By John Kelly
President Clinton may indeed have lied. The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, most certainly did not. But then, the Celtic Tiger does not yet have to survive in the legal jungle that besets every American president. Otherwise, the two have some problems in common.
Luckily for Bertie, the Irish people and their legislators seem to be much more humane than their American counterparts. They are prepared to allow their leader to conduct a very public affair with his girlfriend, Celia Larkin. U.S. politicians, most notably the social conservatives in the Republican Party, are not nearly so tolerant.
In a poll last week, the Irish Independent revealed statistics that will not surprise regular readers of this column. The Irish generation between the ages of 15 and 25 is unlike any that has come before it. This is certainly one of the main reasons why the largest proportion of the Irish people just do not understand the fuss over the great Clinton sleaze scandal. They cannot appreciate just why some legislators seem intent to turn their president out of office.
Clinton’s popularity in Ireland has a lot to do with his work for the Irish peace process. But that is not all of it. Indeed, he is perceived in much the same fashion as the late John F. Kennedy. His youth, his obvious zest for life and, above all, his engagingly boyish grin mark him as being poles apart from his immediate predecessors.
The Independent poll revealed that more than 80 percent of respondents revealed that they see nothing wrong in engaging in sex before marriage. Nor do they cast a cold eye on single parents. They are also hugely in favor of living together before the knot is tied. Headlines ushered in the poll, proclaiming breathlessly, if a little fancifully, that the young Irish are now the most liberal in Europe.
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Certainly, the poll strongly indicates that there is a huge generation gap in Irish society. It is reflected not alone in the antipathy shown toward the upcoming Senate trial of the President Clinton, but also in respect of the very public affair shared by the taoiseach and his girlfriend, a former civil servant.
Thirty years ago, such a relationship would have led to a public scandal. Only a decade earlier, it would certainly have led to a row that might have rivaled in intensity that which sprung from the public consternation that followed Parnell-Kitty O’Shea affair. The electorate would not have tolerated it.
Unquestionably, the Roman Catholic clergy would not have remained silent. Scandal is still regarded as a grave sin, public scandal, more grievous still. Of course, one does have to add that in the intervening years, legal separation and divorce have become legal options. There is nothing to prevent Ahern from marrying Larkin if both wish to do so.
High-ranking Catholic prelates have been remarkably silent. Whether this indicates that the Irish church in general has become more tolerant or instead that it is still reeling under the barrage of much more scandalous revelations concerning pedophilia, is a moot point. However, it is clear that no leading Catholic cleric is prepared to point the moral finger. A recent editorial in the Church of Ireland gazette, circulated to members of that majority Protestant sect in the island, did its best to stir the pot, attacking the Catholic church for its seeming lack of concern, and generating banner headlines in the process.
There was no reaction from any of the bishop’s houses in Ireland but it certainly provoked the anger of Ahern, who has continually insisted that his private life is just that — his private life.
In his recently published, authorized biography, he made no attempt to cover up the relationship. But it has not eradicated all of the criticism. There are still many Irish people, albeit in the older generation, who think that he should not have been accompanied by Celia on official business such as their recent visit to China. There are still others who feel that their oh-so-public relationship must be hurtful to Bertie’s two teenage daughters and his estranged wife. If the Independent poll is anywhere near the mark, the two Ahern girls will be more tolerant of their relationship than the people of earlier generations.
Despite the publicity surrounding the Ahern-Larkin relationship, openly criticized in the Gazette editorial, there is nobody in or outside the Fianna Fail party screaming for Ahern’s resignation. And the Irish Catholic church, once a major power in the land, remains stoically silent.
What, then, are we to make of the Clinton affair? Clearly, there are parallels between the two. Is it possible that Ireland, regarded only a generation ago as one of the most archly conservative societies in Europe, is more liberal than the U.S.?
After all, abortion is widespread in the U.S. Divorce has been recognized from the earliest years. Superficially, it is regarded worldwide as being one of the most open societies in the world, a nation where almost everything is possible so long as it does not flout the principles of the Constitution.
Is it rather that the tendrils of the ancient Christian religion, extending down all of the centuries, allow us to show more tolerance toward people rather than a stultifying reverence for institutions?
Whatever the reason, the Irish are certainly showing much greater tolerance toward the relationship, however unorthodox, between Ahern and Larkin than the American institutions seem to show toward Clinton.
One stumble here, even two or three stumbles, does not constitute a permanent fall. Surely, the American people are not so naive as to imagine that extra-marital affairs are much more common, and have always been much more common, than people care to talk about. There are few American presidents of this century who would emerge unscathed from the intense type of scrutiny inflicted on Clinton.
There are few Irish people who do not recognize a political stroke when they see one being executed. And they reckon that the executioner in the case of Clinton is the Republican Party.