Ahern survives in a sea of corruption
7 October 2006
As this is written Bertie Ahern has survived the scandal that at one point seemed likely to force his resignation from the office of Taoiseach and even perhaps precipitate a general election. Commentators however are saying that if anything else surfaces he will have to go, although this was said before it was revealed he had bought his house from one of the businessmen who were in Manchester when he got his ‘dig-out’.
In fact what Bertie has so far openly admitted to should already have signalled his immediate resignation. His survival so far speaks volumes about the Gombeen society he represents and administers.
First was his open admission of receipt of around €50,000 in 1993 and 1994 from businessmen friends which he called a loan but of which not a penny had been repaid until the scandal broke, whereupon he immediately discharged the ‘debt of honour’ he claimed his friends would not previously allow him to repay.
When this first came to light he said that what was involved was ‘an old story about 1999 allegations’ (not so) and then that ‘what I got personally in my life is, to be frank with you, is none of your business.’
He said he would not answer for what money he had received just as he was: ‘not answering what I got on my Holy Communion money, my Confirmation money, what I got for my birthday…’
He then claimed that the sums he received were ‘a fraction’ of the sums quoted in the press - €50,000 to €100,000 and were ‘off the wall’. In fact the final (?) amount, at over €60,000, fell exactly within this range.
Ahern’s claim that the money he received was not a gift, which would be taxable and the recipient charged with tax evasion for failure to declare it, only exposed his hypocrisy further. In 1996 he responded to the suggestion that the money received by Fine Gael TD Michael Lowry might have been a loan with the comment that:
‘there would have to be incontrovertible written evidence of that at the time and arrangements made for its repayment . . . The making of such a personal loan on more favourable conditions than would be available from any lending institution would clearly represent a personal favour that ought to be declared.’
In 1997 he quoted the Report of the McCracken Tribunal when he said that: ‘It is quite unacceptable that a member of Dail Eireann and in particular a Cabinet Minister and Taoiseach, should be supported in his personal lifestyle by gifts made to him personally . . . I have repeatedly emphasised, that public representatives must not be under a personal financial obligation to anyone.’
Ahern failed to declare his own receipts but has attempted to minimise the amount he received even though it was over three times the average annual industrial wage at the time and would be worth around €90,000 today. His repaying of the ‘loan’ still left him tens of thousands of euros better off than if he had taken out a loan on a commercial basis.
Secondly, he placed at least five of his donors in lucrative positions on state bodies while admitting ‘I appointed them because they were my friends.’
Thirdly, Bertie admits that he gave a speech on the Irish economy, only to say a very few words he claims, at a function in Manchester while he was Minister of Finance. He received an unsolicited whip-round of stg £8,000 from those present. This was in clear breach of the Ministerial code in operation at the time.
Apparently all this largesse was because ‘good friends’ were aware of his ’difficult’ circumstances and only wished to give him a ‘dig-out.’ Yet by far the largest donation was not a personal donation at all but a cheque from NCB, one of the largest stockbroker businesses in Ireland. In one statement he had admitted that he had rejected a function that would raise money for him because it was ‘political’ yet what is apparently not correct in Dublin is Ok in Manchester.
At this point the story becomes simply incredulous. While Bertie was claiming he was in ‘difficulty’ he was still able to attend six Manchester United matches and save £50,000. All the while he dealt with his personal finances, so he claims, without his own bank account, and this while he was minister of Finance! He has carefully avoided answering questions about how he was able to come up with £50,000 while supposedly in straitened circumstances or how he dealt with financial affairs without a bank account. Nor has he explained how he ‘used cheques’ at this time.
When his initial ‘none of your business’ response failed, we got a Lady Di performance in an RTE interview where we were invited to join in his pain at his marriage break-up, ‘a very dark period for me and a very sad period for me.’ He implied that this unnecessary exposure of very personal and tragic circumstances was the result of grossly unfair media intrusion into his private life, but his comments on his marriage were entirely gratuitous and only revealed that he was prepared to exhibit his private life to save his public career.
He has failed to explain why he received the second amount that went to make up the €50,000 late in 1994 when his separation and his financial difficulties were over – he had been able to save €50,000, was being chauffeured round the country, had one of the top paying jobs in the country and was shortly to buy a house from one of his mates.
