Bruce Arnold

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

Fianna Fail reform should start with change of leader

Bertie Ahern has saved Micheal Martin further embarrassment and has given Fianna Fail the opportunity to shut up about him. Nothing it was saying was of any value, about him or about Fianna Fail.

Since last Thursday's release of the Mahon Report, divisive harm was done by party members from the leader down. Mr Martin placed major blame on Mr Ahern. But there were no commitments, either to expunge the guilt that hangs like a black cloud over the party, or to support a comprehensive programme of change that must be put in place to eliminate corruption. Nor was there much evidence of party discipline at work.

By jumping in with a precipitate move against Mr Ahern, Mr Martin -- who gave a poor account of himself before the tribunal and sought to rubbish Mahon -- added further to the mistakes of his short leadership period, consistently showing lack of judgment, as well as little skill, finesse, openness or courage.

His mistakes are stepping stones to this new crisis for a party that stands indicted for most of the unacceptable and illegal behaviour laid bare by the Mahon Tribunal. The tribunal findings make defence of the past impossible. The attempted rubbishing of the Mahon Tribunal by former Fianna Fail ministers is embarrassing.

Fianna Fail was already split in two over Eamon O Cuiv's dismissal as deputy leader. The party is now split three ways instead of two and the fault for this is Mr Martin's, with his precipitate and ill-judged attempt to make Mr Ahern a scapegoat.

That represents quite an achievement for a leadership of not much more than a year's duration.

Fianna Fail still faces the palpable, even visceral, public tidal wave of resentment and disgust at the dishonesty of Mr Ahern, Padraig Flynn and others.

Even so, Mr Ahern's fault was dishonesty, not corruption. It concerned a relatively small amount of money garnered in circumstances that will no doubt be examined and for which Mr Ahern will pay in terms of reputation as well as the further legal intrusions into his life.

These short-term difficulties, unlikely to land him in prison, need to be taken in context with three important matters. These are the formal standing of Mr Ahern, his remarkable performance as party leader, and his Northern Ireland achievements.

On the negative side is his present disgrace, his slack hand on control and management of the economy and his even slacker hand on the era of corruption that has only in part been laid bare by Mahon.

Mr Ahern is broadly responsible for the distress and ruin of many lives in the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. He will not be forgiven for that. Nor will the party.

Nor will the fact that Mr Martin, vociferous now in condemning his former leader, sat on his hands and was silent during the excruciating revelations well before the 2007 General Election.

Mr Ahern's formal standing in Irish life is an amalgamation of the good and bad of his political career. He was an outstanding success as the only leader of Fianna Fail since Eamon de Valera to win power in three successive elections. Reviled though he may be now, he represents a remarkably successful era for Fianna Fail.

He remains a public figure and a high officer of the State by virtue of his membership of the Council of State. Under the Constitution he cannot be removed. Nor can Brian Cowen, who excused himself from answering questions on the basis of a nonsensical return to 'private life', carrying similar huge pension rights and a constitutional office.

If the likely further examination of Mr Ahern's financial affairs is taken up by the DPP, the Garda Commissioner or the Revenue Commissioners, then this 'high officer of state' may find himself answering further questions on oath.

It would seem that Mr Martin's motivation, in seeking Mr Ahern's expulsion from Fianna Fail, was to sweep him and all he stood for under the carpet and try to get on with a superficially laundered organisation, a cynical move not based on fair judgment.

The Mahon message to Fianna Fail is that the culture of corruption was predominantly invented, developed and run by the Fianna Fail organisation in the country.

It was part of the much wider pursuit of political patronage and the corruption that goes with it.

This overall judgment demands from Fianna Fail an entirely different approach from that of Mr Martin, who should now resign. Someone in Fianna Fail needs to address the future in an open, honest and courageous way.

Fianna Fail needs a leader who can engage in the substantial reform of corruption and ethics legislation, of local government practices in respect of planning and development, stricter conditions for local and national politicians and the internal reform of the party organisation.

It needs to stand for that in opposition if it is ever to be in power again.

No organisation in the country knows better than Fianna Fail what was done in the past. The party needs to discover and support a watertight system that protects us all from the quasi-criminal culture it invented.

Fianna Fail members have been skillful and resourceful architects, over decades, of the fetid underbelly of political graft and corruption. They could play a vital part in its reform. It will not happen under Mr Martin.

Had he expressed understanding about how much the party he leads is reviled for its present public record, he would have seen how absurd was his decision to lay all the blame on the shoulders of Mr Ahern, a man already ruined in the public's eye, justifiably so, and already on a course of denial that will be of no help at all to the Government's decisions to pursue the Mahon findings in a series of further investigations.

For Fianna Fail to win back political and moral integrity, the party has to be led by someone who knows what that means, someone not tainted by the standards of previous party leaders, Mr Ahern, Albert Reynolds and Charles Haughey.

The party stood shoulder to shoulder behind these men and the political culture they controlled.

Mr Martin was as solid as the rest, helping to keep it all rolling along within the organisation. Nothing that Mr Martin has said or done as leader, over the past 15 months, indicates any fundamental change of heart. And nothing said by anyone else in the party has done that either.

We lived through years of planning scandals and abuse and Fianna Fail did not break ranks. It did little as party members plundered the State.

There is nothing to suggest that Fianna Fail has a policy even remotely able to alter its views on power, which remain deeply flawed.