The man who uses the carrot instead of the stick


One year ago, people saying Happy New Year to Bertie Ahern might have received a less than wholehearted response.

By any standards, he was facing into a tough year politically - two tribunals, one under challenge by Charles J. Haughey, two by-elections (neither of which looked winnable), issues such as child abuse and illegal immigrants and an inescapable deadline coming up appallingly quickly in relation to Northern Ireland.

All of this and the not inconsequential matter of holding a government, and Independent TDs, some of them less co-operative than others, on side. Oh yes, and there was that Celtic Tiger to be kept fed and watered and house trained for the arrival of the euro.

When I was writing about Bertie this time last year, I talked a lot about his style of management as opposed to his style of leadership. Leadership tends to be defined by the stances taken, the battles won and the changes wrought.

Bertie Ahern behaving like a "leader" would have ended this Government before the summer recess because almost any stance he took would have dragged him into confrontation with one or other of his partners in Government. He didn't opt for the role of "leader" and in so doing led the Government all the more effectively. This is not to say that we have had some sort of absentee Taoiseach for the last 12 months.

We have had a man performing as a good general manager should, coaxing the best from his team, delegating responsibility where necessary and above all, communicating constantly with his own staff, his clients and the public.

It would have been tempting to look for a bold and thrusting chairman taking and holding positions, inflexible in his vision and happy to tell everyone what that vision was, a man more focused on stick than carrot. Bertie Ahern threw away the stick and went loo king for carrots for everyone by negotiating solutions which allowed everyone to win.

Nowhere was this more evident than in his personal handling of Northern Ireland. He took charge of the issue, he was present everywhere and his role was crucial. He kept talking, listening, buying time and slowly helped the talks participants to find common ground. His mother's death hit him hard yet he took time to travel to Stormont in the midst of his personal sadness to instil some common sense. The tragedy of the Belfast Agreement is that once it was achieved, we consigned it to the back of our minds, believing it would all work out by itself. It took one final atrocity, one last slaughter of the innocents in Omagh to remind us that there is a profound difference between an agreement signed and an agreement implemented.

Increasingly, Bertie Ahern is seen as a modern and sensitive leader capable of addressing difficult and divisive issues without the personalised savagery of the past. As government chairman, he has ensured that his partners, tiny though they may be in numbers, are living happily with Fianna Fail. He has the capacity to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable and where tensions have arisen during the past year they have been effectively smoothed over by his personal intervention.

Welcoming President Clinton on a second visit was a high point for him, as was the visit of Tony Blair and in particular his speech to ail Eireann the Oireachtas, the first by a British prime minister, the significance of which was not lost.

There have been low points for Ahern during 1998 - the publication of a biography which put the spotlight on his personal life with so many implications for his relatives and innocent bystanders. He is famous for making no decision until there is no alternative and falling on no sword as long as there are other options, yet despite that trait, he still felt driven to talk about personal matters.

The hype surrounding the newspaper serialisation of the book upset him greatly, but he weathered the storm.

The year ended on another low point for him over his brother-inlaw's adjudication on the Haughey tax issue. The Opposition sought to make a huge issue out of it but the Dail debate demonstrated how much Bertie Ahern has changed.

No doubt his temper and his temperament were stretched almost to breaking point. In the past his answers would surely have been shorter and more testy but, despite the fact that I'm quite certain he'd have liked to lose his temper, the brother-in-law we saw on our screens was a man more sure of himself.

He was capable of dealing with a flood of repetitive attacks calmly and quietly. He refused once again to get involved in the type of slanging match which cheapens the Dail chamber and reinforces the low opinion the Irish people have of their politicians. He is a skilled Dail performer who has added an extra dimension to his abilities.

The biography and the Haughey tax decision created a parallel with his more libidinous colleague in the chief executive stakes, President Clinton, who was caught telling fibs about his personal life and admitted misleading people. So has Bertie Ahern (although it was unintentional) in relation to Mary Harney and the second tax appeals commissioner.

On both sides of the Atlantic the media found this sort of behaviour to be unacceptable. They did their level best to create a suitably outraged citizenry and failed, because the public is more sophisticated than that. It understands that, particularly in relation to personal matters, an occasional white lie can be necessary.

Any family which has managed to get through Christmas without a major row has done so by dint of some misdirection and a well-held tongue. However, we don't believe that when it comes to the big decisions, to signing a treaty, creating legislation or enunciating policy, our leaders will lie to us. We are not as keen as journalists to make the leap that any untruth uttered renders every other word worthy of suspicion.

We believe that there are times when grey areas exist and our leaders have to deal with them. Let me be quite clear about this - we do not like our leaders to lie to us but in certain circumstances we can understand why they chose to do it.

Last year, progress was made on a number of fronts and Bertie Ahern knows that he and his party are doing quite nicely.

The opinion polls are good, the economy is performing phenomenally and there are none of the major divisions one might expect a large political party like Fianna Fail to suffer from. However, he needs to be conscious of the constant need to reassure his backbenchers that they do have real power despite the difficulties often created by the public outpourings of the Independents.

This is a very important election year for Bertie Ahern - local elections, European elections and hopefully Udaras na Gaeltachta elections in June. ail representation at local authority level. Some of those elected may well be potential Dail candidates in the new millennium.

Speaking of which, there is an obligation on the Government to have an effective, energetic millennium committee to produce exciting projects. We don't get many opportunities to celebrate the start of a new millennium and we really should do it in style.