Ireland: “The most cunning and devious of them all” – Prime Minister Bertie Ahern finally goes

But pro-big business Fianna Fail government still needs to be opposed

After 11 years as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern announced his resignation, to take effect on May 6 2008. Even in resignation, Ahern lived up to the description given to him by his mentor, the disgraced ex-Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, as, “The most cunning and devious of them all”. Ahern had barely announced his resignation before the Fianna Fail (FF) machine was spinning furiously. Wave after wave of government ministers and TDs (MPs) were trotted out to declare Ahern was a “man of the people” hounded out of office by a malicious media!

The truth is that Ahern’s resignation had become inevitable. The sleaze and allegations of corruption surrounding him reached a point where they could no longer be credibly denied. His resignation is the result of mounting evidence in the Mahon Tribunal (one of many tribunals set up to investigate corruption in planning matters) of the numerous large payments he received from various businessmen.

The known financial transactions involving, between 1988 and 1997, including when Ahern was Minister of Finance, amount to almost €900,000, in today’s figures. Ahern’s approach has been to attempt to confuse the issue and undermine the tribunal, claiming that he received a relatively small amount of money from friends as a “dig out” after his marriage break up. He has tried to explain away the cash donations, by the incredible claim that he didn’t have a personal bank account while he was Minister for Finance! However, the evidence that has emerged illustrates the large number of donations he received and suggests that he was connected to a number of different accounts. The most damaging recent revelation was the evidence of his former secretary, Grainne Carruth, that she had lodged sums in sterling for Ahern, amounting to £15,500. This completely contradicts Ahern’s attempt to explain this money away as ‘Ministerial wages’. This bald contradiction in Ahern’s evidence was a body blow to his credibility.

The latest opinion polls indicated that Ahern’s problems were beginning to impact on Fianna Fail’s support, dropping by 2%. What the Minister for Health described as “public disquiet” developed to such a stage that both Fianna Fail’s new coalition partners, the Greens and the Progressive Democrats (PDs), as well as members of FF, were beginning to feel uneasy about the potential for damaging fallout. With Ahern set to return to the Tribunal, later in May, to answer evidence, and the vital Lisbon Treaty referendum now likely to be held in early June, Ahern decided to bow out before more damage was inflicted on the government and he was pushed out.

Ahern may hope that with his resignation in train, there will be less focus on the Mahon Tribunal, which the Taoiseach returns to on 20 May. Ahern is unlikely to be so fortunate, and will be unable to untangle the web of contradiction and confusion he has spun over these various large donations. In fact, further damaging revelations are quite possible.

Some of the laudatory comments about Ahern’s eleven years in office are sickening. He is being credited in many quarters with single-handedly bringing about the “peace process” in Northern Ireland and with developing the economic “Celtic Tiger”, all by his supposedly brilliant negotiation and “people skills”.

Working people pay for Ahern legacy

The real legacy of Ahern and his relationship with the developers is faced by working people daily. Ahern’s government pursued a nakedly pro-big business agenda, which resulted in huge profits for a select few, and massive problems for working class communities. Ahern’s developer and speculator friends made millions from new housing developments, yet the home owners will pay the price for this speculation with huge mortgages around their necks for the next 35 to 40 years. Home owners also face huge infrastructural and traffic problems as a result of planning that was made to benefit developers rather than to meet the needs of working people.

A national health crisis is similarly a direct result of pro-business policies. Ahern’s government consciously under-funded and undermined the public health service, to push working people into the arms of health sector profiteers, many of whom are the same developers that benefited from planning decisions.

Fianna Fail is hoping now for a “smooth transition” of power to the current Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, who will take over as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail. However, unlike Ahern, the new Taoiseach will not have the backdrop of a booming economy to ease his time in power. Instead, Cowan will preside over an economy that is facing serious difficulties, and that can quickly face serious opposition from working people.

Ahern’s hasty departure anticipates the significant changes that are underway in Irish society. The “Celtic Tiger” is dead, with uncertainty about the future now facing working class people. In that context, the real legacy of Ahern – the squandering of the wealth created by workers during the boom, inadequate investment in public services and a planning process facilitating the developers and speculators – will come back to haunt the establishment.

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April 2008