The Italians had the Renaissance. We have the Re-Bert.
And as Dublin City University prepares to confer an honorary doctorate on Bertie Ahern, we should all rejoice at the regeneration of our very own Dr Who Me? We can never have too many reminders of how this place was run for so long.
In 2002, when Bertie (he got the one-name treatment before Boris) was so popular that Fianna Fáil came very close to winning an overall majority in a general election, Ireland was graded as the 23rd least corrupt country in the world. That rank in Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index was, for a developed European democracy, very rank indeed.
Ireland was 13 places behind its nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, which ranked 10th. There were good reasons for Brits to sniff the westerly and pick out the ripe odour of something rotten in the state of Ireland.
In its report for 2002, TI said: “Corrupt political elites in the developing world, working hand-in-hand with greedy business people and unscrupulous investors, are putting private gain before the welfare of citizens and the economic development of their countries.”
That was a painfully apt summary of the situation in at least one country not in the developing world: our own green and pleasant land. It didn’t quite feel like this to many people in Ireland, since “economic development” was apparently powering ahead – but they would soon learn a harsh lesson in the relationship between systemic high-level graft and economic catastrophe.
Fast forward 20 years and, in TI’s latest rankings, Ireland is now where Britain was in 2002, in 10th place. And the UK is now, at 18th, pretty close to where Ireland was under Bertie. That stench of corruption is now on the easterly winds.
We don’t need TI’s work, valuable as it is, to tell us this. The idea of what constitutes a financial scandal in politics is a more tangible index.
In Ireland, it is €1,240 – the alleged value of an undeclared donation in 2016 to Paschal Donohoe. In the UK’s simultaneous scandal, it is €912,000 – the credit line allegedly facilitated by the chairman of the BBC for the prime minister who appointed him, Boris Johnson.
No breaches of the laws on electoral spending are acceptable and there is nothing for Ireland to be smug about. Being less corrupt than a Tory Party that openly created a fast track to riches for cronies who were handed vast sums for Covid-related protective equipment that turned out to be useless is nothing to boast of.
But the comparison is telling nonetheless. To look across at the corrupt Conservatives is to see a mirror of Fianna Fáil in its pomp: a ruling party made rotten by the sense of impunity that comes from semi-permanent power.
And the rebirth of the Bert reminds us, too, of how far we have come and how terrible a price we have paid for that journey. If Ireland is a much less corrupt country now, it is not because we saw the light but because we saw the darkness.
The aversion therapy was the great banking and property crash of 2008. In the dire aftermath of that crisis it finally became clear that political corruption is not a victimless crime.
Cronyism goes hand-in-hand with casino capitalism. Kleptocracy must create the conditions in which it can thrive: light regulation, insider dealing, neutered oversight, ethical impairment. But what also thrives in that environment is bad business: the abandonment of sustainable development for the feverish pursuit of get-rich-quick schemes oiled by collusive politicians and officials.
Political corruption is not about this or that office holder taking the odd backhander. It’s an ecosystem.
And, as in any ecosystem, the organism that wants to survive has to adapt. Ahern learned how to do this early on, when, in 1986, he was cosignatory with his beloved Boss, Charles Haughey, on the bank account into which the publicly funded Party Leader’s Allowance was paid.
Bertie signed, at least once, a whole book of cheques and left Haughey to fill in the blanks. Between April and October 1986 alone, five sums were withdrawn from the taxpayer-funded account and lodged into the private account in Guinness and Mahon bank used to pay for Haughey’s lavish lifestyle. Another withdrawal of £25,000 was simply made out to cash. (You could buy a small house for that then.)
This was the way the rookie was drawn into the system – not pocketing cash himself but playing along with the Boss. The deal was that, in time, having played his cards right, he could be the boss himself.
The beauty of a system like this is that it operates on assumptions and perceptions. As one of the business people who gave Bertie money explained at the Mahon tribunal, “I work in the construction industry and my clients are developers and the like and I don’t think it does me any harm to be known as a friend of Bertie Ahern’s.”
This system was seldom as simple as cash for favours. It was about being “known as a friend”.
This was, in its own way, much more toxic than simple bribery because it was all about perception. Perception is unbounded and ill-defined. Everybody has to calculate how much it’s worth to be “a friend” and how bad it might get if you’re not One of Us.
This is how Ahern himself was infected, probably not initially out of greed but out of a well-justified belief that the system was eternal. If you were not in, you could not win.
A culture of this sort is extremely hard to shift precisely because those who succeed and rise to positions of power are those who have accepted, and learned to practice, its values. That’s why it became endemic.
Journalists and tribunals did a lot to expose it. But let’s not kid ourselves: Ahern handsomely won re-election in 2007 even though the public knew by then that he was on the take. Enough voters were psychologically attuned to the system to keep it going, perhaps indefinitely.
It took a catastrophic crash to make it clear to those voters that corruption isn’t abstract. It destroys jobs, families, lives. They had to live that truth before they could fully accept that bad ethics become brutal economics.
We still live with the consequences of Fianna Fáil’s debasement of public life. The housing crisis is a result of the crash. So is the national debt of €226 billion.
We’ve bought our redemption at a very heavy price. Ireland may be cleaner, but the laundry bill has been staggering.
Which is why it is so good to have Bertie back about the place. He is our living relic of old indecency.
He once did a cringe-making TV ad for his new Boss, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, in which an unsuspecting young couple open the cupboard in their kitchen and find him sitting there drinking tea. He’s been in there ever since.
By all means, let him out of the closet. The more we see of him the better. The culture he embodied should never be out of sight lest it be out of mind.