One for the road
Published 07/05/2008 | 00:00
THE Taoiseach's last day in office ended as it had begun. As the shadows cast by the May sunshine began to lengthen yesterday evening, Bertie made a final pilgrimage through the rolling greenland of Aras an Uachtarain to hand in his resignation.
It was less than a year ago, on a night of monsoon rain, that he had made the same journey to the Phoenix Park to collect his seal of office as Taoiseach for the third time.
It's been a long goodbye since he dramatically announced his departure on April 2, but when the end came at 6.10pm yesterday evening it was over in the blink of an eye -- or the stroke of a pen.
He looked a little tense as he sat at the small round table in the sumptuous room, upon which waited a blue folder bearing his letter of resignation and a square blue box containing his seal of office.
Silently he put his signature on the short one-paragraph announcement. Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach, for the final time. Seated beside him, President McAleese chatted to him, trying to lighten his mood.
He smiled at her, but it was the smile of a man who was wearing his bravest face.
Ten seconds, and it was done.
The two of them retired for a private chat, tea and sympathy on the menu. As he stepped out into the mellow light and into the sun setting on this long chapter of his life, he thanked the assembled media "for your courtesy", despite many battles waged between him and us during the past 11 years.
His day had begun with another battleground, another historical backdrop.
This one has left a bloody footprint in this island's history.
But yesterday the green meadows of the ancient battlefield by the Boyne river were a picture of bucolic tranquillity. Under a pale blue sky, the first zephyrs of summer ruffled the grass and sighed through the leaves of the towering oak tree which stands at the centre of a killing-field which kept on killing Ireland's sons and daughters for centuries after the last musket fell silent on July 1, 1690.
But there was another battle of sorts fought there yesterday; the two men who were prime architects of silencing the sound of gunfire on this island stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they fought their way through a jubilant throng at the official opening of the new €25m Battle of the Boyne site.
Everywhere Dr Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern walked they were assailed by well-wishers and autograph-hunters.
Men sporting orange sashes thrust pens into the hand of Bertie, while a woman with an accent broader than the river itself shyly asked 'Big Ian' to sign her programme of the day's events.
"Wait until I find my writer thing," said Ian jovially, hunting through his pockets for a biro.
It was a poignant day of endings and beginnings. It wasn't the first time these two men had met at this historic site -- that took place amid a ceremony laden with symbolism also exactly a year ago on May 10 -- but it was the last time the pair would meet while holding high office.
In his last official speech he would deliver as Taoiseach, Bertie looked back at the long, strange history of his previous meetings with the once-implacable Free Presbyterian as they picked their way through history's minefield to find a path to peace.
Bertie pointed out that so many of their meetings had taken place by water.
"We have met together by the Lagan and by the Liffey, by the Thames and by the Boyne. We spent a few days together in the east of Scotland, overlooking St Andrew's Bay and the North Sea," he said.
But, he added, it was their first meeting by the healing waters of the Boyne that would be most remembered.
"It marked the end of centuries of mistrust and division".
It was perhaps Bertie's bad luck that his last speech should immediately precede an oration from Ian Paisley.
The same deep, harsh voice of the Dr No of Irish politics, and who declaimed "never, never, never" two decades ago from pulpits and protest rallies, yesterday revisited his favourite word.
He leisurely went through each letter of the word Boyne ("thank God the river isn't the Mississippi," muttered more than one irreverent soul).
"N is for No Turning Back," he thundered. "To the final days there can be no turning back. The killing times must be ended forever and no tolerance must be given to any who advocate their return.
"A strong dedication of peace and an intolerance of murder must drive us forward. The coming generation has a right to demand this, and they must have it, we cannot fail them".
He may be a little frailer than back in the days of fire and brimstone and no surrender, but his booming voice has lost none of its power.
The 1,000-strong audience of nationalists and unionists, of Catholics, Protestants, Presbyterians and non-believers -- particularly those who long gave up believing in peace in our time on this island -- were caught up in the preacher man's passionate rhetoric which began to roll with the letter B.
"B of course is for the river itself, the battle site of the Boyne and its green grassy slopes. What a river," he declared. "As I view the scene, and conjure up in my mind what happened on this site, and its results to the history of this island, to a whole of Europe and indeed to the whole world, I stand amazed."
It was a powerful, moving performance -- probably a last final oratorical encore for the First Minister, who also hands over the reins of power this week.
It wasn't hard to stand amazed and watch as he presented the Taoiseach with a 200-year-old King James New Testament Bible.
"Some time when our time is served we might take a day when I could expound it to you," suggested Big Ian slyly, as the crowd laughed at the strangeness of it all.
But of course, time -- and politics -- waits for no man. Many of the Cabinet were on hand to watch this closing chapter in their boss's own personal history, but the minds of many were turned towards whatever the following day and Brian Cowen would bring.
In fact, it was the Cabinet absentees -- including Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan, Mary Harney and Willie O'Dea -- who were causing the most speculation. "They're probably back in Dublin getting phonecalls from Brian," muttered one uneasy minister.
But that was tomorrow, and it was clear that neither Bertie nor Ian were in a hurry to bring the present day to a close. Semi-mobbed by the crowd, the Taoiseach and Ian and Eileen Paisley did a lap of honour around the marquee.
There was even time for a few last speeches. Ian spoke of "the love of this island that we jointly hold together", while Bertie bade his final, fond farewell.
"It has been an honour, a true honour for me to serve for you and with you every day of all my career," he said with a hint of emotion.
The trio stood and inspected a re-enactment of the battle on the green field with the oak tree (complete with musket-fire which scared the hell out of both the unwary and the plain wary).
Then it was over, and the crowd began to disperse, leaving the battlefield peaceful again. On a day of graceful speeches, there is one older oration which seems apt, delivered by British Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald in 1919 after the end of the First World War.
"It must be in the hearts of all of us to build a fair monument to those men who will never come back to bless us with their smiles. That is what I want. I almost felt I heard the grass growing over them in a magnificent soothing harmony, and that simple soothing peace of the growing grass seemed to grow louder and more magnificent until the riot and distinctive sound of the guns were stifled and stilled by it."