It was probably inevitable, and perhaps it was the best outcome given all the circumstances. Nevertheless there was something vaguely shameful about the way Ireland disposed of one of its most capable prime ministers since it made itself independent of the United Kingdom nearly 100 years ago. Mr. Ahern – Bertie, as he was familiarly and generally affectionately known to one and all – fell on his sword on April 2nd, succumbing in the end to the relentless attrition surrounding the investigations of his financial affairs by a judicial tribunal.
The uneasiness generated about all this stems from two sources. Firstly there is the sense of loss at the demise of a man perceived by most – nationally and internationally – to be good, capable and worthy of respect for what he has achieved for his country and for the European Union of which his country is a part. The resignation of no prime minister in Irish history has attracted the kind of international press coverage which this one did last week.
Secondly there is the realisation that this is a victory not for a judicial process but for a relentless media-driven pursuit of the biggest scalp campaigning journalism could ever hope to capture, the prime minister of the country.
Ahern protests his innocence. “I know in my heart of hearts I did no wrong,” he asserted in his press conference when he announced his intention to vacate his office on May 6 next. Whether he did or didn’t remains to be clarified by the tribunal in question. The gut feeling of many people is that whether or not he should have resigned was something that could only be answered after due process had been completed and the tribunal judge had pronounced judgement having heard all the evidence and counter-evidence.
The problem for the country and for the government of which Mr. Ahern was leader was that in tandem with the work of the tribunal, the media was conducting its own investigations. Day after day, at whatever function – public or private – he or his government colleagues attended, the media tribunal was in session and the interrogation was constant. Culpable or not, in those circumstances, he could no longer sustain his role as leader of the government and saw clearly that the public – whether or not it felt he was guilty – was going to suffer if the work of government continued to be interfered with in this way. He knew he had to go and made what he saw was the responsible decision. I think most people see it that way. I also think most people feel it was a pity it had to happen like this. On the day after the dramatic and surprise announcement the Daily Mail (Irish edition of a London paper) carried the headline which seemed to have a slight tone of remorse about it: “DID IT REALLY HAVE TO END LIKE THIS?” That was the lead into 18 pages of reports, comment and analysis.
The unease is of course double-edged. We know the value of a free press. We need a free press and a press which has the right to ask questions and keep asking questions until it gets answers. However, there does seem to be a conflict of processes. Is there not some better way in which we could manage the parallel running of these processes and if the ultimately more refined process – from the point of view of natural justice – is the judicial one should the other not suspend its activity until the latter has reached a verdict?
What is being investigated by this tribunal is of course a real can of worms, opened up several years ago as a result of revelations made in the media that generous donations had been made by businessmen to politicians in sensitive public office. Once the tribunal, established by the parliament, began to ask its first questions the statements being made to it under oath led to more and more allegations. More and more politicians seemed to have received gifts which might or might not be deemed corrupt or corrupting. Eventually Mr. Ahern himself was discovered to have received gifts which had not been publicly declared. This was back in the early 90s when he was Minister for Finance. He maintained that these were received at a time when regulations relating to the declaration of gifts by those in public office had not yet been brought to their current standard. His enemies maintained that this was irrelevant, that he was a government minister and that basic ethical principles were being disregarded by him when he accepted such gifts.
Initially he had public sympathy because the gifts were given to help him through a difficult personal situation when he and his wife were separating and the costs involved in this were proving crippling for him. But as often happens in these cases, questions kept being asked and answers given were never fully satisfactory. The issue of tax payment was raised and his negotiations with Revenue to regularise his tax affairs became public knowledge.
The whole tribunal process is now a seemingly permanent part of the Irish political system – costing the tax-payer hundreds of millions of euro. The cost is horrendous but by and large the public values something which may help raise ethical standards among its public servants and representatives. One such tribunal is investigating corrupt behaviour within the police force. We are all aware that were it not for media investigations this task would never have been addressed and low standards in high places would continue unabated. Nevertheless, the fall from grace of a man who has done the sate some considerable service – including that of helping bring peace to these islands, is felt by many to be a sad and regrettable event.