I HAD a curiously melancholy experience last Sunday at the Carlow History Festival. Someone who at first glance looked like a sad-eyed old peasant turned out to be Bertie Ahern.
He was there with his daughter Georgina and his twin grandsons to see his son-in-law, Nicky Byrne of Westlife fame, being told about family history by a genealogist. Yet Bertie seemed strangely alone, for no longer do people rush up to greet him. "He looks so old," said my companion. And he does, but he's only 61.
My very first piece for this newspaper was about Bertie, a week after he became leader of Fianna Fail in November 1994. He was different from most leaders, I suggested: "he is neither an egomaniac nor a crusader: he's just a jobbing politician". Mostly, I was trying to answer the question being asked in London political circles: was he was committed to the peace process?
When I read my article again, I was relieved to find this: "All I can tell them is that: a) Bertie Ahern is a man whom one could put into a room with any two warring parties, tell him the difference between them was 25 per cent and he'd probably come out with a deal, whether the issue was working hours or the Gaza Strip; b) that he has no baggage – old IRA father; and c) that his biggest flaw is that in public his mouth seems only occasionally to be connected to his brain."
Since there was no reason to suggest that Bertie knew Northern Ireland from the Sudan, would he, I wondered, just obey orders from John Hume (as so many intimidated Irish politicians had done before). "Or will the experienced deal-maker realise that trying to make peace without the co-operation of the bulk of the unionists is as sensible as Mandela avoiding talking to de Klerk." I was optimistic. "If he keeps his mouth shut most of the time," I suggested, "he could secure his own place in the history books."
In the event, because Labour (which had forced the collapse of the government) opted for coalition with Fine Gael, Bertie didn't achieve power until after the 1997 General Election, when he and the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, put their feet on the peace-process accelerator. "Do you think you can do a deal with John Hume?" I asked David Trimble around this time. "No," he said, "but I could do a deal with Bertie Ahern." And so he did.
Having shut his ears to critics of the Celtic Tiger, Bertie was looking forward to staying Taoiseach until, in 2011, he would graciously step down and then romp into Aras an Uachtarain, to spend a blissful 14 years as an affable, popular, down-to-earth President. Instead, revelations of his personal financial laxity tarnished his reputation and he had no option but to resign in 2008. In the popular mind, as he had been given credit for the country's new prosperity, he was now blamed for the crash.
The final humiliation for a man who began his life as a party worker at 14, was when last year the Mahon Tribunal said his explanations of where he had acquired various large amounts of money were untrue, and he had to leave his beloved Fianna Fail before he was expelled. Asked last month about Micheal Martin's comment that he still had questions to answer about money, Bertie produced a classic piece of Bertie-speak. "I've forgotten all about it. They can all yabble away."
"All political lives," wrote Enoch Powell, "unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." With Bertie, the failure was catastrophic and the grief and humiliation shows in his face and his demeanour. But though he proved to be unfit to have charge of the nation's finances, he deserves a positive as well as a negative role in the history books.
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton might have had the stardust, but without Bertie's patience, his pragmatism, his formidable powers as a mediator and the absence of ego that let others do the grandstanding, it's doubtful if the Good Friday Agreement could have happened. They can't take that away from him.