It began early on Sunday 29 April 2007. A sudden call to journalists to scurry to Áras an Uachtaráin at an unearthly hour to hear the news that the Dáil had been dissolved. Taoiseach Bartholomew Ahern had hidden the news up to the last minute (8 a.m). Within an hour his party's posters were occupying the best positions on Dublin's lamp posts. Bartholomew's party, Fianna Fáil, had enjoyed five years of power in coalition with the minuscule Progressive Democrats (PDs). The latter had climbed every post in Ireland to convince the electorate that they were necessary to be there with Fianna Fáil to keep an eye on the antics of the old war horse, to be the moral guardians of good Government. They got their wish. Bartholomew, whom most people call Bertie, was re-elected Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and Mary Harney of the PDs, erstwhile of Fianna Fáil herself, was made Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister). For five years there was a cosy relationship between the partners in Government. Luckily for them the Celtic Tiger economy continued to growl. Luckily, too, peace came to Northern Ireland during their tenure. They themselves would say that there was no luck but sheer hard work involved on both of these issues. Even critics, however, would grant that Bartholomew's part in the Northern peace making process was significant and that he deserved whatever luck he had on that important part of his Government record.
DURING THOSE FIVE YEARS some significant events had taken place:
THE INVASION OF IRAQ: Ireland, under Bartholomew, had allowed US troops to use Shannon airport for the build-up and later the full scale invasion and occupationof Iraq. This accession to the will of George W Bush continues to this day.
At first Bartholomew and his government denied that any troops were passing through Shannon but when pictures appeared on television to prove otherwise, they reverted to defending their position by saying that this had always happened without any complaints.
Before George W Bush invaded Iraq, 130,000 marched in Dublin and tens of thousands in other Irish cities to protest against the threatened invasion.
Ignoring this, Bartholomew continued to parrot the US line about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction while promising to do nothing out of line with the United Nations.
When the invasion happened, Ireland was in the peculiar position of participating in an "illegal" war, not ratified by the United Nations and without the consent of the Dáil. Ireland's Constitution states that Ireland cannot participate in a war without the consent of the Dáil.
The invasion happened on 19 March 2003, so, on the following day, 20 March, the Dáil was recalled to make legal the unthinkable. Bartholomew's motion contained the lines that
"Dáil Éireann recalls the long-standing arrangements for the overflight and landing in Ireland of US military and civilian aircraft and supports the decision of the Government to maintain those arrangements"
His motion also contained the lines that
- condemns the continued refusal of the Government of Iraq over a period of 12 years to comply with its obligation to disarm as imposed by numerous resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, most recently in Resolution 1441;
- endorses the decision of the Government that Ireland will not participate in the coalition's proposed military action against Iraq."
The motion was passed with the help of the Fianna Fáil and PD deputies. It was a typical Ahern waffle on a position. To the US he gave complete freedom to prosecute the war by using Irish air space and an Irish civilian airport; to Irish protestors he gave a contradictory guarantee that Ireland was not participating in the war while to US he also gave the nod that he agreed with their (later proven false) belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
There was outrage in Ireland. Several protestors on different occasions entered Shannon airport in protest and a US plane was damaged on two separate occasions in an effort to prevent it from bombing Iraq. After prolonged and scandal-ridden trials, five protestors, the Pitstop Ploughshares, were found not guilty of the offence because they were deemed to have due cause to damage the plane. Another protestor, Mary Kelly, is presently appealing her own conviction after a series of farcical trials in Clare where she was denied the very defence that later proved crucial to the dismissal of the State's case against the Pitstop Five.
THE NICE TREATY came up for ratification in a Government referendum. If passed it would have copper-fastened once again Ireland's support for a militarized Europe. The referendum was defeated. However, the Government decided that the electorate were not sufficiently informed about Nice and re-ran the referendum which was passed by a whisker second time around.
NATO had bombed the Balkans when Ireland, under Bartholomew, joined NATO, through the back door of the so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP). This action was taken without a referendum in spite of a promise before the election that he would not put Ireland into the PfP without first having a referendum
THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT was altered by Bartholomew's Government just after the invasion of Iraq had begun. Vital information about matters relevant to public scrutiny would no longer be accessible and enquirers would now have to pay heftily for each item of information.
THE SELL-OUT OF NATIONAL GAS AND OIL RIGHTS to a Shell/Statoil/Marathon consortium was begun and completed by a Fianna Fáil minister and work on erecting a pipeline went ahead, without Government permission, in Rossport, Co Mayo. Five locals who objected to the erection of the pipeline and engaged in non-violent action against it were jailed for contempt of court and spent 94 days in Cloverhill prison in 2005. A campaign against both the erection of the pipeline if the gas is processed on land and against the whole sell out of national rights is still alive and vibrant. Garda brutality against non-violent protestors has been featured for all to see on national TV news and there are several cases pending in the courts and complaints lodged with the Garda ombudsman relating to various Garda activities at the site of protest.
THE GARDA FORCE has come in for scrutiny on other fronts. Last month FRANK SHORT, a completely innocent man, was awarded over 4,623,000 euro for an appalling "miscarriage of justice" in which he was framed by Gardaí who perjured him into prison where he spent 23 months. Other Garda cases are before one of Ireland's interminable tribunals.
THE BROWN ENVELOPE TRADITION has been uncovered in some of those Tribunals. The brown envelope has come to signify corrupt payments to politicians for favours mentioned or unmentioned. Several senior politicians have been implicated, some are still to give evidence before a Tribunal.
FOR THE PAST WEEK these have not been the "issues" of the election however. THE ISSUES of the election are being defined daily by Government spin doctors and their opposition equivalents. These were quickly named as Health, Crime, the Economy, Stamp duty payable as a Government tax, Education, Traffic congestion, local water pollution, and others.
All of these are real issues and might be what one would expect in a Tiger economy. The hospitals have been overcrowded, nurses are presently on an ever escalating strike, crime continues to soar. There is a crippling stamp duty payable to Government by second hand house buyers and given the outrageous house prices at present obtaining, (average house price fell in March to 309,000 euro!) a young house buyer pays an average stamp duty tax of 15,000 euro.
Schools have been complaining of overcrowded classrooms for many years and lack of investment in education. Bullying, according to the latest surveys, is rampant in Irish schools and still unresolved.Successive Governments have failed to solve the traffic problem with some one mile journeys taking an hour or more by private car, while public transport remains inadequate to lure car owners away even from that affliction. Recently. in Galway, there has been a water crisis where the supply had been polluted and only bottled water from the shops or supermarkets was drinkable. Government and Opposition spar as to whether the proposed Opposition "Rainbow Coalition" would keep the economy in good shape or not.
THE MAIN OPPOSITION PARTY is FINE GAEL, whose leader is Enda Kenny They have an election pact with LABOUR and fight the election more or less from the same platform. Other parties that might or might not join in a RAINBOW COALITION are the GREEN PARTY and SINN FÉIN. A poll just before the announcement of the election showed an increase in the Rainbow position and a decline for Fianna Fáil and the PDs. Still, the election that had been heralded for long had to be called as the Government's time was up.
THE START OF THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN AND ITS FIRST WEEK WAS OVERSHADOWED by a leaked report that the Taoiseach had not quite explained receipt of certain money in his office in Drumcondra some years ago. Media attention was immediately focussed on this issue and that interest has persisted throughout the first week. (to be continued....