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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 22, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    How would Bertie have coped?

    Harry McGee

    Bertie Ahern broke his leg yesterday. It could have been worse: he could have ended up having his reputation shattered into smithereens like Brian Cowen did.

    The former Taoiseach’s mí-ádh brought him back to public attention and prompted questions about how he would have weathered this particular storm. Over the weekend, his brother Maurice made an intervention saying that the Anorak’s political smarts were such that he would never have allowed the medical card measure through in that form.

    When Bertie Ahern finally called it a day, we all thought that time had caught up on him, that he went because he had to go, not at a time of his own choosing. But any thoughts that his career may have ended in failure (even with a small ‘f’) have now been diluted. God, another stroke by the Teflon Taoiseach. Now we know that he didn’t ditch but that he got out at the last station before the train ran out of track.

    Now the picture has become clearer. Bertie Ahern, to use hurling analogy, hurled a hospital pass in Brian Cowen’s direction before leaving the field of play. Cowen has shouldered all the blame for the economic woes while Ahern has been (miraculously) left relatively unscathed by it. Given that he presided over the boom, it’s difficult to know how the Anorak would have dealt with the horrible mess confronting Cowen.

    It’s certain that he would have had the antennae up in relation to the medical cards and would have softened the income levy at the edges.

    But he have been prepared to take out the scalpel and inflict painful but necessary surgery. With a politician who built his entire career on the back of consensus and path-seeking, you find it hard to imagine that he would be prepared to display such public ruthlessness (though in private, he could be – and had to be – ruthless as all political leaders do).

    Joe Behan’s resignation was a once-off. But what also became evident is that there is a disaffected rump in Fianna Fail, comprised of those who have not done well from Cowen either through demotion or failure to win promotion. The complexion of the game has changed completely in less than six months he has been in the hot seat.

    The Greens didn’t cover themselves in glory. They waded into the controversy very late in the day on Friday. It is true that some of their backbenchers – and Ciaran Cuffe is the one that comes to mind – were deeply disturbed and unhappy about the medical card measure. But the Greens displayed more loyalty than your average Fianna Fail backbencher. For them, as Mary White said, this was never a pulling-out-of-Government issue.

    Imagine our surprise then at her amazing interview with her local radio station in Carlow Kilkenny yesterday when she said that the Greens had threatened to pull out of Government, absolutely. When asked by the interviewer did the Greens make this threat directly, she made a reference to the backchannels hissing with concern and worries. In other words, the Greeens had threatened to pull out of Government but had not really told anyone in Fianna Fail that they were threatening to pull out of Government.

    The party didn’t come out of this well. If they are going to last the course in this adminstration, they are going to have to get more awkward with their FF colleagues on the environment and also show the public out there that they more colours in their palette than just green.

    What else? The mercury will fall a little today but the heat will still be uncomfortable for Government. Fine Gael and Labour will now move on and find a fresh line of attack on school sizes. The march by pensioners this morning will not have the same impact now there is a compromise in place but will be another painful reminder of the Government’s folly.

    As will the vote on the Fine Gael motion on medical cards. Those weekly six-hour debates on topical issus, that alternate between parties, sometimes seem like a waste of time. But they can prove a very useful tool when the party cleverly chimes them in with the big controversy of the day. Labour’s motion for next week – unsurprisingly – is on class sizes.

    Yep, living in  interesting times. But that’s a Chinese curse, isn’t it.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      In respect of the rump in FF, election by acclamation is a dangerous gift. Bertie was unopposed but he in some senses didn’t have a faction that he was head of. Rather he was seen as the inheritor of the mantle as he stood aside from contesting with Reynolds, becoming in a sense his VP. It is worth thinking back that had the FF/Lab coalition not collapsed then Bertie’s star might have waned somewhat and perhaps Micheál Martin or someone else might have succeeded Reynolds instead.

      Cowen in contrast does very much have a ‘set’ that he has cultivated down the years, though he was seen by the party as a whole for some considerable time to be the obvious choice, Yet if you have some identified as being close to you then others can eventually start to feel resentful towards you. It’s just human nature.

      A mate of mine mentioned to me that there is some considerable precedent in those who make the move direct from finance to No.1 making a bad fist of it due to a tendency to not let the new moneybags have their own way, though this is more in the context of things across the water. Moving from No.11 to No.10 has some bad history.

      Bertie had the benefit of a reasonable detox period in opposition as party leader before becoming Taoiseach from Finance. Albert’s gap year was much shorter.

    • Harry says:

      Strong points Dan. I argued when Cownen became leader that he was going to need time to find his feet.
      The wiser heads I worked with said that he has had ten years as the Dauphin to find is feet and he should have been showing leadership from day one.
      I think it’s much stronger succeeding a current prime minister from your own party (especially one who has been there a long time) than coming into the job untested and new like Tony Blair, David Cameron, and when you are in opposition like Bertie Ahern (by mistake) and all leaders of Fine Gael and Labour.
      Cowen is best when he is on the attack. He was good when he got his hackles raised in the Dáil yesterday. He is terrible when he is defensive mode. He swallows the civl service jargon book whole.

    • Des FitzGerald says:

      Shame Bertie didn’t break his neck and also why is no-one asking him why he went to the Mater Private and not A & E?

      Also, why are the media not pointing out that we’ll never know what Bertie Ahern would have doen because Bertie avoided making any decisions on anything and his instinct was always to throw moeny at an issue – that is why we are in the mess we are in now.

      Ahern has to be the worst Taoiseach Ireland has ever had and possibly the most weak and spineless politician of his generation and you lot in the media are just as much to blame with all your fawning over him and never holding him to account ‘cos he paid your bar tab. Shame on the lot of you.

      Anyone with half a brain could sort out the country’s finances without having to screw old people or those with children or special needs, etc., but as most Irish people moan about a TD, then vote for them again and again, why would any TD bother doing the right thing?

      Wait and see, the next proper quality opinion poll will show FF still over 30% despite all this going on.

      So spare us the guff about what a canny political operator Bertie was or Cowen was, because if they were they’d have avoided this mess in the first place and kept everyone sweet.

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