Bertie digs out

The decision by Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern to resign has come as a massive relief to his party, writes Anne Mc Shane

Bertie Ahern is just the latest in a long line of Fianna Fáil leaders to be forced out of government because of charges of political corruption. Ironically it was Ahern who set up the Moriarty tribunal to investigate allegations of corruption against former taoiseach Charles Haughey.

Haughey spent 17 years in office creaming off over €45 million in backhanders. Presiding over an impoverished, priest-ridden Ireland, he demanded that people tighten their belts, while his powerful friends ensured he lived a lavish and extravagant lifestyle in exchange for some very generous favours. His arrogance was almost beyond belief. The tribunal concluded that during the “1979-96 period Mr Haughey lived a lifestyle and incurred expenditures vastly beyond the scale of the public service entitlements which were his sole apparent income for virtually the entirety of that period” (www.moriartytribunal.ie).

But by the time the tribunal reported in December 2006, Haughey was dead and the report simply confirmed his notoriety as one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of the republic. It simply did not matter any more. Although Ahern came in for some criticism for signing blank cheques for his erstwhile boss, he was exonerated from any direct involvement in or knowledge of corruption.

Unfortunately he has not been so lucky with another enquiry set up by his government in the same year. The brief of the Flood - now Mahon - tribunal was to investigate “certain planning matters and payments” in an area historically rife with corruption. The construction industry has always had Fianna Fáil in its back pocket. Another former FF leader and taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, was exposed as taking construction cash for favours in the mid-1990s. It is undeniable that he was up to his neck in it.

And so, it transpires, was Bertie Ahern. He is said to have been in the thick of some very dodgy dealings throughout the 1990s. He is alleged to have received numerous bribes from property developers and in particular businessman Owen O’Callaghan.

Investigations into his finances revealed a raft of peculiarities. He himself gave evidence that he had kept no receipts of funds received during that decade - allegedly because he “had enough to do”.

So this former finance minister was unable to tell the enquiry much about the specifics of his own monetary affairs, but he was certain that a significant number of payments to him were what he called “dig-outs” from helpful friends when he needed money for his divorce. Hardly short of a few bob, he did not seem like the kind of man who would have had to go cap in hand to benefactors because of marriage problems.

In the run-up to the 2007 general election, it was obvious that Ahern was lying through his teeth. But most opposition politicians kept quiet during the campaign, worried that hassling him would have the effect of winning him sympathy from the electorate. So in the interest of votes they kept their collective mouths firmly shut. Only after the election, with Ahern returned to power, did they begin baying for blood.

But Ahern continued to bluff and his lawyers initiated protracted legal manoeuvres in an attempt to discredit the tribunal. When former NCB stockbrokers chair Padraic O’Connor told the tribunal in November 2007 that his own particular “dig-out” - one of the first - was a political donation and that he had never been a friend of Ahern, his press machine went into overdrive. Ahern became a martyr figure, pilloried by those who had benefited from the ‘tiger economy’ under his stewardship. We were reminded of all that he had done - his role in the Good Friday agreement, his success in Europe and in particular his skill in turning the economy around. But to no avail.

Matters came to a head when his former personal secretary was called to give evidence a second time and broke down in tears in the witness stand. She was forced to admit that she had not told the truth about deposits paid into Ahern’s accounts. After years of evidence, investigation, cross-examination and huge legal costs, somebody close to Ahern had at last blurted out the truth.

Faced with massive political pressure, Ahern finally decided to bow out. He will leave office on May 6 after a trip to the US to address Congress. He is hoping to go as a ‘man of honour’, who was forced out of office by the unscrupulous media. He will be succeeded as taoiseach by loyal supporter Brian Cowan. In political terms, there will be no change.

The depth of cynicism about politicians is not surprising. While capitalism, of course, naturally engenders corruption, it is particularly bad in Ireland. Since the 1960s, there has been a whole series of tribunals to look into allegations against politicians. In fact it is often the accused who take the initiative to set up the inquiry - as a way of deflecting criticism and delaying the inevitable. And often they are at least partially successful.

And what does the left say? The Socialist Workers Party boasts how it broke the Ahern corruption story in 1999. Good for the SWP. But it says nothing about the need to take on the status quo politically - in other words, about the need to challenge the 1937 constitution and the way De Valera’s heirs and their loyal opposition in Fine Gael rule over the working class. Instead, like the Socialist Party, the SWP compares the wealth and corruption of the establishment to the struggle of ordinary workers to make ends meet and the crisis in the health service.

That is, of course, fair enough on one level. But it does not deal with the real problem: that of political accountability and openness. And, while people are concerned about the health service, they are almost always far more fired up at the latest Bertiegate scandal. In other words, contrary to what the government, and often the left, tell us, the working class is interested in high politics.

Rather than just watch from the sidelines while the shady deals of the political elite are exposed, the working class must take on these questions and grapple with them as a future ruling class. But for that to happen the left must come up with programmatic solutions for the particularities of bourgeois rule in Ireland.

That in turn points to the vital necessity of a Communist Party to empower and lead our class. Instead we have the economistic insularity of the Socialist Party, which despite losing its only TD, Joe Higgins, remains aloof. Or the sub-reformist People Before Profit campaign set up the SWP, which refuses to even take a stance on abortion rights. Or the myriad of other sects scattered across the Irish left, all unwilling to take a single step in the direction of principled Marxist unity. Politics are to be dumbed down for the consumption of the working class - who, we are told, would be confused by anything that goes beyond bread and butter issues.

Another irony - that is exactly what Bertie Ahern says too.