What Makes Bertie Run?
Gene Kerrigan profiles the young Fianna Fail TD whose progress up the political ladder seems assured.
Tuesday afternoon, the usual handful of TDs are waffling on, probably about the Budget, but it doesn't matter. It's all for show, the Minister has the bodies to push through the lobbies and no amount of talk will change that. Up in the Fianna Fail offices on the fifth floor of Leinster House Bertie Ahern is leaning over a table, slowly moving his index finger, line by line, down through the Dail's standing orders. The proceedings down below are relayed to the offices by a loudspeaker system but Bertie isn't listening. He's trying to put one over on Fine Gael.
Bertie Ahern is Fianna Fail's Chief Whip. It's his job to put as many over on Fine Gael as possible, while at the same time collaborating with the other Whips to keep the ball rolling, keep the Dail proceedings flowing as smoothly as possible. Today he thinks there's maybe a rule in standing orders which he can use to trip Fine Gael as they put their right foot in, their left foot out, do the hokey-pokey and stumble all about under the weight of Garret FitzGerald's Constitutional Amendment. Bertie thinks that maybe they're not allowed to muck around with a Bill at this stage in the debate - but probably they are. Still, it's worth a try. (It failed.)
Bertie Ahern is one of the Dail's most successful politicians, one of its youngest and brightest. When all the manure thrown during the recent leadership battle had settled Bertie emerged smelling like a rose - and probably would have even had Charlie Haughey lost. At the last election, when Fianna Fail took a hammering in Dublin and the party's first preferences on the south side were dropping by five and ten percentage points, Bertie held firm with a decrease of just over one percent. Bertie personally reaped 56% of Fianna Fail's first preferences in Dublin Central, the third highest such share among the FF poll toppers in Dublin. The other two were Charlie Haughey and Ray Burke - and Burke's seat is a hand-me-down from his father, coming complete with a large amount of personal loyalty, while Bertie is a first generation politician, fust elected in 1977. He was 25 then.
Bertie Ahern joined Fianna Fail as a teenager in the late 1960s. While he was doing his Leaving Cert, several of his contemporaries were involved with the party and he became a member of Fianna Fail while in UCD studying to be an accountant. His acountancy brought him into contact with trade union affairs through the Workers Union of Ireland and he had a natural bent for committee work, debating and organising. That developing interest in the organisational side of things took him into active politics.
There was only one party. His father had been in the 3rd Cork City Brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence and both parents remained staunch republicans. Fine Gael just wasn't a consideration. Through the WUI Bertie had seen something of the Labour Party and considered it a Mickey Mouse outfit. The choice had to be Fianna Fail. In other words, Bertie didn't so much want to get into Fianna Fail as to get into politics - and Fianna Fail was the natural option.
Over the next few years Bertie learned the ropes, progressing from one minor party post to another, ever upward, always learning. In 1973 he was out canvassing for George Colley (later to be his constituency colleague and junior vote-getter). One of the things that most stuck in his mind was the amount of we-haven't-seen-him-since-the-last-election complaints. Bertie could only point out that George was a Minister and was very busy - but he saw their point.
When it came time to choose a third candidate in Finglas for the 1977 election Bertie was a natural, and looking around at what else was on offer he decided - why not? And slid home with 3,729 first preferences. He was young and obviously on the make and nobody paid him much attention. By the time the 1981 election came around his was one of the seats which political correspondents predicted were at risk. After that election the constituency changed shape, but Bertie retained his home ground of Drumcondra. And Bertie and his helpers worked the constituency with the efficiency of a military operation.
Bertie works the clinic system. If there are Fianna Fail supporters in a locality (and there always are) Bertie sets up a Cumann. He's critical of TDs who allow a strong Cumann in a constituency to take responsibility for a weak area. Get in and find the ones who'll set up the Cumann - they're always there. Set up a clinic, find out the problems, work your ass off listing the complaints and following them up. Bertie reckons it was the failure of Fianna Fail south side TDs to do this - simply to work hard enough at it - which caused the slump in the party's vote there.
