom no one was prepared to veto either.  That is the way with Council negotiations, I'm afraid.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 02:38:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Do you have much knowledge of the Social Partnership Agreements? It's building profile in Wales since a similar thing is being set up over here.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 10:31:24 AM EST
I was hoping to do a diary on it at some stage, but such specialist topics don't seem to attract much interest here so I have put it very much on the back burner.  I'm surprised that Wales is thinking about going the same way because the Irish model included a lot of income tax cuts/welfare improvements/legislative and institutional reforms which can only be delivered by a sovereign Government with control over such matters.  Equally, on the Union and Employer sides, things get complicated if many of the Unions and Companies are based outside the state.  I would be interested in your observations on the model which might be applied in a Welsh context.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 10:50:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you do have the time to diary it, I'd be very interested.  We are using SPA as a model to strengthen partnership working.  We have a signed off agreement for Wales that so far has been nothing more than an obscure document that hasn't done anything. But it is a start and a good commitment to have in place.

Now task forces have been set up to start putting flesh to the bones and draft up actual agreements across a number of areas such as training and skills and career development, equality and well being, and workforce engagement.  

But the employers are not engaging too well at the moment despite there being a good dialogue between the Assembly and the unions.  True that we don't have devolved power over certain areas in the way that Ireland do.  So we have a sort of vision but are not quite sure what we need to do. Hence my interest in how it all came about and worked in Ireland.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 11:22:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I did a diary on it ages ago, indirectly. I believe I was focusing on precisely how free-market the Irish economy was.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 11:24:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Link?  

The size of the private sector as a proportion of GNP has certainly been increasing - from 35%+ of GNP at one stage in the 1980's to c. 55%+ (I think) now.  However the scope of Government intervention and regulation (if not taxation) of private sector activity, particularly employee rights etc. has been increasing.

However the interesting thing about the Social Partnership concept is how untypical it is of Anglo-American style free market economies more generally.

It has been extended beyond he three main pillars - Government, Employers and Unions to include Agriculture and the Voluntary/community sector but many would argue that is the least substantial aspect of the process, with little effective enforcement of commitments given.

The Civil Service seems to be actively trying to sabotage the voluntary/community sector at the moment so it can exert more direct budgetary and administrative control - which is pity - the active encouragement of a public service ethic, voluntarism, and a cohesive and dynamic civil society should be a goal of any democratic government.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 11:39:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can't find it.

I would have been reacting to articles about what a wonderful example of a free-market economy Ireland was. They had a funny tendency to ignore the whole social partnership thing and witter on about how deregulated and open the Irish economy was and how all EU countries should adopt our competitive labour regulations and so on.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 2nd, 2008 at 11:59:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ireland.com - Breaking News - Carruth treatment 'low-life stuff' - Ahern
Mr Ahern said he had no plans for his retirement but that he hoped he would be considered for the European Presidency. "Certainly I'd like to be considered for a position like that, but I'd have to think about it."


"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Apr 3rd, 2008 at 10:36:03 AM EST


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