Ireland: Bertie Ahern financial scandal

Two recent opinion polls indicated a significant boost in support for the coalition government, particularly Fianna Fail.

One gave them 39% up from 31% and the other gave them 42%. Many are wondering how could Bertie Ahern get such an endorsement only days after he was exposed for taking €60,000 from businessmen when he was Minister of Finance in 1993.

At one point it looked possible that Ahern could be forced to resign. But now after a very hollow apology his personal satisfaction rating has risen 1% to 53% and the storm seems to have been weathered. With an indignant superior tone, some in the media have attacked the people, saying the results show they are either ambivalent to, or accepting of, corruption. If that level of support was repeated at an election, Fianna Fail and the PDs could win a third consecutive term.

Rather than getting too carried along with the shock of the opinion polls, it should be remembered that the most certain thing about politics in the south of Ireland this year has been its uncertainty. In the middle of this crisis, Ryanair launched a take-over bid for Aer Lingus, the full impact of which has not yet been felt. Also last June, the government and in particular the Minister for Justice, McDowell, were boosted by their hard-line, unsympathetic treatment of the Afghani hunger strikers. However, within a couple of weeks the same government and the same McDowell were on the ropes following the crisis regarding statutory rape legislation and were only saved by the intervention of the Supreme Court. While on the surface, Fianna Fail seem to have turned a crisis to their advantage, at the same time there have been indications that important economic and social factors which benefited the government are beginning to unravel.

There is little policy difference between the government and Fine Gael and Labour. In that context while opinion polls certainly give some information, they can tend to be less representative of people’s real political views. Polls on attitudes to issues also need a certain health warning. People can only answer the questions they are asked and that can severely limit an assessment of real opinion and often gives the media the power to set the political agenda to some degree.

The recent polls can only be interpreted if the absence of an alternative, the continuing economic growth and the fact that there is a sharp polarisation in public opinion, are all factored in. Some of the statements or conclusions made on the basis of the poll are simply not accurate. On the airwaves and in everyday conversations it has been said that the poll shows people think that it’s okay if the Taoiseach takes corrupt payments. But that is clearly not what was indicated as 64% said what he did was wrong, just 24% said it was alright.

Support unexpected

The boost in support for Fianna Fail was unexpected. It shows that for a layer, the taking of the money was not such a big issue that it would determine how they would vote in the next election. However this does not mean that people are happy with corruption nor does it indicate new support for Fianna Fail. It is mainly made up of a coming together of those who have supported Fianna Fail (they got 39% in the last election) and those who are satisfied with their performance. An element of this rallying of support could have been in reaction to the moralistic tone of the media, a dislike for McDowell and possibly reflected a view that the media were simply overstating the significance of what had happened thirteen years ago.

For significant number of people, the economic situation is still moving forward. Ironically even though the actual economic situation is weaker than in the 1990s, falsely inflated property prices and assets and the extension of credit, tend to have a more immediate personal impact on people and can affect attitudes. For such people the payments crisis wasn’t that significant. However, an equally important factor is the absence of a real and effective opposition that can undermine the support for the government.

Fine Gael and Labour were politically incapable of linking Ahern’s corrupt payments to the anger in society and the real issues that affect the majority. The issue was left in the realms of vague morals of right and wrong.

Ahern’s payments

The payments made Ahern beholden to particular businessmen but the crucial issue was the payments reflected that big business looks after their politicians and these rightwing politicians look after big business, again and again and at the expense of working class people. The victims of this cosy relationship are workers suffering the affects of privatisation at Aer Lingus, the GAMA workers and people who can’t afford to buy a home or are living in housing estates with dire shortages of public services and facilities. If in an appropriate way the real price of Ahern’s corruption had been brought out, the opposition could have weakened the government significantly and a majority could have been won to the position that Ahern and his government should go.

