Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Reflections on another fine mess as Bertie bows out

At the outset of the New Year, just when one seeks to put positive thoughts and aspirations forward and give people hope, along comes the departing Bertie Ahern to mar the process by reminding us of what a mess he made of things.

Widely acknowledged as his great achievement, the Northern Ireland Peace Process was his surrender of the reunification of Ireland held dear by his party for the last 80 years. The real winner was Ian Paisley, who held us all to ransom until he got a deal -- peace and power-sharing -- that suited him. This included permanently separating Northern Ireland from the Republic. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair had no choice but to welcome this.

Northern Ireland is to Britain what we are to Europe, the poorest of cousins. But the people of the North must be glad they were rescued by Paisley from any closer ties. They must be glad because of the appalling mess Ahern made of the Celtic Tiger, letting it run out of control, crash and then collapse.

He did worse. He presided over commercial, banking and business standards that were without proper regulation and without legislation appropriate to the greed and dishonesty that came to pervade our economy. He did so in the interests of his party and his friends, not in the national interest. He and the gang he led crawled all over what should have been strictly monitored.

In the midst of the eventual public dismay about how banks and those who ran them destroyed our wealth and savings, he was personally revealed in humiliating circumstances over money. He may have seemed a small and shabby imitator, but both he and his party have turned out as true products of the changed political creed of Ahern's mentor, Charles Haughey, to whom I shall now turn as an example of how Ireland was corrupted from a surprisingly early start.

When Haughey was appointed Minister for Justice in October 1961, Peter Berry was its secretary. Berry was a stickler for constitutional and legal proprieties; the two men were soon in confrontation.

Haughey sought immediately to fulfil a political favour by giving a friend a position that carried an emolument in the form of a capitation grant. He had promised this while still parliamentary secretary to his predecessor, Oscar Traynor, who had already given the job to another man. Haughey's solution was to make a parallel appointment.

Berry said it was not in the public interest. Haughey insisted. Berry then told Haughey that, under 'public service rules', he would require Haughey's order in writing and would report it to the Finance Minister and to the Committee of Public Accounts.

Haughey withdrew. Berry, going on holiday, thought it prudent to inform his assistant secretary. In the absence of Berry, Haughey re-ordered the blocked appointment. The assistant secretary said he knew of Berry's decision and would do as Berry had instructed him. Haughey was livid, but again withdrew.

Berry later observed Haughey had not grasped that a departmental secretary was an office holder, appointed by the Government, and not 'a rubber stamp'. Haughey set out to change public servants into rubber stamps and their work into a farm for patronage. It took time. It was an awful process of corrupting the most important arm of the State. This caustic era of political patronage, entangled with money, represents one of the bleak emblems of Fianna Fail that will take time and commitment to reform.

I turn now to two senior figures in Irish political life who represent the good and truthful in service to their country. They were in one mind in thinking of the hope that needs to be engendered for the coming year. The two are Ken Whitaker and John Bruton. Both have recently criticised the way politics, power and the public service have evolved. Their criticisms are a significant commentary on how we have developed -- which is badly -- and where we are going -- which is worse.

Central to their views is the relationship of politicians to the institutions of State, which is Whitaker's area of prime interest, while with Bruton the criticisms are mainly about Europe. Both men are concerned with a fundamental conflict that has always been part of Irish political life but has now reached proportions of unacceptable excess. This conflict may be best understood by taking the Haughey episode from the past, an episode involving a politician whose life was laid bare as corrupt, and prefacing that with the actions of his close disciple, Bertie Ahern, which, as I say above, led him to humiliation and disgrace.

A polite and reserved man, Whitaker was a public servant of revolutionary inspiration combined with strict integrity. As secretary of the Department of Finance and then governor of the Central Bank, he was pivotal in the development of modern Ireland. He recently expressed concern in a general way for the evolution of state institutions since the time when he had charge of them. Looking perceptively at today's crisis, he has expressed the view that things can be put right.

Much as I respect this man, I cannot but feel serious doubts at the intractability of our current political leadership and their failure to admit any wrong. Without such admission, nothing will be done. Furthermore, nothing said by either of the two main Opposition leaders indicates any clear and precise willingness to change this. They need to tell us how they will dismantle the monster of patronage built in recent years, and repeal legislation supporting that monster. The task, a huge one, lies before us. A change of government does not promise us the reassurances that Whitaker wants.

In a recently published examination of the need for Europe to bear some of the financial responsibility for the Irish banking crisis, John Bruton has made significant and far-reaching criticisms of our relationship with Europe, of the failures within European democracy and of the flaws in the future proposals for a European bailout fund.

Coming as they do from a former Taoiseach, Bruton's views are highly significant. The weight of his criticisms is reinforced by the fact that, from 2004 to 2009, he was the European Union's ambassador to Washington. He should have spoken out sooner.

He finds grave fault in the proposal to amend treaties to create a bailout fund so loosely structured that Germany can opt out and other nations can have preferential options. As Bruton points out, we will depend on a clause about "the stability of the euro area as a whole". As he also points out, this was spotted by the markets. They took a negative view.

Bruton claims that he always had reservations about the Lisbon process "because it lent the good name of the EU to systematic evasion of responsibility in matters where the EU actually had no power to act under the treaties, and thus no responsibility for failures". He sees an inherent and entirely false piety in the language used to promote 'The Lisbon Strategy', something that in any case is largely misunderstood and, because of that, ignored.

Bruton sees running Europe as part-time and ad hoc with no sensible working methods and little time for major problems like fiscal instability. The European Council is a body of "27 part-timers" with far too much power. They are quite incapable of the "rigorous, sustained and self-critical thought that is needed to restore economic growth at this critical moment".

Europe, at its very apex, is not dealing adequately with a crisis-driven empire. Problems include the financial crisis, the welfare state crisis of ageing societies, globalisation, sovereignty and, at the very heart of all, the shrinking of European democracy.

"Decisions," Bruton says, "need to be taken now that comprehensively point the way forward for Europe for the next 10 years." In reality we fumble over decisions for next month. Leaders need to sit together until they have reached a full mutual understanding on what needs to be done. He ties this in with his expressed need for greater democracy. He is dealing with the huge central problem of Europe, whether to go federalist or to back off into restoring more independence and more sovereignty.

If we go on appointing puppets to run Europe and sharing out jobs in the style of Charles Haughey we doom ourselves to a corrupt form of failure. Bruton does not go that far and has not travelled this road until now. An earlier piece he did for Bloomberg was anodyne. But he speaks a reality that deserves close attention and further analysis.