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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Irish Politics, Brass Necks and Donkeys

An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern canvassing in Dublin South Central in May 2007

I recall as a youth reading a number of American journalist John Gunther's (1901-1970) series of "Inside" books that I had got from the Bandon library.

There are two items I remember from Inside Latin America, which was first published in 1939. Gunther recounted how the drunken Bolivian president General Mariano Melgarejo had in 1870 thought that the new British ambassador could be brought down to earth by ordering that he be strapped naked, facing backwards, on a donkey and paraded around La Paz.

The other story also involved a donkey. Politicians in some Brazilian town were so discredited that some citizens nominated a donkey for mayor and the ass won.

It's said that the camel seldom sees his own hump and when it comes to Irish politics it is not always easy to discern who are the donkeys - - the politicians or the voters?

When free education at secondary level was introduced in 1968, there was a concern as to who would do all the "dirty" jobs given that most people would henceforward be "educated." The term brings to mind writer Frank O'Connor's cutting reference to "Mr De Valera's educated government," in a forward to the Eric Cross book The Tailor and Ansty, which was banned in the early 1940's.

Still on the subject of donkeys, writer Seán O Faoláin in a letter to the Irish Times, said in reference to the moral guardians of the Censorship Board that they had made “fools of themselves and an ass of the Minister”—or “a fool of the Minister and asses of themselves.”

Fast-forward to modern Ireland and the expected call for pay restraint came two weeks after the Super VIP Benchmarking awards - it was a decent interval - and was a day before the conferring of honorary doctorates on three "distinguished public servants" at Dublin Castle.

The new doctors had all won considerable pay hikes in the benchmarking bonanza. Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach Dermot McCarthy, got a 25% pay rise and his retired predecessor Frank Murray, also got the corresponding increase, in his pension. John Fitzgerald got a 36% pension rise as his successor as Dublin City Manager, received a 36% hike in what can be termed Super VIP Benchmarking. Former Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, who presented the awards, also received a 14% pension rise to correspond with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's benchmarking rise.

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Tánaiste Brian Cowen, on Thursday displaying brass necks, lectured union leaders about wage restraint following their own salary hikes worth €38,000 and €36,000 respectively.

In the Sunday Independent issue of Nov 4, 2007, senior journalist Willie Kealy wrote on the bleak future facing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who will get compensation of one year's salary of €310,000 on leaving office and a pension of about €200,000 annually together with a State car for the rest of his life. As for providing for this two children, there is nothing to worry about either. As far back as 1994, Ahern's children were listed as potential beneficiaries of his landlord's will. In the interval, one of them has become a millionaire through a contract with one of Rupert Murdoch's publishing companies while the other is married to a millionaire member of the Westlife boy-band.

And what does the future hold? He has already said he will step down before the next election. So a few more years in office as Taoiseach -- if all goes well -- and after that, what?

A well paid job as President of Europe? There was a time when that seemed a shoo-in. Now with all this muck flying around, all this dirt from the tribunal which shows no sign of abating. Well, they are pragmatic if nothing else in Europe. And they are not going to put themselves offside to do Bertie a favour.

So nothing is guaranteed, except that by the time Bertie Ahern reaches 60, he will probably be out of a job and his best chance of employment will be to try to retain his seat in the next election.

He currently has no woman in his life that we know of. He dotes on his daughters and the grandchildren, but lives alone in Drumcondra. If that job in Brussels is lost, he has probably lost it already. And he does not have to fight another election as Taoiseach. He is that dangerous animal, a man with little left to lose.

In those circumstances, as he looks forward into an old age that could be lonely and unfulfilling, compared to the career and family highs he has tasted in the past, he must be tempted to say to himself, "I can at least make sure it is not a penniless old age." He has four more years of a Taoiseach's salary to collect, at best, and after that a pension. There will be no more dig-outs.

He is now facing into the prospect of being a fixed-income pensioner with no independent source of income and no real assets except his home.

In those circumstances, is it any wonder he said that he would take the €38,000 a year extra salary he has just been granted and the corresponding increase in his pension.

The way he is feeling right now, to turn it down would not only be monumentally foolish, but personally irresponsible. Des O'Malley and Bobby Molloy made such a gesture before, refusing to accept an increase for two years, and they each reckoned that it didn't earn them a single vote in the subsequent election.
And, as for postponing it for a few years ... well he only has a few years left at the highest level of public life.

Forget the old Bertie, the man who hadn't a clue where the next pint would come from and didn't care. The man whose care of his career was fanatical. The man whose fine political judgement was unrivalled. Now he can sometimes be distant, those close to him say. His sense of persecution is fuelled when a favourable poll gets a brief mention on the nine o'clock news, but one showing him on the slide is a big story.

Today's Bertie Ahern is a man on a mission. He's pretty sure his legacy is secured already with the North and the Celtic Tiger and that all the tribunal stuff will eventually fade, probably after he's gone.

No, Bertie Ahern's mission today is to secure his old age.

One can well wonder who think's whom are the donkeys? Bertie Ahern's mission today is to secure his old age - - and 900,000 workers have no occupational pension never mind the gold-plated pension that awaits plain old Bass man himself.

Also revealing this week was the news that climate change is hardly a big priority for Bertie Ahern.

The professed raison d'être/excuse for Green Party leader John Gormley's Faustian bargain for power has also been undermined since June. Bertie delivered on a Cabinet sub-committee on climate change (big, big addition to the laundry list of Green "achievements" to keep the idealists in tune!) and he even attended its only meeting to date!

Impressive indeed !

The polar ice caps melt faster than change in Bertie's Ireland; Gormley's moral compass tarnishes by the day and we sit idly by awaiting for direction from Brussels on climate change.

Who was it that strongly condemned gombeenism in February 2007?


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