A tale of two Berties

With Bertie Ahern’s lap of honour entering its final week I came across something quite interesting that I felt I had to share with the wider world (or at least the tiny portion of the wider world that might wander by here).

I had a relative who lived in Ahern’s constituency of Dublin Central for most of her life, for a long time with her sister but in more recent years by herself. Sadly she died last year and since then my mother has kept an eye on the house while everything gets sorted out; the usual odd jobs of ensuring the post is taken care of and so on.

Yesterday she came home with an interesting letter that had come to the house from the Office of the Taoiseach, addressed to my deceased relative. The letter is a mass-produced message from Ahern to his constituents in relation to his resignation as well as another few points. I’ve scanned it and it’s available here.

So Ahern set a letter to a constituent who doesn’t exist any more – no big deal really. Although, perhaps he should have known better considering the personally-signed mass card he sent at the time of her death last year (available here).

It’s a funny little mistake and still no big deal. The fact that Ahern (or Ahern’s staff) recognised the death of a constituent but failed to take her name off his mailing list is hardly earth-shattering stuff. That said, and without wanting to over-analyse this, I think it goes a long way to explaining the two sides of the man; the part that gave him such a successful career and the part that brought his success to an abrupt end.

On the one side of the coin, both of these messages inform us of the things he will be remembered best for. Here we see a politician who understands the power of grassroots campaigning and of being a ‘man of the people’ who is constantly in touch with what’s going on locally. We see a politician who never misses the opportunity to boost his own profile (the mass card came just before the last general election) or to campaign on behalf of an issue of importance to him (the letter talks about the Lisbon Treaty, for example).

We see someone who strives to add the personal touch to everything and in doing so creates the illusion of a relationship with each person that ensures a lifetime of support. Taking this skill from the doorsteps to the negotiating table, as so often he did, meant he could convince each side of the battle that he was doing his best for them and them alone, even when he was not.

On the other side of this coin we see an example of the traits that will forever form the negative aspect of his legacy. We see a politician with a lack of joined-up thinking in what he does and says and one with a tendency to think just of short-term gain regardless of what he said or did before. We see a politician who says and does what it takes and favours the quick fix or the kick-to-touch over consistency of action.

Taken in isolation both of these letters would only improve his standing in people’s minds but when put together they suddenly highlight a certain level of insincerity to anyone who truly believed that Ahern was personally interested in them and them alone. They remind people that what is being promised today may not be what was promised before or will be promised again. Remember, it wasn’t a single answer at the Mahon Tribunal that finished Bertie but rather the many answers he gave put in their overall context. Thinking in terms of dealing with the immediate problem, he strove to adapt his story as each new piece of information came out, regardless of what he had said before and in ignorance of what might be coming down the line – and so the mask eventually slipped.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this but I do think it is a microcosm of the man. It’s certainly an interesting insight into how his legendary local machine works.

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