Mr Ahern Squanders It

 

When Mr Bertie Ahern put himself and the Fianna Fail party before the electorate in June he did so in an atmosphere of gathering suspicion. The jigsaw puzzle of Mr Charles Haughey's wealth, Mr Ben Dunne's gifts, the Cayman Islands accounts and the role of the late Mr Des Traynor was beginning to fit although it was still some weeks before Mr Haughey was to come clean before Mr Justice McCracken.

Mr Ahern and his senior party colleagues had one message to put across to the electorate against this emerging landscape of scandal and intrigue. Whatever happened under Charles Haughey was then. This was now. Fianna Fail in 1997 had a new leadership which was not only clean but determined to eliminate any taint or tincture of corruption from public life.

By and large the public and the media were sceptical about claims which so absolutely marked out a line between past and present. A great many of Fianna Fail's would-be ministers had risen to prominence during the Haughey years and under Mr Haughey's patronage. But many also were willing to give the benefit of the doubt. In these editorial columns it was argued that Mr Ahern was entitled to his chance; that he could not and should not be judged by Mr Haughey's standards; that Fianna Fail had to be given the chance to shake off the past.

A mere three months into office Mr Ahern has all but forfeited that chance. He has fumbled, vacillated and turned language upon its head in a continuing effort to support the unsupportable in regard to his Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr Ray Burke. He has presided over the most extraordinary decision not to have the notorious Ansbacher accounts fully investigated. And he has fought a rearguard action in the Dail to so define the terms of reference of a new tribunal that it would have excluded Mr Burke and his affairs.

Where Mr Ahern might have vindicated his claim to have initiated a new era in Fianna Fail he has raised suspicions - even among those who would wish him and the party well - that there is still much to hide. Where, with a bold move, he might have taken the high ground, he has instead been dragged, resisting every inch of the way, through the events of recent weeks. The conviction is now widespread that Mr Ahern is deeply resistant to a full inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the rezoning of land and donations of large sums of money to politicians.

The issue is gone well beyond Mr Burke. The facts of his case speak for themselves as far as most people are concerned. The issue now is whether Mr Ahern can preserve his own reputation and that of the party he leads. He was given a fair wind in June by an electorate which responded to his perceived qualities of decency and plain talking. It is ironic at a time of unprecedented economic well-being and with the possibility of real political progress in the North that the leader of Fianna Fail should squander the opportunity he has been given to restore the good name of his party and of the political system in general.