The polls do have significance in that they reflect the continuing impact the economy has on how some intend to vote and the weakness of the opposition. However, they are only a snapshot of opinion and attitudes are likely to change again. Their significance has been overstated and used to portray ordinary people in a bad light. However in the Irish Times poll, 61% voted for parties other than Fianna Fail, 46% were satisfied with the government but 47% were dissatisfied. The two main blocs Fianna Fail and the PDs v Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens were neck and neck at 43% each.

From the point of view of the opposition, their inability to develop a any real momentum, is very worrying and can cause tensions to emerge, perhaps particularly in Labour, where senior politicians are unhappy with leader Pat Rabbitte’s approach of ruling out coalition with Fianna Fail. The second poll in the Sunday Tribune showed the opposition weaker, with a particularly poor showing for Fine Gael at 20%. Gains that Sinn Fein had made earlier seemed to be lost in these polls. It was on 8% in both polls, but that is still above its vote in the 2002 General Election. We will have to observe if they get any boost from the moves to re-establish the political institutions in the north.

It would be wrong to conclude that the government has been positively strengthened by the recent crisis. When the dust settles it is likely to be more a case that they have limited the damage. If they maintained such high levels of support or because of a particular issue they got a similar boost in an election campaign, then conditions would be difficult for the opposition.

While it is understandable that people have been surprised by the positive hop for Fianna Fail, it also should be recognised that the anger and hatred of this government has also been intensified by this crisis. A significant layer has been disgusted by Ahern’s actions and his attempts to weasel out of any responsibility. There is a polarised mood regarding this government, which in a general sense is connected to how people have done relatively during the years of growth. Some believe Ireland is moving forward and are optimistic about the future while others are livid and believe the government has squandering the growth, is incapable of providing decent and crucial services and is undermining people’s rights.

The relationship between the coalition parties and therefore the government has been weakened. In the likely event that new testing issues emerge, the cracks can re-open quickly and if the tide turned against them again, the PDs and their new leader McDowell can come under renewed pressure to leave, particularly given that he buckled under in the recent crisis.

The mess that is the privatisation of Aer Lingus is a significant blow to the government. If Ryanair boss O’Leary gets a majority share he has already said that the workforce will be slashed. The government will not be able to avoid responsibility for what may happen. The rottenness of the unions’ position has been even more exposed. Both IMPACT and SIPTU have now come out and said they opposed privatisation. That is false, their opposition was only token words, they didn’t lift one finger to fight against it. Certainly the fact that O’Leary wants ownership will refresh the fears that many workers had around the Irish Ferries crisis that workers’ rights are going to be sacrificed for profits.

The Ryanair take-over is just the latest example of how the reality of the capitalist market is acting to undermine the effects of the growth, support for the government and the social partnership promises and ideology of the union leaders.

Irish Ferries

The events around Irish Ferries showed that there is a desire to resist such attacks and that has served to check the offensive of the employers for a time. But the new social partnership deal is a further blow, as it will not protect wages against inflation of more than 4.5%, and higher mortgages. At the same time it will demand workers give productivity and forfeit rights. The pressure and the anger that is building up in the unions will be reflected at some point. Recent developments show that the position of the union bureaucracy’s is also on the slide. A crucial point will be reached when the real weaknesses in the economy emerge in the form of a crisis in the cost of living or in the growth of significant unemployment, or both.

The underlying process in the south of Ireland is towards economic difficulties, which will increase class conflict. There are very serious indicators that the property bubble, which has been crucial to the overall economic growth, is reaching its peak before it inevitably will decline. That is likely to intensify anger at the government but it is open as to how much that will impact on the current administration. The attacks on working class people are becoming more brutal. The harsher economic conditions will go hand in hand with the further undermining of the right to protest and struggle. That was shown in the state’s attitude to the Afghani hunger strikers in June but is most blatant in the disgraceful heavy handed and arrogant police repression of the community of Erris (Rossport), Co Mayo because of its struggle to force Shell to refine unstable gas at sea.

This article appears in this month’s issue of Socialist View, theoretical journal of the Socialist Party in Ireland

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October 2006