By John Kelly
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, once admiringly described by Charles Haughey as the cutest of them all, has suffered a serious hit indeed in the South Tipperary by-election. But why? The answer is as elusive as the determination of the Titanic skipper to sail at full speed through a North Atlantic ice field.
Ahern has gotten himself in a frightening bind on the heels of the nomination of Hugh O’Flaherty, ostensibly made by Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy, to the European Investment Bank.
Polls have indicated that 58 percent of the public are against the appointment of the former Supreme Court Judge who resigned rather than face the threat of impeachment because of his involvement in what has become known as the "Phillip Sheedy affair."
Sheedy, an influential Fianna Fail supporter, was convicted of manslaughter after it was determined he was driving drunk when his car collided with another, resulting in the death of a young woman. Subsequently, his sentence was reduced in the Criminal Appeals Court after the direct intervention of the then Supreme Court Judge O’Flaherty.
The reduction led to a national outcry after O’Flaherty said that he had intervened on the plea of a mutual friend he had met while walking in a public park near his home.
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Chief Justice Liam Hamilton, who concluded that the intervention was, at the very least, ill advised, investigated the matter.
Under pressure from the opposition parties, the Irish government took the initial steps toward impeachment.
The resignation of the Kerry-born Flaherty settled that. It also removed his need to explain his actions to a select committee of the Dail, despite his earlier assurance that he would do so.
He is a nephew of the former Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, whose incredible World War II Vatican career was featured in the film "The Scarlet and the Black," starring Gregory Peck. The film featured the late monsignor’s role in saving the lives of thousands of refugees from Nazi persecution by spiriting them to safe, neutral countries through the independent Vatican State.
O’Flaherty, the judge, seemed to have shared some of his uncle’s unorthodox attitudes, however well intentioned. Never one to live in the ivory tower reserved for judges of such high station, he made himself readily accessible to all, perhaps too much so, as he confessed in a controversial radio interview last week.
Whatever about the unanswered questions left in the wake of the Sheedy affair, it is the clumsy government handling that has delighted opposition parties and astounded the bulk of the public. Even staunch Fianna Fail supporters just cannot comprehend why the government stuck its neck out.
McCreevy, has told the Dail that the decision to appoint O’Flaherty to the prestigious and well-paid job, carrying a £150,000 annual salary, was taken by the Cabinet. The tanaiste, Mary Harney, astounded opposition members when she supported the appointment in the wake of the Sheedy affair. She also agreed with the minister for finance that O’Flaherty was the best-qualified man for the job.
Ironically enough, it now seems that her party will suffer equally, if not more, than Fianna Fail.
As heated exchanges continued in the Dail and as rival radio stations fought bitterly to gain the "definitive" interview with the former Supreme Court Judge, Ahern seemed to justify the Haughey description by attempting to slip out of the spotlight. Asked in one interview if he thought that the majority of Irish people were right to oppose the appointment, he conceded that he believed they were.
However, he continued, the government had made its decision and it was going to stick to it. He also agreed that it had taken a serious "hit," an infliction that showed itself very clearly in the South Tipperary by-election.
Harney, already in deep trouble as the leader of the rapidly imploding Progressive Democrat Party, also stuck to her guns. However, a colleague, Minister for State in Foreign Affairs Liz O’Donnell, eased her position somewhat by claiming that it was essentially a question for Ahern and Fianna Fail.
The opposition continues to bay for political blood. Whether it will force a general election, especially coupled with the serious Fianna Fail defeat in South Tipperary and a 15 percent reduction in its first-preference vote, remains a matter of conjecture.
Whatever about that, the future of Fianna Fail is now clearly in serious jeopardy. The sleaze factor was a big consideration in South Tipperary. Many Fianna Fail voters failed to turn up at the polls. In the short term, the party is seriously threatened by the continuous daily disclosures at the tribunals.
In the longer term, the indications are even more worrying for Fianna Fail. The young vote has virtually disappeared. By-elections are one thing. Incumbent governments expect short-term reverses that are normally corrected with the inevitable general election. The serious longer-term crisis facing Fianna Fail is the ever-lessening young vote.
By far, Ahern is still the most popular choice as taoiseach. He has nothing to fear on that score. But even while Haughey was making his triumphal tour of Ireland Inc. to the tune of "Rise and Follow Charlie," the party was losing serious votes in the constituencies.
The lesson is that no one leader can gain a party majority nationally, irrespective of their personal popularity.
The O’Flaherty appointment has inflicted a grievous hit. The party has suffered worst in the most recent past. It is likely to be compounded in the immediate future.
Economically, it all has very serious implications for the so-called Celtic Tiger. When you add the increasing inflation rate and the obvious public disenchantment because it seems that only very few are fattening themselves often at the expense of the majority; Fianna Fail has much to worry about.
As leader and taoiseach, Ahern has to come out fighting to pull it all together. It is time for a straightforward, no-holds-barred, explanations to the people. Only he knows why he persisted with the O’Flaherty nomination. There is no point in attempting to hide behind his minister for finance. Everybody knows that he was the one who made the decision to proceed as he did. The question, still, is why? Only Ahern can answer that.