How a celebrity wedding and a smoking ban led Ireland to turn on Ahern

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The Independent Online

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister who was for decades one of his country's favourite politicians, is struggling to cope with a spectacular fall in his popularity.

Little more than 12 months after coasting to a general election victory, he has plummeted in the opinion polls amid complaints that he and his Fianna Fail party misled voters on the state of the economy.

The man once known as the "Teflon Taoiseach" now has a problem of trust similar to that faced by Tony Blair. A factor that may come to his rescue is that, again like Mr Blair, opposition parties are also languishing in the doldrums. Even so, he faces an uphill task because he has failed to convince voters that the election campaign, which emphasised the feelgood factor, was not an act of deliberate deception.

Since his re-election voters who expected spending on health, education and transport, have become disillusioned when it failed to materialise. They were angered when the government's message abruptly switched to one of the need for belt-tightening.

Mr Ahern's personal popularity has plunged to 37 per cent, compared with 70 per cent only two years ago. His party has also slumped, a junior minister commenting: "We have reached the bottom level of popularity and the only way we can go is up." The past year and a half has, however, seen an increase in the already high levels of political disillusion among voters, so that polls show satisfaction with all party leaders continually dropping.

The minor party that has fared best in the polls is Sinn Fein. Although its leader, Gerry Adams, has lost ground, he has lost less than the others, so he is now the most popular party leader in the Republic.

Mr Ahern's credibility problem has been aggravated by a run of other issues that his administration is viewed as not having handled well, either in terms of judgement or of luck.

These include the many cases of child abuse, often involving Catholic clerics, which have yet to be fully investigated. The Catholic Church is widely criticised for this, but voters also in part blame the government. His troubles include less central political issues such as a plan to ban smoking in pubs, which led to cabinet ministers contradicting each other in public.

Even the summer wedding of Mr Ahern's daughter Georgina to Nicky Byrne of the band Westlife led to complaints. The Irish public disapproved of the couple holding the ceremony in a French chateau, and giving exclusive rights to Hello! magazine.

Reports of difficulties in Mr Ahern's relationship with Celia Larkin, his long-term partner, have not enhanced the image of a man for whom little is at present going right.

One of the few exceptions to all this is the Northern Ireland peace process, where he and Mr Blair are regarded as working well together, despite differences, to revive the suspended Belfast Assembly.

With the Dail due to reconvene at the end of this month, Mr Ahern has already cracked the whip at a large-scale party get-together. He chided two backbenchers for publicly criticising the government, as part of his attempt to present a more united front.

Despite all the setbacks, Mr Ahern remains the Republic's most formidable politician, with no sense that any rival in Fianna Fail is considering embarking on any leadership challenge. Unless his fortunes recover, though, he may be-come vulnerable.

The most telling criticisms are charges of cynically misleading the electorate and of losing touch with public opinion. These were summed up in the description of the government by Pat Rabbitte, the Labour leader, as incompetent, arrogant and jaded - "Having bought the election, they then slashed public spending without any regard to hardship caused or damage done."

The Irish Independent described the challenge facing Mr Ahern after the latest opinion poll results. "These findings are fairly brutal. The public feels it has been left out of the loop by a distant and aloof government hiding behind a phalanx of handlers. With a little less packaging and a lot less spin, he has ample ability, and just enough time, to turn things around."

One advantage is what might be called an Iain Duncan Smith syndrome. The largest opposition party, Fine Gael, has in Enda Kenny a newish leader who has yet to catch the public imagination, and is also going down in the polls. The chances of a Fine Gael revival are lessened because many of the party's heavyweights lost their Dail seats, so great was Mr Ahern's election victory.

At the same time, there is much apprehension that voters will exact revenge on Fianna Fail in the 2004 local government and European elections. But Mr Ahern will be hoping for a boost from next year's Irish presidency of the EU.

Most of all, his hopes of winning the next election rest on an international economic revival. His slump is explained by the commentator James Downey. "The government assured the voters that they had nothing to worry about. It therefore faces a deadly either/or.

"Either it knew the real state of the world economy and the prospects for the public finances, or it did not. If the first, it misled the electorate. If the second, it was guilty of breathtaking ignorance and negligence."

With hindsight, the years of unprecedented economic boom were clearly tailing off last year. Many of Mr Ahern's woes stem from the fact that he left voters with the impression that the good times could continue.

His long-term fate is therefore bound up with two factors, one of which is a world upturn. The second is his ability to convince the electorate that whatever he did and said in the past, next time round it can trust him.