Ahern the most successful Fianna Fáil leader in electoral terms since de Valera

Mon, Mar 26, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:BERTIE AHERN’S decision to pre-empt Micheál Martin’s move to expel him from Fianna Fáil by resigning first marks a watershed in the party’s history.

Ahern was the most successful Fianna Fáil leader in electoral terms since the party’s founder Eamon de Valera, winning three general elections in a row and ensuring that Fianna Fáil held office for 14 uninterrupted years from 1997 until 2011.

Ahern achieved his electoral feats because he was the most popular politician in the country from the late 1980s until the final few months of his leadership in 2008. Charles Haughey famously dubbed his protegee “the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all” but Ahern’s standing in the eyes of the public was, if anything, enhanced by the backhanded compliment.

His non-confrontational political style and ability to find a consensus in the most unpromising of situations hugely impressed the voters, whose affection was reflected in the fact that he was always referred to as Bertie.

Opinion polls in the late 1980s showed that Ahern as minister for labour was easily the most popular member of Haughey’s cabinet.

His initial bid for the leadership in 1992 was only thwarted because Albert Reynolds had more support among the party’s TDs.

Ahern did not have to wait long for his second bite at the cherry when the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition headed by Reynolds imploded in November 1995. At that stage he was minister for finance and was acclaimed as the new leader when his leading opponent, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, pulled out of the race in the face of his overwhelming popularity.

Some in Fianna Fáil had worried that the break up of Ahern’s marriage might prove a huge impediment, but it never became a political problem.

His first big problem was that he did not become Taoiseach immediately on assuming the leadership, as he had confidently expected.

The decision of the Labour Party to opt instead for a rainbow coalition with Fine Gael came as an initial shock. However, Ahern plunged enthusiastically into the task of leading Fianna Fáil from the Opposition benches.

He cemented his popularity internally by announcing that his priority was to put an end to the factionalism that had riven the party since the late 1960s.

He appointed former opponents like Charlie McCreevy, Brian Cowen and Noel Dempsey to senior positions alongside supporters like Micheál Martin, Dermot Ahern and John O’Donoghue. Ahern was Fianna Fáil’s main weapon in the 1997 general election campaign. The rainbow government headed by John Bruton was widely acknowledged to have done a very good job and the budget was in surplus for the first time in decades.

However, in what proved a closely fought contest, Ahern’s popularity with the public proved to be the decisive factor, and Fianna Fáil edged back to power as a minority government in coalition with the Progressive Democrats, backed by three Independent TDs.

It was as leader of a minority coalition that Ahern’s skills of consensus politics came into their own. Despite the predictions of many pundits that the coalition would not last more than a few months, Ahern fulfilled his pledge to serve for a full five-year term.The same qualities helped him to bring the North’s peace process to a successful conclusion in the Belfast Agreement of 1998 followed by a successful referendum campaign to modify articles two and three of the Constitution.

Ahern’s popularity remained high despite the McCracken tribunal report into Haughey’s finances. That paved the way for the two long-running Moriarty and Flood/Mahon tribunals, which uncovered political corruption at the highest levels in Fianna Fáil.

As the economic boom accelerated under Ahern the public just didn’t seem to care very much about the embarrassing tribunal disclosures involving Haughey and a range of leading members of Fianna Fáil, even Ahern himself. His popularity far exceeded that of his party, and in 2002 he romped back to power and almost won an overall majority.

Ahern’s political strength was that under his leadership Fianna Fáil managed to attract a significant number of second preference votes for the first time. That enabled him to win a huge seat bonus in all three of the elections in which he led his party.

His electoral appeal was so great that he gave his party a huge electoral advantage. Some senior figures in the party openly expressed the view that this personal popularity masked a serious decline in the traditional loyalty to Fianna Fáil over the past two decades.

It was only in the final months of his leadership, and the evidence that the Mahon tribunal found unbelievable, that his public appeal began to dim. That evidence about his personal finances effectively put an end to his leadership but it was only after his departure that the slide in Fianna Fáil fortunes took hold.

The collapse of the party’s vote in last year’s election was a direct result of the economic collapse arising from the policies pursued during the latter part of the Ahern era, but how much blame the public attaches to Ahern, rather than his successors, for that is impossible to calculate.

The parting of the ways between Ahern and Fianna Fáil comes at the lowest point in the party’s history. Whether it can survive the departure of its once most popular leader is now an open question.