By Ray O’Hanlon
The headline nailed Bertie Ahern to a tee: “Ahern makes light of his 95 mph dash through Wexford with the FF campaign cavalcade.”
The key element in the headline was not the speed at which the taoiseach’s car was trimming the spring hedgerows. Rather, it was the reference to Ahern making “light” of his mad dash through the Irish countryside in search of votes.
Bertie Ahern is a master at making light of things, be it straight politics, scandalous politics, funny politics or very serious politics.
If the polls hold up, Ahern will head the next Irish government. Again, if the polls hold true, it will be a single-party administration. No messy jumping into bed with lesser parties or wacky independents. It will be like the good old days — Fianna F_il ourselves, and alone.
And all this achieved on a slogan as bland and light as “Fianna F_il, The Republican Party. A Lot Done — More To Do.”
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Somebody actually got paid to think that one up. When the Irish language version hit the streets, it was pointed out that the translation was incorrect. But in the new Ireland, the Ireland of eternal political light and little political weight, such errors are of little consequence.
A few years ago, Ahern, on a visit to New York, was asked about a potentially adverse flip side of the roaring Celtic Tiger economy. Would seemingly endless and unrestricted development not damage Ireland as an attractive place for visitors from America and Europe?
Ahern, the master of making light, stared at the table, shrugged his shoulders and said no it would not.
“Sure we’ve plenty of land,” he said. It wasn’t so much the statement as the casual but utterly convincing way it was delivered. Next question.
Ten years ago, when Bertie was still a prince in waiting, Charles Haughey’s failure to make light of a scandal finally ended his dramatic and traumatic political career.
Those who had waited years for Haughey’s downfall were delighted that this time the political knife in the man’s back would actually stick.
But not a few journalists knew that they were bidding adieu to a great political subject, a man who could deliver a story merely by his presence in a room.
Most journalists were reluctant to openly admit this, but some did, at least privately, while others sought to reflect the widespread sense of both a dramatic passing and the passing of a multi-act drama.
Derry journalist Eamonn McCann wrote at the time that “even some of Haughey’s host of enemies semi-privately admit that political life, and political reporting, is going to be a lot less fun.”
Other commentators, McCann wrote, were lamenting the prospect of a “dismal succession of identikit operators who supervise the economy rather than try to run the country.”
The supposedly identikit operators who followed Haughey were, as it turned out, rather less than mirror images of one another. Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern varied quite noticeably in both style and method.
Still, this was undoubtedly a less politically thrilling leadership succession than the 1980s, a decade when Haughey daily dueled with his arch-rival Garret FitzGerald while simultaneously fending off those in his party who sought to fill the sandals of a Brutus or Cassius.
Ahern, “the most cunning of them all,” according to Haughey, has never been quite so challenged from within or without, this despite a series of financial scandals and allegations of sleaze against his party that have been aired in a seemingly endless series of legal tribunals.
Endless, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing in politics. The eyes of all too many Irish voters have long since glazed over at the prospect of yet another dirty deal being made plain by a judge of the bench.
What has occurred in the land of Flood and Moriarty is like a slow puncture as opposed to a blowout. Scandals need a certain pace for the public to be truly captivated, the church pedophile mess in Boston being an example.
It was said of Eamon de Valera that he only had to look into his heart to know what the Irish people were thinking. It’s perhaps just as well for Dev that this wasn’t really true.
Bertie Ahern has not needed to be nearly so introspective. It appears that he merely has to shrug, smile, dismiss and all is sweetness. And light.
His has been an Ali-like rope-a-dope performance these last five years. And, like Ali in his prime, Ahern is still standing despite all the blows. It’s the opposition that is flat out knackered on the canvas.
Years of a fat economy has made this possible and Ahern’s expected return to power will be further facilitated by the fact that the more recent economic downturn can be largely blamed on external factors.
Ahern, who has been described as the “Teflon taoiseach,” is also helped by the fact that sleaze has not just been a Fianna F_il preserve, while the less than stellar leadership of Fine Gael in particular will also come into play in the voting booths this Friday.
Last but not least, Ahern might not be a saint, but he is the devil that the historically devil-tolerant Irish electorate knows best.
Irish tolerance of sleaze and lightweight politics is not all a bad thing.
Despite the obvious faults in Ireland’s political life, the kind of extremism that has been evident in Europe in recent years, recent days, for that matter, is almost entirely invisible in the Irish election campaign. That’s not to say it is entirely absent.
Sinn FTin, meanwhile, is the sole sexy political factor at play this Friday, but even that party is playing its cards carefully enough down the last stretch. Downplaying expectations is the perfect springboard to expected triumph.
Ahern does face the potential problem of being seen by voters not especially aligned to one party or another as the kind of identikit taoiseach alluded to by Eamonn McCann.
Ahern’s ticket out of this corner is, ironically, the possibility of his leading a one-party government, a result that many political observers, even those hostile to Fianna F_il, have long argued is a healthy outcome after years of opportunistic coalitions formulated only after election day, and without the direct participation of the electorate.
That electorate is about to see what Fianna F_il’s “More To Do” actually means.
Is it more of the same, or something a little new, perhaps even daring? Politics light-middleweight perhaps.