herald

Saturday 18 August 2018

It's sick. Bertie's birthday and the €700k for his fat cat pal

BERTIE AHERN always claimed that he would quit politics at the age of 60. "In my opinion, anybody who stays on after that is mad," he said back in 2003 when he was still known as the Teflon Taoiseach. "Whatever level I'm at then, I'll get out of everyone's hair." Now that Bertie's big 6-0 is finally in sight, we can see that he only partly kept his word.

His political career is indeed over, consigned to the dustbin of history along with the party he led for 13 years.

Despite this, he is still very much part of the political furniture -- because we are all living with the disastrous legacy of his government's economic incompetence.



Surplus

In some countries, leaders who screw up are made to pay. Last Monday, Iceland's former prime minister Geir Haarde became the first world leader to be put on trial for his role in causing the global financial crisis.

Even if the charge of "gross neglect" does not result in a conviction, the symbolism of seeing such a powerful man in the dock is at least some sort of consolation for the people he let down so badly.

What sort of rap sheet would Bertie Ahern face if a similar event were to be staged here?

When he won the 1997 general election by the skin of his teeth, he became the first Taoiseach in history to inherit a budget surplus. By the time he left office 11 years later, he had overheated the public finances so recklessly that our economic sovereignty was about to go up in smoke. Bookshelves have already been filled with accounts of how Bertie blew the boom, but it all boils down to one basic character flaw.

As his ex-partner Celia Larkin graphically put it on Monday night's TV3 documentary, he saw winning elections as "notches on a bedpost".

In an unguarded moment during a Dail debate about corruption, he admitted: "Our only ethics are to get in here and stay in here."

In other words, Bertie saw power as very much an end in itself. His economic policies were completely driven by short-term thinking, spreading the money around to secure the maximum number of votes.

He convinced the electorate that there was no longer any need to choose between public spending and tax cuts -- thanks to the miracle of the Celtic Tiger, we could now have both.

Bertie's first Minister for Finance was a man who summed up his economic philosophy as: "If I have it, I'll spend it."

Charlie McCreevy's control over the public finances was so total that on one occasion he simply dropped his budget speech into the Taoiseach's constituency office of St Luke's, went for a 20-minute walk and then came back to pick it up.

Fianna Fail's triumphant re-election campaign in 2002 was boosted by a bumper giveaway package, while the need to rein in spending was mysteriously discovered just weeks after the votes had been counted.



suicide

While McCreevy put more money into almost everybody's pocket, it was the public sector that really got the gravy. The budgets for health, education and social welfare were more than doubled.

Civil service pensions rocketed to crazy levels, as we saw this week when former secretary general to the government Dermot McCarthy walked away with an eye-watering €713,000 golden handshake.

As the country's top civil servant, McCarthy was entitled to attend all cabinet meetings.

He was chief adviser to Bertie Ahern throughout the boom and was closely associated with the social partnership process that delivered regular pay increases to the public sector. In short, he was part of the cosy consensus that got us into this disaster -- and like the politicians he served, he will almost certainly never have to worry about money again for the rest of his life.

As long as the construction boom kept property taxes flooding in, this economic three-card trick carried on pulling the wool over our eyes. Shortly after Bertie's three-in-a-row victory in 2007, however, the bubble burst.

The banks suddenly realised what a hole they had dug for themselves, property developers began to abandon the Galway Tent and Bertie's only response was to suggest that the doom-mongers "go off and commit suicide".

While the Mahon Tribunal forced his resignation a year ahead of schedule, there was still time for him to make one final blunder. He orchestrated the succession of Brian Cowen, a man who was totally unsuited to the job of Taoiseach and never really wanted it in the first place. As finance minister, Biffo's attempt to bring about "a soft landing" was a complete failure -- and his three years of sulking in the top job only served to make the public more angry than ever.

The tragedy of all this is that on a human level, Bertie Ahern is an easy man to like. He got away with those bizarre stories abou this personal finances because, deep down, people wanted to believe him.

If he was to express some remorse even now for the errors he made, he might be surprised by how forgiving the Irish public can be. Instead, Bertie is starting to come across as a bitter old has-been who cannot believe our ingratitude after everything he did for us.

He claims expenses way in excess of any other ex-Taoiseach (an incredible €270,000 since leaving office), whinges about the size of his legal bills and insists that his biggest disappointment is not building the 'Bertie Bowl' stadium in Abbotstown. Celia Larkin recently said, "I wish he'd just shut up" -- and many of his ex-colleagues would express the same sentiment in rather more graphic language.

The invitations for Bertie's birthday bash in Croke Park next Friday have been designed to look like match tickets. With nothing but the Mahon Tribunal report left to look forward to, however, his career as a major-league player is over for good.

The Teflon Taoiseach seems determined to learn nothing from his mistakes.

Sadly, the rest of us don't have that luxury.

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