If Bertie hasn’t already gone this is for a number of reasons.
The first is the undoubted naked corruption of the Fianna Fail Party which has seen numerous leading members forced out, including ex-Foreign Minister Ray Burke, ‘Mr Big’ Liam Lawlor, Padraig Flynn who complained about the difficulty of keeping up three houses while on his State salary, and most recently minister for state for transport Ivor Callely who had his house painted for nothing while failing to declare it to the Standards in Public Office Commission. This is not to mention Charles Haughey.
This reflects a number of characteristics about Irish society. These include the fact that the Irish State is so dominated by imperialism that the layers from which the corps of capitalist politicians are recruited is very narrow and many that of these are too busy making money to bother full time with the affairs of a rather small state.
Such is the extent of inequality in Irish society that the gap between even the professional middle classes and that capitalist class that is served by them is immense. The temptation to seek personal favours for the political favours done for their betters is therefore great. It is not such a great step from political support for Fianna Fail to personal support to its leaders since the personal and clientelistic nature of Irish politics lends itself to confusion of the two. Nor has FF been shamed into ending its public association with the dubious practices of the rich, the Bailey brothers were paying guests at the FF tent at the Galway races this year while being exposed as the biggest tax fraudsters in the history of the state.
The scandal has caused a crisis in the PDs, who at one point declared itself radical or redundant and are now, not unnaturally, seen as the latter. Tanaiste Michael McDowell describes Bertie’s backhanders as ‘an honest error of judgement’, although perhaps he means three ‘errors of judgement.’
The PDs excuse for existence, to uphold the highest ethical standards in politics, is rendered null and void. Their real role, as out-riders for the most vicious capitalist policies, is rendered less operative by the actions of Fianna Fail who have proved happy to implement whatever is required anyway.
The ‘hesitancy’ of the opposition in pushing the question of Ahern’s corruption has been put down to his popularity with the public although the popularity of his money grabbing hasn’t been tested. Berties survival has also been put down to the opposition not wanting an election at this time. They haven’t cobbled together a programme for government and aren’t ready, while Fianna Fail and the PDs want to hold off until after a ‘give-away’ budget at the end of the year.
There should be no problem in Fine Gael and the Labour Party forming a platform for government, they have no fundamental disagreements with Fianna Fail and the PDs. No wonder they appeared so inept at bringing Ahern to account. Opportunist manoeuvres are all that stand in the way of these parties facing an election, a testimony to the corruption of the whole political system.
This obvious reality, exposed time and time again by repeated scandals involving politicians, has led commentators to blame the population that elected them. In effect you get the politicians you deserve.
To an extent this is a transparent attempt to blame the victims of political corruption for the crimes and to shift responsibility from the guilty, but unfortunately there is a grain of truth in the claim. Scandals affecting Fianna Fail have not prevented it continuing to be the largest party in the state and with large working class support. The clientelism of southern politics plays a large role in this but the underlying answer can be seen in the response of the government parties. Foreign Affairs minister Dermot Ahern urged everyone to display ‘a sense of perspective.’
In other words he was asking the population to look at the big picture – a booming economy – the Celtic Tiger, prosperity, low unemployment and peace in the North. Look at what our Taoiseach has done for social partnership, for the Good Friday Agreement and for Europe! Why throw this away? Surely these gains are more important than a few quid in the Taoiseach’s pocket is the subliminal message.
That there is no major opposition and certainly no coherent alternative presented to these policies is a large part of the explanation why the political crooks of Fianna Fail have gotten away with it. On this site we have analysed often enough how the left has failed to produce a global socialist alternative, contenting itself with moralism and bread and butter reforms. We now see the price paid for this.
It would be wrong to minimise the personal corruption involved by simply declaring, however correctly, that the whole Fianna Fail party is the tool of big business. Instead it should be explained that this personal corruption is an inevitable and typical expression of Fianna Fail’s subordination to big business. As minister of Finance Ahern introduced the 1% levy on PAYE workers while also introducing a tax amnesty that benefited rich fraudsters. The (correct) notion that the problem is systemic does not lessen the personal responsibility of Ahern for his corruption. We should strongly demand his immediate resignation as an example to be followed by the rest of them. The undoubted increasing cynicism with established politics will be mobilised when we can present an alternative and go beyond echoing widespread revulsion by giving it some political content.