A ‘Socialist’ Leader
Bertie Aherne calls himself the last ‘socialist’ in Irish politics,but the media don’t take him seriously and neither, argues Kevin Cronin, should we
In November of the year gone by, Bertie Aherne, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic Of Ireland, celebrated his tenth anniversary as leader of Fianna Fail, the largest party in the state and the dominant partner of the current coalition government. Such occasions are meant to inspire reflective contemplation and Aherne used the event to announce publicly that he is and always had been a socialist. Indeed he further claimed that he was ‘one of the last socialists left in Irish politics’ and always had ‘a very socialist view of life’. This point was embellished in a number of subsequent interviews where he pronounced that the current regime ‘was the most left-wing government in the country’s history’, was ‘the party of real workers’ and as evidence for all this said that the government’s actions ‘helped spread wealth more evenly’ and simultaneously ‘helped the deprived’. This barrage of nonsense was crowned with some rhetorical philosophy where Aherne gave his definition of socialism: ‘What is the best form of equality? It is the fact that the richest family in the area can go on a Sunday afternoon to the [publicly owned] Botanical Gardens and the poorest can too, for free!’. Actually with this last statement, though with an entirely different intention in mind, Bertie Aherne had unwittingly stumbled towards a rudimentary but crucially correct definition of Socialism; free access to everybody of everything.
To the media commentators all of this was a welcome ‘bit of sport’. The ‘coming-out’ of Aherne wasn’t taken seriously amongst the pundits and rival politicians treated it with derision. There is a good reason for this. Aherne has built a formidable reputation for himself for his innate cunning, adroit manoeuvring and endless ability to wrong foot opponents. His sudden revelation of his socialism was seen very much in this vein. Bertie Aherne was first elected to the Dail (Irish Parliament) in 1977 and within a few years achieved ministerial rank. He held a number of important cabinet positions before becoming Taoiseach in 1997. Due to the electoral success of Fianna Fail, he has more or less been at the summit of the power pyramid for the last 20 years. However in the most recent local and European elections his party did badly, being perceived (quite justifiably) as having implemented policies that proportionally benefited the wealthy and making Ireland one of the more unequal societies in the developed world. Of particular concern was the loss of votes from their urban ‘working class’ electorate to the growing Sinn Fein movement with its leftist pretensions. Aherne’s announcement was generally considered to be a cynical and tactical exercise to reposition Fianna Fail leftwards for the general election that is expected in 2007. Much populist rhetoric can be anticipated combined with paltry amendments to the social welfare codes and other ‘caring’ aspects of government policy. Needless to say, the rich financial backers that Aherne has cultivated over the years won’t be alarmed, knowing that these games are part of ‘democratic politics’ and won’t seriously threaten their position.
One accidental outcome of this whole episode has been the raising of the question ‘what is socialism?’ as a public issue, something which many people thought was moribund. This occurred because the ‘real’ socialists in Irish politics couldn’t stand by while Aherne shamelessly grabbed the proletarian spotlight. First up was Pat Rabbitte, leader of the Irish Labour Party. Pat’s freedom of manoeuvre was limited because he is currently engaged in building a potential rival government alliance with a variety of decidedly pro-business parties. So rather than engaging in any serious policy or ideological debate with Aherne, which could in future times embarrass him more than the Taoiseach, he restricted himself to a few sarcastic cracks at Aherne. The next challenge came from Joe Higgins, sole member in the Dail for the so-called Socialist Party (formerly Militant). Joe set a test for Bertie asking for his views on public ownership, imperialist invasions and social equality. While the nature of these questions betray the Trotskyite nature of the ‘Socialist Party’, at least they were an attempt to tie down in some definite form what socialism could mean. In response to these questions, Aherne waffled through a garbled analysis about ‘extreme communism’ confirming to any observer that for Aherne at least ‘socialism’ is just a convenient phrase to be aired for a while when convenient and then, having served its purpose, quickly forgotten about.
Finally, Kieran Allen, editor of the Socialist Worker was given an opinion slot in the newspaper the Irish Times to give his perspective. The article began well, pointing out that under capitalism we vote every four to five years on ‘how to run the country’ but that’s the end of our input into the organisation of society. In continued in this sensible course by explaining that the former regimes of Eastern Europe were not socialist and also talked about the growing power of multinational firms in a globalized world and the enormous remunerations that their CEOs receive. However, it then degenerated into proposals for nationalisation of development land, taxes on wealth to fund the health service and taking banks into public ownership. Ironically, although Kieran Allen presumably thought that with these last three ideas, he was illustrating the gulf between his and Aherne’s definition of socialism, what Allen missed is that Aherne himself with a lifetime of political expediency behind him would have no ideological problem with any of these suggestions if that’s what it took to stay in power.
We in the Socialist Party were not invited to give our views on this issue. We could send Aherne a copy of our pamphlet Socialist Principles Explained, though without any great optimism that it would be read. Nonetheless the affair does indicate that after almost ten successive years of Aherne and the Celtic Tiger and the complete absence of genuine alternative political analysis by the mainstream media, the issues thrown up by society continue to perplex our leaders, forcing them into opportunistic radical poses.