My annual visits to Dublin are becoming woefully synonymous with games of Scrabble in my Grandma’s living room, and disapproving looks from my father when I order a whole pint instead of a glass. The only ‘highlight’ in an otherwise paltry showcase is the discussion of dead relatives and those Dublin ‘youths’ who, no thanks to Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail, are likely to be following suit by way of a brutal knife attack should they walk around the Talbot St. area after dark. Admittedly, on the many occasions when I have spent the night in Talbot St. I’ve yet to hear more than the usual pack-like formations of North-side girls on the razzle. I first suspected the horror-stories might be a little exaggerated when my Grandma tried to persuade me that County Limerick was so immersed in gang-land violence that if given the choice, one would be more prudent to book a holiday in Helmand Province. (We went ahead and booked ours for Limerick anyway…)
I don’t mean to disregard all of Ireland’s problems by any means; I am as sickened as the next man by the Disney-esque mirage that purports Ireland to be little more than a frolicking ground for cavorting ranks of leprechauns. There is truth in the fact that violence has not gone away: just as drugs continue to fuel the remnants of the dissident paramilitaries in the North, there remains a problem south of the border as well.
Dublin is truly a schizophrenic place. It’s architecture wears the last two hundred years of history unashamedly. Elegant Georgian town houses sit side by side with burnt out and dilapidated factories on the banks of the Liffey; Celtic Tiger-era luxury apartments and ‘60s high rises glare at each other from either side of the misguided ‘Spike’, and the GPO retains a sombre grandeur, its bullet marked exterior a chilling reminder of Easter 1916. It is both a place of great wealth, to which the endless horizon of cranes will attest, and painfully visible poverty. It is a country in many respects very different from the one that existed in 1997 when Bertie Ahern was first elected as Taoiseach. For one thing, the Irish seem to do even less work now than before, quite happy to allow the 200,000 strong Polish contingent to do it for them. Facetiousness aside though, as Mr. Ahern leaves office early, his is a legacy as tarnished as it is celebrated.
In a career that shares many parallels with the former-Prime Minister Tony Blair –indeed, both became leaders of their respective parties in 1994, and then of their countries in 1997- Mr. Ahern earned accolades for his tireless role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. It is well recorded that he left crucial talks in order to bury his mother, only to return the following day, pulling a forty-eight hour ‘all-nighter’ to wrap up the Good Friday Agreement successfully. His mastery of negotiations and conciliation won him the glowing report by former-Taoiseach Charles Haughey as being ‘the most skilful, the most devious, and the most cunning of them all’.
If all of this is to his credit, then apparent venality is one of his sole, though significant, detractions. Perhaps the ongoing Mahon Tribunal, investigating alleged payments from friends and businessmen into the Taoiseach’s bank account is best put in context. If it eventually finds him at fault then the final nail will be driven into the coffin of his reputation as the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’; one of the cleanest of politicians the world has seen. Haughey himself was unquestionably corrupt, earning Fianna Fail the label of the ‘brown envelope party’. Following in his wake, maintaining an image of comparative ‘cleanness’ was never going to be a hard task. Nonetheless, just as the ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal helped eclipse some of Blair’s outstanding achievements towards the end of his tenure, the corruption allegation against Mr. Ahern has finally backed him into a political corner.
If corruption does in fact remain an unfortunate part of Irish politics eleven years after his election, money has also made changes for the better throughout the country. In relatively little time Ireland’s GDP has shot up, leaving the years of a dwindling population and a third world reputation behind it. The country has modernised: contraception and divorce have both been legalised; freer abortion looks set to follow. The internal fractures of the Fianna Fail party have been ironed out, the smaller parties have grown in size and importance, and thanks to the Peace Process, rock bands are no longer afraid to tour throughout the entirety of the thirty-two counties. Perhaps the most surprising of all developments is the cordial relationship that seems to have blossomed between Mr. Ahern and Ian Paisley -a man so incorrigible he once pelted a former Taoiseach with snow balls. As Paisley too prepares to leave office in Northern Ireland we should reflect on just how much has indeed changed for the better since 1997.
It is regrettable then that like Blair, his role in the Peace Process and as a formidable statesman has been somewhat eclipsed by matters of money. As I walked through the Temple Bar district of Dublin a few weeks ago I noticed the sense of craic alive and well in a particularly pithy slogan embossed on a t-shirt. It read: ‘Ireland: Been there, done that, bought the Taoiseach’. If it weren’t for the fact that this particular garment was rubbing shoulders with the usual fare encouraging one to ‘pogue ma thone’- you can look it up later- you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a wry hint at the state of political affairs in the country. As we wait for history to judge one of the Ireland’s longest serving Taoiseachs, one can only hope that there is a little more rhyme than reason in the saying.