The Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, appears to have as low an opinion of me as I do of him. And so it should be. On Wednesday, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Justice Committee, during which he effectively abandoned his ill-conceived plans for a strong blasphemy law, Ahern took the opportunity to attack people who had the temerity to criticise his original plan. He was puzzled he said, by the "hysterical and incorrect reaction" to his proposals. "It does show that when you scratch the surface, there is an incredible intolerance amongst pseudo-liberals in this country. I've even been called a Catholic fundamentalist by a person who I believe to have a brain the size of a pea."
Readers, I am that pea brain. Two weeks ago in this space, I put forward the theory that Ahern was strongly attached to blasphemy legislation because of his fundamentalist views, which included a very warm welcome he gave to the casual homophobia of one of his former colleagues in the Dáil and his assurance to the Pope on a visit to the Vatican that Ireland would be following Catholic teaching on stem-cell research. I might also have mentioned his decision to close off-licences at 10pm, a move which seems as much rooted in the moralistic tut-tutting of the Temperance movement than in any genuine desire to curb Ireland's drinking culture, which it certainly won't do. It's one of the most pointless laws introduced over the last few years; along with the watered-down blasphemy law, it marks Ahern out as somebody who would rather tinker cluelessly with the statute books than do anything substantial to deal with the problems he purports to be trying to solve.
Ahern is one of two people in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party with any chance of succeeding Brian Cowen if the Taoiseach is forced from office over the next year. The other is Micheál Martin. It's an interesting choice, wider than you might normally expect in a party with no ideals or political philosophy. Ahern is the kind of politician who appeals to the knuckle-dragging, intellectually uncurious, conservative wing of the wider party, the see and hear no evil types who looked the other way for years while thousands of our young people were raped and beaten by nuns and priests.
Martin, the cannier politician, has more of an appreciation of the wider world, and of Ireland's role in it. He was responsible for one of the best pieces of legislation this country has seen, the smoking ban, one which has been copied all over the globe. He was one of the first in government to spot the benefit to Ireland's relationship with the new Obama administration of taking one, innocent, prisoner from Guantánamo Bay and allowing him to resettle in Ireland. Ahern, lacking the imagination or sensitivity to deal with such an issue, refused to accept this as a possibility until, earlier this year, he suddenly backed down. It was as abject a surrender as his climbdown on the blasphemy law, which now contains so many escape clauses that it is essentially meaningless. Ahern may despise his critics, but on blasphemy and Guantánamo, he has given the pea brains most of what they wanted.
None of this is to suggest that Micheál Martin has suddenly become some kind of Obama figure who has all the answers. On the contrary, in fact. He has been conspicuous by his absence over the last year, playing no key role in explaining government policy on the recession. Search as I have over the last few days, I have been unable to find any interview or speech he has given in which he provided any hint of the kind of Ireland he would like to see, or would like to lead. But such invisibility won't do him any harm if it means that the voters won't associate him with, or blame him for, the downturn. And like Bertie Ahern, he has a kind of Teflon quality, emerging almost unscathed from the debacle that was last year's Lisbon campaign.
If Fianna Fáil people vote for Dermot Ahern as their next leader, they will resemble those Republicans in the US too stupid to realise that their huge loss in last November's elections means that they have to change, not fall back on what they know best. Ahern is old school in a country ruined by old-school thinking. He represents the past. Those of us who still believe that Ireland has a future can't wait to see the back of him.
When the smoke clears: The Carbon Tax That Isn't
Green European candidate Deirdre de Burca was being very honest (or let the cat out of the bag, depending on your point of view) when she acknowledged the other week that the carbon tax to be introduced in the next budget would be a fundraising measure only, and would not be sequestered or fenced off to be spent on environmental projects.
The problem for de Burca and her Green colleagues is that this innovation will not therefore be a carbon tax; for it to be the real thing, the money raised must be spent on green measures. This is an important point because with so little to show for their two years in government, some Greens may be tempted to suggest that this new 'carbon tax' will be some kind of achievement for them. It won't be, and anyone who claims otherwise will be lying.