Political Football

Showbiz, Baby! Bertie, Eamon Dunphy and a Celtic Tiger pop culture low-point

In September 2001, the then-leader of the country appeared as a guest pundit on RTE show The Premiership.

EVEN CLOSING IN on twenty years later, it remains a most jarring scene.

On one side, Eamon Dunphy – that self-appointed myth-dispeller of various cods, spoofers and stage-door Johnnies. On the other, John Giles – virtuous doyen of straight-laced, no-nonsense analysis. Sitting cosily in between, Bertie Ahern – leader of the country. 

Showbiz, baby.

As Celtic Tiger pop culture low-points go, it was right up there with GAA drama On Home Ground. And just like Kildoran GAA’s resident bad boy, Brendan Ruane, Ahern simply didn’t give a damn.        

He wasn’t the only one occupying an unusual role and in the absence of Bill O’Herlihy, somebody felt it was a good idea to allow Dunphy anchor proceedings, almost certainly giving him the ill-fated confidence to try his hand at hosting his own chat show two years later. He introduced the special guest as ‘perhaps the most-renowned Manchester United supporter in the country’ and everything rapidly went downhill from there.

Teed up perfectly, Ahern failed the audition. After highlights of his beloved team’s hammering of Everton at Old Trafford, Dunphy quizzed him on Alex Ferguson’s squad rotation for the upcoming midweek Champions League game against Olympiakos, which had meant substitute roles for Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs.

“He played Chapman,” Bertie said, meaning Luke Chadwick. 

As some viewers pondered whether Fergie had pulled off a last-minute transfer coup or promoted some kid to the first-team for his debut, others – more than likely the show’s editorial team – were left to curse the entire pantomime.

There were layers, if you looked deep enough. Along with the Stadium Ireland plan –  better known by its ‘Bertie Bowl’ nickname – there had also been discussions about a joint-bid, with Scotland, to host the European Championship in 2008 and a confirmed proposal would arrive early in 2002. Most importantly, a general election was on its way and under Ahern, sport was a central aspect of his political profile.

When Dunphy asked him his thoughts on Jaap Stam’s hasty sale to Lazio and the arrival of veteran Laurent Blanc as his replacement, it was difficult to determine whether Ahern was talking about Manchester United or his own cabinet members. 

“If United really have the dream and want to win the championship (the Champions League) next year in Scotland, then you have to beat the Juventus, the Lazios, the Real Madrids. You’re up against really tough teams. That’s where you worry about a defence like that.”

As it turned out, Michael Noonan was more Bayer Leverkusen and an election dogfight never really materialised. 

RTE were lashed for their part in the weirdly-compelling TV event, which even extended into a cuddly segment on the nine o’clock news, leading to some spectacular post-match punditry from the opposition. Fine Gael’s John Cushnahan compared the entire charade to something akin to the old days of the Eastern Bloc and likened Ahern to Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko, who one day appeared on state TV to inaugurate a gas pipeline and again later that evening to offer his opinions on football.

The newspaper coverage was equally entertaining.    

“By the end of the show, Dunphy was so far up his (Ahern’s) backside, the political correspondents had to move over,” remarked The Sunday Independent the following week.

Meanwhile, The Evening Herald wondered if the new RTE programming manifesto would mean Gerry Adams getting to strut his stuff on GAA magazine show Breaking Ball.

While the media borrowed from the Dunphy playbook, it was left to the academics to apply some of Giles’ telestration skills and focus on the tactics at play.  

euro-2008-bid-digital Sport was always a key part of Bertie Ahern's political profile. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Political historian Eamon Phoenix believed Ahern attempted to showcase himself as a “leader with political kudos” by tapping into the notion of floating voters, those untethered to past ideologies.  

Sport was one way of doing it. 

“While there have been many Irish politicians who had been competitive sportsmen (mostly GAA) in earlier years, most notably Jack Lynch but also people like John Donnellan and and Jimmy Deenihan while Charlie Haughey played minor hurling for Dublin, Bertie Ahern went the other way by becoming known as a sporting fan having had no prowess as a player,” says Professor Gary Murphy of DCU’s School of Law and Government.  

But Bertie’s appearance on The Premiership took things to a new level. Here was the Taoiseach of the country giving his analysis based on the fact that he had been a fan of Man United for decades. It was very much a ploy on his part. The thesis being spun was that here was a guy who devoted his whole life to politics but was pretty much like everyone else in that he loved nothing better than going off to Old Trafford with his mates to watch football. Isn’t it interesting, though, in the way it was treated by RTE? Never in a million years, for instance, would they think of letting him appear on The Sunday Game. It would be far too serious for a celebrity guest.”

Perhaps that’s the hook. The adoration of a garrison game was an easier play for Ahern, who knew the potential repercussions of using the sacrosanct GAA to help fuel his political agenda.   

Still, there’s a curiosity to the GAA’s relationship with Irish politics. And Murphy is quick to point out that in amongst the strong history and the heavyweights, like Lynch, carving out such a remarkable legacy, there’s also a decent array of well-known local personalities scarred badly by their poor performances at the polls.

“Political parties have always chased GAA players, in particular, to run for them but Lynch was unusual in his success,” Murphy says.

“People tend to forget that really good players who were adored by their fans bombed out completely as candidates. Graham Geraghty in Meath got only 3 per cent for Fine Gael in the 2007 general election. Brian Whelehan, who was on the hurling team of the century, couldn’t even win a council seat for Fine Gael in Birr in 2009.”

But, the cute hoorism of Irish politics can’t be ignored. In certain places, there’s long been a county board mentality to how things operate, a Timmy Ryan approach - all flat caps and flailing arms. One would imagine Michael Lowry was well-prepared for the pressure of Justice Moriarty’s tribunal considering his previous experience of facing down delegates while in charge of Tipperary GAA.

Effectively, it’s all a pantomime – similar to the one Bertie gave in the RTE studios back in 2001.

Showbiz, baby. 

At the time, Ahern was still pushing hard for Stadium Ireland – his legacy project. Famously, soon-to-be Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, referred to the plan as being reminiscent of Nicolae Ceausescu, the executed Romanian communist president.   

Sport has never been front and centre during election time but it has been a costly misstep for certain governments, this one included.  

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