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All eyes on the juicy plums but Sargent keeps his word

BERTIE Ahern doesn't do oratory.

Not for him the grand theme, the telling phrase, the soaring words.

Now and again, though, he departs from the Bertie norm. He stops mumbling. He speaks clearly. He rises to the occasion.

Yesterday he rose to the occasion. He could hardly have picked a better time: his nomination by the Dail for a third successive term as Taoiseach.

It was a time for a few, only a few, fine words. He delivered them.

Our proudest achievement, he said, was to have established a stable democracy and maintained it through times of war and dictatorship in Europe.

And he linked this with his own long and arduous quest for peace in Ireland.

Then he sat down. He had said enough, and said it in exactly the right way.

He not only spoke well, he looked well.

Gone was the edgy, insecure, ill-tempered leader who had fumbled his way through the early stages of the election campaign last month.

Here was a man full of authority and ease, with all the confidence that comes from domination of his party and his government in the 30th Dail.

He did not mention - nobody mentioned - the First Dail.

Would the handful of revolutionaries who met in the Mansion House in 1919 have been equally proud of our successors?

Their own achievement was momentous. They had deprived British rule here of all legitimacy and laid the foundations for democratic government.

But if we can take pride in maintaining that democracy, it is still flawed. Yesterday more than one voice was raised to point out the missing bits.

Tony Gregory, independent left winger, shares a constituency, Dublin Central, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

In that constituency, he said, 40pc of the electorate did not vote last month. And Dublin Central is not unique. Democratic participation is very imperfect.

He coupled his remarks with praise for another left winger, Joe Higgins, who lost his seat in the election.

The praise was well deserved, but it was even more pleasant to hear similarly nice things about Higgins from Mary Harney, from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

That was typical of the good humour that prevailed in the brief debates on the nominations of John O'Donoghue for Ceann Comhairle and Ahern for Taoiseach.

What the event lacked in drama, it made up in civility - and occasionally in the little personal dart.

Jackie Healy-Rae made everybody laugh when he aimed one at O'Donoghue about potholes in Cahirciveen. Everybody, that is, except the new Ceann Comhairle.

But the O'Donoghue elevation gave a more significant insight into the way we run our democracy.

Had Bertie not ensured a comfortable Dail majority for himself, he would presumably have offered the chair to an opposition deputy. With his majority secure, he could afford to hand the plum to one of his own. And, all said and done, throughout yesterday there was more interest in plums than in fine words.

Who's in? Who's out? These are perennial political questions, and they are more intense now than ever. Not that there were many surprises when the plums came to be handed out. Bertie Ahern goes even less for surprises than for oratory.

BUT, as Pat Rabbitte remarked yesterday, the plums themselves are more important because power has moved increasingly from the legislature to the executive.

That is true in other countries too, but in Ireland it has reached remarkable heights.

It is the key to the Green decision to participate in the new coalition. They have decided, as other parties did before them, that politics is all about office. Two of them will sit in the new Cabinet, in potentially powerful positions. But the outgoing party leader will not.

For me, the hero of this week is not Bertie Ahern but Trevor Sargent. He said he would not lead his party into coalition with FF. He has kept his word. He has struck a blow for standards in Irish democracy.

The men and women of 1919 may never have imagined such a place as Celtic Tiger Ireland, or such a political party as the Greens, but they might have been proud of him.