Rewarding self-serving political behaviour


Within 10 years of his first election, Bertie Ahern tripled his vote, thanks to the might of the Drumcondra Mafia, writes Elaine Byrne

SOME 601,000 people tuned in to see the first episode of Bertie, Mint Productions's four-part television programme for RTÉ. The second episode aired last night. Bertie, though, tells us much more about ourselves than the elusive former taoiseach.

The oral testimonies of those who operated the formidable political machine, which infamously became known as the Drumcondra Mafia, were particularly striking.

Ahern, "the man from nowhere" with no previous political experience or political pedigree, defied Fianna Fáil expectations and was elected to the Dáil in 1977on his first attempt at just 25 years of age.

Despite a constituency change in the 1981 election, Ahern more than doubled his vote. Joe Tierney, former Fianna Fáil national executive member, noted that political rivals "weren't up against a Fianna Fáil organisation, they were up against a personal organisation".

Within 10 years of his first election, Ahern had tripled his vote and secured almost two quotas in the process. The extraordinary might of the Drumcondra political machine became most evident at the 2007 election when Cyprian Brady was elected on the coat-tails of Ahern's preferences, despite only harvesting 939 votes.

Ahern described his Dublin Central power base as "our territory and we protected it very closely". The message from constituency activist Chris Wall was clear-cut: "Don't mess with Bertie's machine."

In characteristic fashion, Royston Brady was especially revealing. "Within that structure he [Ahern] would create ward bosses, which is taken directly from the Chicago mobs in the '30s . . . When you were told you were a ward boss, it was like something out of Goodfellas. You feel like you are one of these made men, you are one of the 12 . . . The machine in Drumcondra takes no prisoners."

Royston got it backwards. The concept of the political machine was brought to America from Ireland, not the other way around.

Senator George Washington Plunkitt, son of Irish immigrants, portrayed himself as a political philosopher. In 1905 he published a book entitled Plunkitt of Tammany Hall - a series of very plain talks on very practical politics.

This fascinatingly honest tome, freely accessible from the Project Gutenberg collection,, contains chapters like, "honest and dishonest graft", "the curse of civil service reform", "reciprocity in patronage", "on the uses of money in politics," "bosses preserve the nation" and "Tammany's patriotism".

Tammany Hall was the Democratic Party's political machine in New York in the 1800s and early 1900s. Irish controlled, Tammany distributed political patronage as a self- serving means to stay in power. Richard Croker, Tammany's infamous Boss Croker from 1886-1903, later retired to Ireland and lived in Glencairn in Dublin, now the British ambassador's residence.

Joe Scully, Tim Sullivan, Pat Keenan and Johnnie Ahern, initially ward bosses, became Tammany district leaders who ran "the most perfect political machine on earth" and who "looked after their friends, within the law".

Plunkitt's philosophy was to stick to his "friends high and low, do them a good turn whenever I get a chance and hunt up all the jobs going for my constituents." He acknowledged candidly "that you can't keep an organisation together without patronage. Men ain't in politics for nothin'. They want to get somethin' out of it."

In other words, in Tammany politics, people were appointed to positions because they were friends and no wrong was committed when doing so. Sound familiar?

James C Scott, professor of political science at Yale University, describes the political machine as a non-ideological organisation interested less in political principle than in securing and holding office for its leaders and distributing wealth to those who work for it.

In this scenario, hints of corruption are winked at and applauded by constituents as the social banditry of an urban Robin Hood.

Curiously, those politicians subject to tribunal scrutiny have tended to record exceptional electoral results.

Charles Haughey topped the 1973 election and secured his highest first preference vote after Jack Lynch dismissed him from the cabinet for his role in the arms crisis.

Ray Burke got his highest vote in the 1977 election, despite journalist Joe McAnthony's investigative exposés on Burke's financial relationship with property developers Brennan and McGowan.

Michael Lowry increased his vote by more than 4,000 in the 1997 election, shortly after his expulsion from Fine Gael following allegations relating to his tax affairs.

On the other hand, Niall Andrews lost his council seat in 1974 following public statements that he would seek to raise the issue of conflict of interest in local government if re-elected. Eithne Fitzgerald, minister of state who pioneered the ethics legislation in the mid 1990s, saw her 17,256 vote collapse in 1997 and she lost her seat.

The electorate, it appears, prefers to reward self-serving political behaviour. The Irish voting public accepted, and continues to accept, the machine politics model as a legitimate means of conducting political activity.

The Mahon tribunal, with its 11 years of 16 modules and 400 witnesses, ended recently. Justifiably, there is focus on the €300 million cost to the exchequer, but we were the ones who continually voted to sustain a political culture that condoned the very activities the tribunals have investigated. We did so because we had a sneaking regard for Tammany politics.