In Bertie's full-time office in Drumcondra (full-time secretary, wife Patricia in three days a week, two sisters-in-law, two close friends) there's a filing system which is designed not merely to record voters' problems culled from the regular clinics but to automatically and repeatedly bring them to attention until there is some form of positive response from the civil service. Mostly the problems relate to social welfare, housing, grants and the like.
In addition, come the end of March and the weather improves and Bertie and his helpers hit the streets. Three nights a week, systematically combing the constituency, whether he's weak in an area or strong, knocking on doors, asking if there are any problems Bertie can help with. By the time the weather starts getting bad again there's not a house in the constituency that hasn't had Bertie knocking on the door.
The morning after the last election was called "voters in the constituency were getting letters from Bertie telling them he was running, offering again his services, asking for support. In the early hours of the morning of polling day Bertie's helpers were out on the streets, distributing letters that welcomed the voters to the day that was in it, hoped the campaign hadn't annoyed them too much and solicited support. In between these two letters the voters received a barrage of leaflets and letters, always offering Bertie's services as well as soliciting support. Much of the literature mentioned Bertie only. His running mates can do their own work. Similar letters are despatched to constituents between elections.
One might imagine that the Gregory deal would have caused Bertie some problems - with the resulting kudos going to his constituency rival. Not at all. Bertie produced a leaflet for the November election which detailed, area by area, the fruits of voting for him. In a special boxed-off section devoted to the Inner City Bertie listed the achievements of the Gregory deal. After all, he reasoned, it was a Fianna Fail government which coughed up, wasn't it?
In the run-up to the 1981 election Bertie smiled quietly to himself when he heard predictions that he'd have a fight on his hands. In the event, he topped the poll with 8,738 first preferences, beating Michael Keating and George Colley into second and third place. Bertie was a member of the Fianna Fail committee which examined the tapping and bugging allegations. He arranged that meetings would fit in around the times for his clinics. First things first.
Plotting little annoyances for Fine Gael is a minor part of Bertie's activities as Chief Whip. Mostly it involves getting together with the other Whips to work out the order of business for the week and make necessary adjustments day by day. It involves lining up TDs to speak on various issues and Bills as they arise. You, you and you. Get in there, 11.30, 3.30, 4.15 - just be there, get up, spout. Often the TDs will know not whereof they speak. Not that that matters. Nobody will be listening.
One of Bertie's major concerns has been, along with the Fine Gael Whip, Sean Barrett, discussing ways of improving Dail procedure by constructing a proper committee system. That way, TDs who have interest and expertise in various areas would thresh out issues and Bills in a more productive way. So far it's just an aim.
Several committees exist - semistate bodies, EEC legislation, public accounts and the like - and Bertie has hopes that agreement can be reached by Easter to set up the long-awaited marital breakdown committee. For what that's worth. At present the committees are less than a success. Say there are four FF and four Coalition people on a committee: the division bells ring and they have to troop into the chamber for a vote - using an antiquated system that takes maybe twenty-five minutes. Then maybe two of them start chatting, or meet a constituent, or sneak off to the bar and only six come back.
Bertie thinks the press should be allowed in to report committee meetings. Not because he has any urge to expose the workings of government to the angry eye of the voter - it's just that if the proceedings were reported the TDs would get some kudos. There would be mileage in it. Therefore they would do the work. And maybe give them a few bob extra for the extra strain. At present it's just work.
Bertie and the other Whips work harder than the average TD, but it's a step on the ladder to greater things. Clearly Bertie has the skill and intelligence to handle a ministerial portfolio. After his performance during the leadership battle people who had previously dismissed him as a hustler with problems hanging onto his seat talked of him not wholly in jest as a future Taoiseach. It was thought that he might be given a more weighty brief in the recent frontbench reshuffle, but he's too good as a Whip to be wasted on shadow-boxing.
