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25 May 2007

In spite of everything it’s Ahern

Top Irish journalist Harry McGee gives his analysis of the Irish Election and says Bertie Ahern look

By Harry McGee

Wherever Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited during the Irish general election campaign, an advance team of handlers had already arrived in front of him working the crowd into a frenzy.

As soon as Mr Ahern hoved into view, the inevitable chant would begin.

“Five more years. Five more years.”

But in the early days of this campaign – with Ahern dogged by a stream of allegations about his personal finances – the chant always petered out after a couple of seconds. It seemed even his own supporters could not believe that he would work his magic for a third term

Five years ago, Ahern was serenaded by the same chant during his typical high-profile, high-octane, tour of the country. Then there was no contest. The economy was booming. Property prices were rising into the stratosphere. In 2002, Fianna Fáil coasted home, with only a last-minute surge in favour of the small right-leaning Progressive Democrats depriving them of an overall majority.

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Ahern is as populist and all-embracing a political figure as one could imagine in Ireland. But six months ago, he found himself in the new and uncomfortable position of having his own personal integrity put under exhaustive scrutiny.

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Throughout his career, Ahern had managed to distance himself from his utterly corrupt predecessor Charles Haughey. He portrayed himself as the common man with the anorak. But in the run-in to the election, it seemed that the anorak had seen one rain shower too many. Last autumn, it emerged that during his marriage separation in the mid 1990s, Ahern had accepted a substantial “dig-out” of cash from friends. He weathered that but almost on the eve of this campaign, a new controversy erupted about the circumstances behind his purchase of a house.

The controversy dominated the first half of a 25-day campaign to an inordinate extent, with Fianna Fáil struggling to move the agenda on to other issues.

In addition, the main opposition party, Fine Gael, had regrouped since a disastrous election in 2002. Under the energetic leadership of its new populist leader Enda Kenny, the party had forged a fruitful alliance with the smaller Labour Party, led by Pat Rabbitte, a articulate former Marxist with a forceful personality.

For months, opinion polls had given the alternative a biddable chance of upsetting the status quo. With Mr Ahern’s own problems dominating the headlines, it seemed that after ten years, the Fianna Fáil led coalition was going to be edged out – a trend seemingly identified by a series of polls.

But then in the space of three days, the dynamic of the election was transformed. It began with Ahern’s speech to the joint houses of parliament in Westminster, a well-crafted speech on the Northern Ireland peace process that underlined his statesmanship.

But the real change occurred two days afterwards during the live televised debate with Fine Gael’s Kenny on RTE. Watched by an astonishing 1 million people, half the adult population, Ahern launched a devastating attack on Kenny. The Fine Gael leader had based his campaign on a ‘Contract for a Better Ireland’, loosely based on the ‘contract’ employed in the US by the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans in Congress in 1994. Ahern successfully exposed the lack of specificity in the ‘contract’. It was a pivotal event. Fianna Fáil didn’t look back from that moment, driving home its advantage in the last weekend in the campaign.

Both the Greens and Sinn Fein had high hopes of big advances in this campaign. After its success in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein was hoping to double its seats in the Republic from five to ten. Though he is not a resident of the South, Gerry Adams continued to be its figurehead in the South. However, in media interviews he was badly exposed for huge gaps in his knowledge on the economy and the minutiae of southern politics.

When the exit polls showed Fianna Fáil at an extraordinary 41% yesterday morning, the reality dawned that, as Pat Rabbitte put it, “people were fearful of changing course mid-stream”. The votes all converged to the traditional two big parties – both formed during the Irish civil war. In that scenario, the smaller parties were squeezed. None made gains, most made losses, and Fianna Fáil’s junior partners in government, the Progressive Democrats, were last night facing complete melt-down.

At the time of writing, Fianna Fáil was tantalisingly close to winning an overall majority, something that it has not achieved for three decades.

You can read more by Harry McGee by clicking on his blog