Ahern's authority wanes as serious questions mount up

Inside Poltics: The Taoiseach's authority suffered further erosion during the week as more fuel was piled on to the smouldering…

Inside Poltics:The Taoiseach's authority suffered further erosion during the week as more fuel was piled on to the smouldering saga surrounding his personal finances.

With the Mahon tribunal due to hear further evidence from Bertie Ahern at the end of the month about his "dig-out" payments, it is clear that the issue of his finances will dominate political debate for the foreseeable future.

Entrapped in the tentacles of the tribunal, the Revenue Commissioners, the Standards in Public Office Commission and the media, Ahern is beset by difficulties on every side. The question mark he introduced over how long he intends to remain in office has added another element of instability by generating endless speculation about when he intends to step down.

Ahern's problems have come at the worst time for the Government, which needs to focus on how to respond to a rapidly deteriorating international economic climate and how to steer an important referendum on the EU to a successful conclusion. Slip ups on either front will have seriously damaging consequences for the country. In some ways, the current political atmosphere is eerily reminiscent of the final days of Charles Haughey. Then, as now, the Fianna Fáil leader remained in an unassailable position within his own parliamentary party as the vultures circled, but ultimately the pressure of events brought the Haughey era to a close.


There are also some parallels with the last days of Albert Reynolds, when one controversy after another exploded on to the political scene to dog the taoiseach. Even his achievement in kick-starting the peace process could not save Reynolds, although the issue that ultimately brought him down was a relatively obscure one that most people have difficulty remembering.

One essential difference between the present and the last days of Haughey and Reynolds is that Fianna Fáil's current Coalition partners are quite content to stay out of the fray and let the dominant party of Government conduct its affairs untroubled by outside intrusion. That is a crucial difference because it was ultimately the Progressive Democrats that called time on Haughey and it was the Labour Party that ended Reynolds's term of office.

Another important difference is that now, unlike 1992 and 1994, there is not a significant faction within Fianna Fáil that wants to see the leader removed from office. Haughey's fall followed an internal campaign against him by Reynolds and his allies. Even though the then taoiseach survived a leadership heave in November 1991, he was fatally weakened and the conditions for his fall were created. Two months later, the PDs were almost forced into applying the coup de grace.

Less than three years later, it was the turn of Reynolds. When he got into trouble, the pressure from the old Haughey faction played a crucial part in forcing him out when the parliamentary party became convinced that a change of leader would allow the coalition with Labour to continue. That assessment was mistaken, but Ahern was elevated in Reynolds's place in the expectation that it was correct.

This time around, Ahern has the luxury of not being under pressure from his Coalition partners or from any significant element of his own party. While that is a welcome relief for the Taoiseach, the political consequences are that he may be able to remain in office long after his authority to govern has been seriously undermined.

Another consequence is that the basic standards of behaviour that should be expected to apply to our political leaders may have been undermined for good. If it was acceptable for a minister for finance to accept money and favours, then the notion of standards in public office can only be regarded as a joke. When the Dáil resumed on Wednesday, many of Ahern's colleagues rallied to his defence, excoriating the Opposition and the media for raising the issue again. "I want to see no more good governments brought down by synthetic pseudo-ethical furores," said Tipperary South TD, Martin Mansergh.

Ahern's problem is that the current furore has got to its present pitch because of an accumulation of bizarre and unprecedented happenings rather than one particular event.

The issues of the past week, concerning his correction of the record with regard to his tax affairs or the nature of his relationship with casino promoter Norman Turner, might not of themselves be really damaging. The real problem is that they come on top of a range of other issues that have already stretched Ahern's credibility.

First there were the "dig-outs" and the Manchester payments. Then came the issue of the house supplied by Michael Wall, then it was the issue of tax and the requirements of the Standards in Public Office Commission and lastly, the casino project has come back on to the agenda again.

Ahern has managed to sow such masterful confusion on all of the issues that many people find it hard to figure out what each succeeding controversy is all about.

The bottom line, though, is whether it was appropriate for the minister for finance to accept about €100,000 in 1994 terms for his personal use from a range of donors. There is also a serious question about how he handled his tax affairs and another as to whether it was appropriate for a minister to accept hospitality from the promoter of a controversial casino project.

Fine Gael's environment spokesman, Phil Hogan, was described by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern as "the lowest of the low" for establishing that Ahern had facilitated Norman Turner's application for an Irish passport in 1994.

It should be remembered that Hogan resigned from office in February, 1995, during the rainbow government, because one of his advisers faxed details of the budget to the media a few hours before it was announced. The contrast between the way in which Hogan accepted responsibility for a lapse of judgment by one of his staff and the way in which the members of the current Government decline to accept responsibility for upholding basic standards of political behaviour is striking.