Alex Massie

Storm in a Taoiseach...

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We knew everything we needed to know about Bertie Ahern from the moment his mentor Charlie Haughey declared that of all the young thrusters in Fianna Fail, Ahern was "the most skillful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all". It's tempting to conclude that this endorsement provided sufficient grounds for barring Ahern from public office. Then again, the Irish electorate seems to prefer its leaders crooked.

There's a fine old story - only possibly apocryphal - in which a little old lady tells a journalist that no, she wouldn't dream of voting for Garret Fitzgerald: how can you trust a man who lives in the same small house he owned before he ever entered politics? If a party leader can't get rich himself how's he going to manage the country? Well, Bertie passed that test allright.

So Bertie is gone now, brought down, at last, by the consequences of living the Fianna Fail dream. The instant obituaries have, naturally enough, concentrated on his role in the Northern Irish peace process and suggested that this is what Ahern will be remembered for. I'm not so sure: it's more likely that he'll be remembered for presiding over perhaps the most extraordinary economic boom in recent european  - even world - history.

Which also means that Bertie is getting out at the right time. For more than a decade the Irish economy has grown at roughly 6% per annum. That sort of growth can't be sustained forever and sure enough the Celtic Tiger isn't quite as healthy as it was. House prices are falling, growth is slowing and some notable inward investors are either getting out completely or considering reductions in their Irish operations. Again, this is no surprise and no great tragedy either: it means Ireland has been a success and that it will have to work harder and perhaps look elsewhere to maintain its current or establish a fresh comparative advantage. Ireland is no longer an irrepressible youngster; it's joined the Grown-Ups club with all the problems that entails.

Still, the economic slow-down has consequences for politicians too. Haughey was done in by being seen to live large while asking tax-payers to tighten their belts in a time of austerity. The public was prepared to ignore Ahern's own corruption while the good times seemed likely to last forever, but changing economic circumstances change peoples' minds and my impression is that public tolerance was waning in regard to Bertie's inability to explain quite how he'd become so wealthy, why he'd failed to pay taxes on much of that wealth, why he'd misled parliament and the courts, to say nothing of his increasingly risible protestation that he knew nothing about how his political party had kindly given money to his then partner to buy property or, in fact, to explain much about anything at all...

As Fintan O'Toole says today:

We've had all of that over the last 18 months. Any one element of this scandal would have been enough to shame almost any office holder in the democratic world into resignation, but right up until yesterday morning, Bertie Ahern gave a master class in shamelessness.

And so now, just as it looked as though the truth was closing in, the old northside rogue has slipped quietly from the scene. The Drumcondra fox will have the last laugh after all.

Still: this sets a stiff challenger for the new leader of Fianna Fail, Brian Cowen: how does he match his predecessors, Haughey, Reynolds and Ahern? Tradition and custom demand that there be no break from the traditional Fianna Fail practices that make the Scottish Labour party seem a beacon of honesty and transparency.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsireland