Growing up in Dublin in the ’80s, the clear message I got from my parents was that Irish politicians were conniving shysters of the first water. They were amiable boozers who stole money from the state. Worse still, everyone knew they were corrupt, but voted for the cute hoors anyway.
Cutest of them all was Bertie Ahern, current Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland. As his politicial mentor said, ‘“He’s the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all.” Known for years as the Teflon Taoiseach, dirt (tax-free loans from businessmen, tax-avoidance, a distaste for bank accounts and convenient memory loss) is finally beginning to stick, and Bertie has announced his resignation.
So I should be happy, right? Ireland has finally decided that “sticking it to the man” isn’t appropriate behavior for its politicians. An endoscope is stuck deep in the body politic, and there’s a fine old lavage going down. Which is healthy, although it might sting a little. Bizarrely, though, I’m not celebrating Bertie’s political demise as whole-heartedly as I might have expected.
My problem is that the good and the bad of Irish politics may come wrapped in a single package. For decades Irish politicians functioned as clan chiefs, their power based on personal loyalty. They never forgot a face, always returned a favour and spent their evenings drinking in pubs. The rules of the game allowed them to line their pockets, but those that reached the top were highly effective schmoozers, deal-makers, compromisers.
Bertie was the ultimate Irish politician. He was an anorak, a man of the street, a fan of Manchester United who wandered into his local for a pint of Bass. That persona was part of what made him an excellent negotiator. At a national level he soothed the unions and managed to bring in a smoking ban and plastic bag tax. Internationally, he had a signficant impact on the European constitution talks in 2004 and, more importantly, in hammering out the Good Friday Agreement, bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
In part, Bertie’s fall was due to changing attitudes. 20 years ago, a hint of corruption would have had very little effect on a politician’s popularity in Ireland. If anything, it might have improved it. I do wonder, though, to what extent his failures and sucesses are intertwined. To be effective, maybe a politician needs to be canny, needs to be slightly unscrupulous. To find a middle way, perhaps the friendly guy in the pub, who you don’t entirely trust but tells good stories, a bit of a shyster in other words, perhaps he’s the one you need. Just be sure to keep track of whose round it is.