Ahern, master of a quiet revolution that produced slick FF machine

 

Being Bertie is a hard trick, and it is time for his critics to acknowledge the Taoiseach's achievements, writes Fintan O'Toole. 

It appeared to me that the Fianna Fáil ministers were behaving in a very disorganised manner. No one appeared to be in charge. At the meeting I attended, ministers came in and out at will, with some absent for periods."

The speaker was the former Fianna Fáil attorney general, Eoghan Fitzsimons. The time was December 1994. The circumstances were those in which Bertie Ahern became leader of Fianna Fáil. Such was the state of disarray in the party that, far from disputing Fitzsimons's description, senior party figures reached for it as a lifeline. In the black farce of the last days of Albert Reynolds, it was better to plead guilty to hopeless disorganisation than to accept responsibility for anything.

Who would have thought then that, in 2002, Bertie Ahern would stroll to the easiest victory in the history of Irish politics? That in the early years of the 21st century, the Republic would be effectively a democratic version of a one-party state in which Fianna Fáil was the only credible candidate for power?

If there is a tiny glimmer of hope for the routed old-style opposition of Fine Gael and Labour, it lies in the example of Bertie Ahern himself. He took over a demoralised, fractious party in the throes of a historic decline and turned it into a machine so slick that it can leave its traditional enemies at the starting line without even getting into second gear.

Yet even that glimmer is a will o'the wisp, an elusive light that will lead those foolish enough to follow it even further into the mire. For the essential message of the election is that if Irish politics is framed as a contest to discover who is best at being Bertie, the winner will always be Bertie.

Being Bertie is a hard trick, and it is time that his opponents acknowledged the Taoiseach's achievements. He may instinctively be a cautious leader and a conservative politician, but there is a genuine radicalism in what he has done to his own party. By transforming Fianna Fáil's view of the Irish political universe, he has changed the nature of the political contest for good.

The change is obvious in the bottom line. In the old political world, Bertie Ahern's performance as party leader would have been quite poor. In 1997, Fianna Fáil got just 39 per cent of the first preference, one of the worst totals in the party's history. On Friday, after the five most prosperous years the country has ever enjoyed, it got just over 41 per cent. This is worse than, for example the party's 41.9 per cent in 1948, a figure that was seen at the time as abysmal.

By the old rules, Bertie is a failure. But he has changed the rules. In the old order, a general election was a contest between Fianna Fáil and the rest of the world. Fianna Fáil saw itself as a national movement rather than a political party.

Even a young, cosmopolitan figure like Micheál Martin was using this kind of rhetoric in the early 1990s. You were either part of the movement or you were a traitor, for, as Ray Burke once put it, "Loyalty to Fianna Fáil is loyalty to the nation itself." Or, as Brian Cowen said more recently, if in doubt leave them out. Those who were not with us were against not just us, but the nation.

To understand the quiet revolution that Bertie Ahern has overseen, all you have to do is look at a letter that his brother Noel sent to his Dublin middle-class constituents in the roads around Griffith Avenue on the eve of last week's election.

Sent from the Drumcondra address that is the ancestral home of the Ahern dynasty, Noel's letter had a heading that would have been utterly unimaginable in the pre-Bertie days: "Message to Fine Gael voters." The content was emollient: "I presume as a committed Fine Gael voter that you will give your No. 1 vote to the Fine Gael candidate." Noel Ahern went on, however, to ask for a second preference for Fianna Fáil in order to keep out Sinn Féin candidate Dessie Ellis.

The letter is evidence of the attention to detail that puts the party's machine in a different class. But it was also an implicit declaration of something far more consequential. The Ahern dynasty was declaring the end of Civil War politics. Bertie has replaced "if in doubt leave them out" with "if in doubt, bring them in". The Fianna Fáil world is no longer divided between Us and Them, but between Us and People Like Us. There are no strangers, only friends we haven't yet met.

During the election campaign, for example, Bertie was asked by Gerald Barry on RTÉ radio whether there was anything in the manifestos of either Labour or the Progressive Democrats that he fundamentally disagreed with. His answer was a straight "No". He is not in the disagreement business.

In narrow electoral terms, this means that Fianna Fáil can come close to an overall majority with 41 per cent of the vote, because it gets transfers.

The inherited common culture - Catholic, rural, nationalist - is all but gone. The gap between rich and poor is so wide that there is a real sense in which they no longer inhabit the same place.

Bertie, the man who disagrees with nobody and understands all concerns, is the perfect balm for these anxieties. He embodies the notion of consensus, the illusion that we are all still on the one road, marching along, singing the soldier's song.

The great failure of Fine Gael and Labour - who together form what we might call the Loyal Opposition - is that they tried to fight fudge with fudge. They were telling the electorate what it knows already: that the health service is in dire straits, that casual violence stalks the streets, that we have a First World economy on top of a Third World level of public provision. They were trying to convince the voters that all of these problems would go away if the same system were run by different people.