Bertie was appointed Assistant Whip under Sean Moore by Charlie Haughey, and thrived at it. When Charlie asked him what position he'd like in government Bertie unhesitatingly answered that he wanted to be Minister for Sport. A former Home Farm player, sporting organisations in Drumcondra are not only a genuine interest of Bertie's, they are also a solid cornerstone of his political base. For five years he had cultivated that base, then - click - just like that, he's appointed Chief Whip instead of Minister for Sport. Five years' work down the drain. Not to worry - Bertie got on with the job and did it well. And while others were speculating as to which of the more important Departments Bertie could shadow as the next step on his ladder, the lad himself wasn't thinking that way. While he gratefully accepted his re-appointment as Chief Whip he still has his eye on the Department of Sport.
It could be merely that his ambitions are modest. Far more likely that Bertie is sticking to his old rule of doing the groundwork, laying a solid foundation. Loyal and efficient party work led to nomination for a seat, assiduous constituency work led to the consolidation of the seat, painstaking parliamentary work led to recognition of his worth as a government, and then opposition; functionary. Efficient and imaginative work in a junior Department may be the necessary foundation for a ministerial career that is not only prestigious but prolonged. Doherty, McSharry and O'Donoghue are just the latest names that came a cropper having perhaps gone too far, too fast. Bertie is still only 31.
But what makes Bertie run? Why bother? TDs may not do much work - but it's a hard task building a political base and keeping it. And harder still when you've also got the monotonous and unsung job of Chief Whip into the bargain. You will search in vain among most of the election letters distributed by Bertie for some glimpse of a burning political passion that drives him on. When he does express political opinions they are general and vague. (In a nutshell, he'd like a better world.)
Bertie doesn't seek election on the basis of politics - all his literature and constituency activities focus on his value as a guy who cares about the people of the area and will do his best for them. And he does care and does do his best. He hassles civil servants, explains procedures, intervenes in complicated situations where the unskilled are lost - just like a good social worker. A very good social worker. What difference is there between himself and his constituency rival - also no slouch at the social worker bit - Michael Keating? As far as the constituency goes, not very much, says Bertie.
Bertie says there's one issue that rouses him - the North. Get him going on internment and he'll let you know all about it. In the early 1970s Bertie was out on the streets with the rest of the young folk demonstrating with the best of them. He considered himself a bit rebel-minded until 1975. But internment was a decade ago. Bertie's views today are just straightdown-the-line Fianna Fail views. On economic affairs he merely thinks there should be a fairer spread of money - hardly unique among the views expressed by politicians.
The problem is that campaigning on political issues might or might not win you votes - and it definitely will lose them. Campaigning solely on what you can do for voters can't fail. (Not even when one attains the status of a Charlie Haughey can one neglect the constituency and stand on policy alone. Haughey works the "streetboss" system, with practically every street in the constituency having one party member appointed to keep an eye on things. Have a baby or lose a relative to death and the streetboss passes on the word - and a letter of congratulation or condolence arrives from Charlie. The street bosses report directly to The Boss at Kinsealy on problems or opportunities in their patch. The system at least has the virtue of freeing the politician for real political work, but it increases and institutionalises the clientilism.)
Just because he doesn't express many political opinions (other than the yes-I-did-no-you-didn't shadowboxing between Fianna Fail and the Coalition) doesn't mean that Bertie doesn't have any. He fits in somewhere to the left of Fine Gael's fiscal strategists and to the right of his constituency rival Tony Gregory. On social affairs in particular his kind of constituency-tending has the virtue of opening eyes to the reality of life. When you're dealing day in and day out with the consequences of the de facto divorce that exists in Ireland you have few illusions about the legislation that is needed. But what Bertie knows or thinks doesn't matter. A good party man toes the line and, if an all-party committee on marital breakdown is the best you can wangle without upsetting a lot of people well, that's politics.
Bertie Ahern, in short, knows the score. He knows what he wants - even if it's not at all clear that he knows why he wants it - and he knows how to get it. Fianna Fail members in Dublin Central who support The Great Party simply because it is The Great Party, have in Bertie a TD in whom they can be proud. They will never knock on a door and get a bitter response that their man hasn't been seen since the last election. With Bertie as their man they can support their party without embarrassment and with pride.
Bertie knows the score. He knows what you do to be a successful politician. More important - he knows what you don't do. Running for things is okay - standing for them is usually neither profitable nor popular.