Cultural clash typified by 'tough guy' Ahern


ANALYSIS:All is not well between the Minister for Justice and his Green Party Government colleagues. writes DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN

SHORTLY AFTER Dermot Ahern’s appointment as Minister for Justice, one of his advisers happened to be travelling in a taxi through Dublin. A news item came on the radio about a new anti-crime measure announced by the Minister and the driver commented: “I like that fellow Dermot Ahern, he’s a tough little so-and-so.”

The Minister subsequently regaled friends with the anecdote, which he clearly found both flattering and amusing. But it’s a useful vignette in another respect, as it illustrates the cultural divide between Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

Neither Green Ministers John Gormley nor Eamon Ryan would particularly relish being described as a “tough so-and-so”. Given their vision of a gentle, ecologically harmonious universe, it’s not the kind of image to which any card-carrying Green would aspire.

Nevertheless Green Senators Dan Boyle and Déirdre de Búrca showed a degree of toughness in the closing stages of the debate on the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill when they abstained during a vote on the legislation late on Tuesday night.

Both Fianna Fáil and Opposition observers are scathing and cynical in equal proportion about the move. Fine Gael were voting in favour of the legislation so there wasn’t the slightest danger it would be defeated: the Green strategy was therefore entirely risk-free, say the critics.

It is indeed the case that the legislation was not imperilled by the Boyle-de Búrca abstention. It is also true that the Green Party leadership is facing a special convention in Dublin this weekend on the Lisbon Treaty and the forthcoming review of the programme for government. But at a time when the coalition is facing unprecedented challenges on the economic front, governmental stability is crucial and any threat to its Dáil and Seanad majorities is bound to be taken seriously, particularly since de Búrca also missed a vote in the Seanad last week.

Dermot Ahern currently occupies a place in Green Party folklore that is somewhat akin to the Big Bad Wolf in the stories of our childhood. Not a man known for a superfluity of tact and diplomacy, he has rubbed the Greens the wrong way on a number of issues already. Any senior Green will give you the litany. “He’s the Cabinet member we have had the most difficulty with,” said one high-level party source.

First there were his substantial cutbacks in the budget of the Equality Authority leading to the departure of chief executive Niall Crowley. Then there was a perceived reluctance on the Minister’s part to bring forward legislation on Civil Partnership. His legislation on blasphemy was seen as an unnecessary concession to the religious right, despite the Minister’s protestations that it was required under the Constitution.

It all came to a head on Tuesday night in the Seanad. Green Party leader John Gormley met Taoiseach Brian Cowen earlier in the evening to discuss the legislation and the need for a strong commitment from Ahern, on the record of the Upper House, that the review process for the controversial Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 would be particularly robust and more than just an “on the nod” rubber-stamp annual renewal. Green Party sources say Cowen agreed that their concerns would be met.

A Government spokesman said that, although the two party leaders had indeed discussed the legislation on Tuesday evening, “it has never been the practice for us to discuss conversations between the Taoiseach and other members of the Government.”

Department of Justice sources contend that the Minister had given a strong commitment that the review process would be robust, but his words were clearly insufficient for the two Green Senators and, indeed, Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan, who yesterday came out in support of their decision to abstain.

Fianna Fáil insiders are inclined to dismiss the Green démarche as posturing in preparation for the convention this Saturday in the Hilton Hotel. The two Green Ministers are said to be among the most solid and responsible members of the Cabinet.

The real worry, from the Fianna Fáil leadership’s viewpoint, is the nervous state of mind among their backbenchers. There are conflicting accounts of a parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House last week, with some of those present describing it as fairly routine, while others paint a picture of panicky backbenchers getting into a state over possible future Government measures that could see them losing their seats in the next election.

Although Dermot Ahern has been a very loyal member of the Government, he is generally seen as a leading contender for the leadership in the event that the position became vacant. In this regard, his tough approach to his job and this week’s contretemps with the Greens probably will not do him any harm. A Dublin TD commented: “The consensus among Fianna Fáil backbenchers is that he is one of the most dynamic Ministers; he’s got bottle and he’s not afraid of his own shadow, unlike some of the others.”

Some Opposition sources believe the end-of-year budget will be so tough that the Government could break apart, with the Greens heading into opposition on their bicycles. That would appear to underestimate the commitment of senior figures in the smaller party to remain in office and see the programme for government, albeit in revised form, through to a conclusion.

Given the departure of leading Green Party dissidents for other pastures, this weekend’s conference may well turn out to be a fairly low-key affair. The leadership is seen as likely to get the two-thirds majority needed for the adoption of a party policy in support of Lisbon. Normal service can then resume for the rest of the summer but there will doubtless be further squalls and even storms ahead.

Deaglán de Bréadún is a political correspondent with The Irish Times

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