Political baggage and youth engagement

In the wake of Bertie Ahern’s political resurrection, Michael Bergin takes aim at political parties’ unwillingness to confront their own pasts.

Unfortunately, it will not come as a shock to many when I say that political parties in Ireland are particularly adept at inane, tone-deaf gestures, that alienate and annoy far more than they unite. One such prominent gesture that comes to mind is the recent readmission and apparent political rehabilitation of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who resigned his post in 2008 amidst the findings of the Mahon tribunal regarding corrupt payments. Mr. Ahern’s departure left a faltering Irish economy to Brian Cowen, whose tenure as Taoiseach brought the nation to its knees, culminating in the decision to apply for a bailout in November 2010. Ireland’s utter humiliation at having had to give up its own economic sovereignty was a bitter pill to swallow, and Fianna Fail were subsequently gutted in the general election of 2011. In 2012, Fianna Fail moved to expel members of the party censured by the Mahon tribunal, though Ahern himself resigned his membership before this came to pass.

In subsequent years, Mr. Ahern’s name has become a byword for the sleaze and Laissez-faire attitudes that characterised the Celtic Tiger. His blind arrogance and delusional self-grandeur capitalised on a nation at once astounded and dazed by its own miraculous economic success.

If a new member of Fianna Fail has trouble defending the party’s recent change of heart regarding Mr. Ahern, wait until they are asked to defend Charles Haughey.

And yet, despite the years of austerity that followed, and the dramatic realignment of Irish politics in the 2020 election, recently, it was announced that Mr. Ahern has been welcomed back into the Fianna Fail party, in an apparent prelude to a run for the presidency in 2025. It now seems as though the official position of the party is to adopt a revisionist stance on Mr. Ahern’s time as Taoiseach, focused on the economic miracle of the boom years, as opposed to the corruption and catastrophe that followed.

Such a course of events poses serious questions about our current political system, the arbitrary partisanship of public debate, and the difficulties young people have entering politics, when asked to endorse problematic political legacies. Should joining a political party, or backing a certain candidate in an election, necessarily subscribe you to every single view held by that party’s top brass? In recent years, this seems to be increasingly the case, with obvious dangers for the state of Irish public debate.

In the United States, we find an example of a nation completely gridlocked by political intransigence, a place where compromise and negotiation, the bedrocks of any functioning democracy, are rendered impossible by pure partisan devotion. Such a frankly terminal situation has led to a breakdown in normal democratic procedures, seen in the 6th of January riots in 2021. When politicians put party before pragmatism, deadlock inevitably follows.

When politicians put party before pragmatism, deadlock inevitably follows

A political party should be, essentially, a loose confederation of people holding similar views, not a rigid and immovable closed church that demands subordination in return for exposure. Surely, it is in these parties’ interests to focus on the future possibilities of their platform, as opposed to having young people defend policies and politicians who predate their existence? If a new member of Fianna Fail has trouble defending the party’s recent change of heart regarding Mr. Ahern, wait until they are asked to defend Charles Haughey.

There has to be a place for common sense in political debate. Any rational adult with a recollection of the time, or who has even had a cursory glance at Reeling in the Years, will tell you that grave errors were made during the Ahern administration, the costs of which will likely be footed by future generations. Defending a particular candidate because they belonged to a certain party, in spite of their record in office, is not a rational action. Politics is not football, you can’t support somebody just because they wear your colours. Even if politics was football, financial fair play rules would long have done away with Mr. Ahern.

The issue is not simply limited to Fianna Fail, however. Across the board, Irish political parties seem to have difficulties in admitting their own wrongdoings, and oftentimes refuse to face up to their own troubling pasts. Fine Gael strenuously protests the “blueshirts” nickname, which recalls the party’s origin as an amalgamation of the Anti-treaty Cumann na nGaedhael with the openly fascist Army Comrades Association (ACA). Though obviously Fine Gael is not a fascist party, the refusal to own up to this part of its history reflects a general convenient amnesia that seems to afflict political parties. Where Fianna Fail asserts that its wrongdoings were not wrongdoings, Fine Gael pretends that they never happened. 

Politics is not football, you can’t support somebody just because they wear your colours

In a similar vein, Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Fein, buoyed by a recent surge in popularity, has openly embraced dissident republican slogans and songs, in an attempt to cast a fairer light over that party’s disturbed history. Once more, it is important to assert that Ms. McDonald is no violent revolutionary, but a committed politician, though her endorsement of Sinn Fein’s less palatable past has dangerous repercussions for public debate in Ireland, and indeed, can serve to hinder her own cause.

What does a committed left-wing student, who broadly agrees with Sinn Fein’s economic agenda, but does not wish to be associated with its recent past, do? Likewise, what does a young person who is more centre-right, but disdainful of Fianna Fail’s leadership during the Celtic Tiger years, do? It is in these parties’ interests to confront the past responsibly, not to bastardise it for partisan purposes, or pretend that it never happened. Political baggage of this type only serves to dissuade the younger generation from entering politics, and arbitrary partisanship only smothers the compromise that is necessary to democracy.

A political party is not a religion, and pretending that it is precludes informed, rational debate.