They might have got somewhere if those people were genuinely new. But if a week can be a long time in politics, five years can be very short. Michael Noonan has never escaped the ghost of Brigid McCole. Ruairí Quinn is still remembered as a man who was so comfortable in government with Fianna Fáil that the join was seamless.

It is striking that in the massacre of the Loyal Opposition, it was high-profile figures, the ones who had wielded power as ministers or junior ministers in the 1980s and 1990s (Alan Dukes, Dick Spring, Niamh Breathnach), who lost out.

In the battle between Establishment and anti-Establishment, there was simply no room for the return of an old Establishment. If you were prepared to accept things as they are, the logic was to vote for Fianna Fáil. If you felt angry and excluded, the return of familiar 50-something figures from the past was merely irrelevant.

Michael Noonan was promising to do the same things as Bertie Ahern, but more efficiently. Ruairí Quinn's vacuous slogan "Ambitious For Ireland" was a classic Bertie-ism without Bertie's charm.

Thus the scale of Fianna Fáil's victory is far greater than the mere reversal of the trend that has seen outgoing governments punished at the polls. For what has happened, bizarrely, is that the electorate's anger at the Government's failures has fallen on the Loyal Opposition. A very large section of the electorate was ready to hear what James Larkin called "the divine gospel of discontent". It didn't like Bertie or feel that self-satisfaction was the appropriate response to the way we live now. There has been, indeed, exactly what Fine Gael and Labour prayed for: a popular revolt against the two-tier health system and the contempt for the weak which it symbolises.

The failure of the Loyal Opposition to capture that rage is far more devastating than the relative contentment of those who stuck with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. The voters got the message but shot the messenger. They were willing toconsider all sorts of alternatives - the outlaw romance of Sinn Féin, the anti-materialist message of the Greens, the individual valour of a Kathy Sinnott.

BUT they simply didn't see Fine Gael and Labour as coming sufficiently within the meaning of the word "alternative". Their attitude to Ruairí Quinn and Michael Noonan was "Get the hell out of my way, so I can have a good kick at Bertie." When Ruairí and Michael didn't get out of the way, they kicked them in frustration instead.

The implications of this are far more profound than any short-term disaster that can be rectified by a new leader, hard work and a new marketing strategy. The electorate has decided, once and for all, that it knows what the mainstream of Irish politics is: Fianna Fáil and whatever Fianna Fáil needs to make up the numbers.

It has lost interest in the whole idea of merely replacing from time to time this natural Establishment with another one. It knows what consensus politics can and can't deliver, and that the new Ahern-model Fianna Fáil is just better at it than anyone else; one catch-all party is enough.

Fine Gael, in other words, is finished. For the foreseeable future, the party will not be what it has been for 70 years: the core around which any alternative government could be organised.

The gap between where it is now and where it would have to be for the electorate to take its leader seriously as a Taoiseach-in-waiting is too large to be bridged.

And no Labour leader can credibly convince his party that the way forward lies in working with Fine Gael rather than seeking to replace it as the second party. Labour, moreover, is now in a mortal struggle with Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party on one side of the class divide and the Greens on the other.

Anyone who thinks that that struggle can be fought with a love letter to a moribund Fine Gael in one hand and a glossy red rose from an imploding European social democratic movement is sleepwalking towards the abyss.

And yet, in the early hours of Sunday morning, after Labour's hopes of taking a second seat in Dublin South Central were dashed by Sinn Féin, the party's extremely able TD Mary Upton was talking about the need for more consensual politics. You could almost hear Gerry Adams rubbing his hands gleefully in the background.

Labour, in any case, is in no shape to rescue Fine Gael from oblivion as it did in 1994, when Dick Spring put John Bruton into the Taoiseach's chair that Bertie Ahern thought was his. The two-and-a-half party system is gone.

This doesn't mean that the future has to be the infinite triumph of Bertie and his children. For one thing, the shape of the new government will probably confirm a drift to the right. With the hole in the public finances and the increased mandate for the PD policy of cutting taxes, the strong likelihood is that public services will be contracting, not expanding.

The arrogance which has been so obvious over the last five years will be enhanced by the electoral triumph. At the same time, the electorate has created a huge space on the left, indicating more strongly than ever before its willingness to listen to alternative strategies and welcome new faces.

A right-left divide is opening up. But the right is confident, capable and in complete control of political power. The left is incoherent, fragmented and incapable in the short term of matching the unity of purpose that Bertie Ahern has forged for his party.

In a neat reversal of stereotypes, the free-market right is a near-monopolistic cartel and the left is a free market in which competition is so intense as to be virtually anarchic.

If anyone can make a clear voice heard above the din of argument and recrimination, the electorate has indicated its willingness to listen.