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Even when folding, Bertie keeps cards close to chest

AS with so many of the secrets that have come to define Bertie Ahern's 40 years in public life, it remained well kept, until he decided it should be otherwise.

And so last Thursday evening, the former Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader announced his departure from the political arena, observing the same enviable self-discipline he had used to get elected and stay elected for 34 years, as a councillor, TD and ultimately as leader of the nation.

It was 8.38pm precisely when the official transcript of the speech in which he had announced his decision to the members of his immediate political family, the O'Donovan Rossa Cumann, popped up in the email inboxes of newsrooms across the country.

But even as the reporters and photographers were being dispatched by their editors, Bertie was already taking questions from the tightly knit circle of family and friends who had worked the streets of Dublin Central for him door by door for well over three decades.

And even they received short notice of the meeting, having only been told two days previously to show up at St Luke's for a meeting, which up until the last minute they believed would deal with the matter of the imminent selection convention for Dublin Central.

Among those gathered in the meeting room at the rear of St Luke's for the surprise announcement on the night were the former Taoiseach's separated wife Miriam, his brothers -- former Dublin Lord Mayor Maurice and Dublin North West TD Noel, as well as several prominent members of the so-called Drumcondra Mafia -- Chris Wall, Paddy 'The Plasterer' Reilly, Liam Cooper and Paul Kiely.

Also there was the man that some within the O'Donovan Rossa Cumann believe, with some trepidation it should be said, will be anointed by Bertie Ahern as his favoured successor, Cyprian Brady.

Unlike his mentor, Brady is no vote-getter. Having only secured 930 first preferences at the last election, the far quieter brother of former Dublin Lord Mayor, Royston, got into the Dail on the back of transfers from Ahern, much to the disquiet of constituency and party rival, councillor Mary FitzPatrick.

They listened intently to what they all agreed had been a carefully considered speech from Ahern in which he recalled with justifiable pride his many achievements, from finally bringing peace to the North to his careful nurturing -- up to a point -- of the economy.

Mindful of the opprobrium now being heaped on him since the onset of the current recession, the former Taoiseach appealed for his many critics to withhold judgement on his legacy until such time as it can be more "coldly considered".

On this, he said: "Years of apparently great success then, are apparently tainted by great failures now. But the truth is more complex and in time it will be viewed more dispassionately. The raw emotion of real shock means it is too soon to take stock. But when that stock is taken, when the 11 years I had the honour to be Taoiseach are more coldly considered, the many positives will be put into balance with the negatives. The perspective of what lasted and what washed away will be clearer."

Outside the meeting -- which went on for 90 minutes behind firmly closed doors -- Bertie's secretary of many years standing, Sandra Cullagh, recalled the far greater surprise her boss had given everyone, including some within St Luke's, two years ago when he stood down as Taoiseach.

Standing in the hallway bedecked with the framed photographs of Ahern with a veritable who's who of world leaders past and present, Cullagh remembered how she had kept his decision to resign to herself, right up until the moment he stood before the press at Government Buildings.

"The girls were about to leave St Luke's to go home, and I told them to hang on for the news," Sandra says, allowing herself a smile that in itself acknowledges Bertie Ahern's near-legendary ability to play his cards close to his chest.

Looking around inside St Luke's is a little like looking at Ahern himself.

Reminders of all the people and things he loves are there on the walls, from the photographs of his late mother Julia and father Con, daughters Cecilia and Georgina and their children, to a framed Dublin football jersey, and more unusually, a certificate bestowing honorary lifetime membership of Hull City Football Club on a man who is arguably one of Manchester United's most dedicated fans. Given the time of year, there are Christmas cards everywhere from the many constituents for whom his legendary political machine has worked tirelessly since the Seventies.

There are also cards from numerous Fianna Fail TDs, perhaps even more than Brian Cowen could now count on for support, joined together on a string that runs the length of the hallway from the front door to the entrance of the meeting room at the back of St Luke's.

And of course, there are the rows and rows of political portraits, capturing the meetings with figures including former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, former South African president Nelson Mandela, former British prime minister Tony Blair and that historic handshake at Farmleigh House with the Reverend Ian Paisley, which marked yet one more watershed moment in the North's peace process and relations between the island's two traditions of nationalism and unionism.

A casual observer could very easily come away from this place believing they have something of the measure of Bertie Ahern, of what makes him tick. But of course, they would be wrong. For as much as the former Taoiseach shows you on the walls of St Luke's, it really tells you very little.

On Thursday night at St Luke's, Ahern showed little intention of revealing anything more of himself beyond the 'what you see is what you get' approach that has served him so well throughout his political career. Indeed, when asked if he will seek the Fianna Fail nomination for the presidency, the former Taoiseach kicked the question to touch, observing that: "You never say never."

This despite the fact that it is pretty certain the former Taoiseach all but ruled out the possibility of running for the Aras "some time ago".

Ahern's reluctance to address the question last Thursday night for the media is understood to have arisen from his wish to avoid the following day's newspapers focusing on this issue to the exclusion of all other issues relating to his retirement from politics.

Bertie Ahern's ability to negotiate is well documented, and of course was infamously noted in the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey's remark that he was "the best, the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning of them all". The frequently misquoted comment referred to Ahern's central role in the brokering of the reviewed Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat programme for government in 1991.

Leaving aside his deft handling of the frequently fraught relationships endured by political parties in coalition, however, Bertie Ahern's ability to keep the people -- and more particularly the women --closest to him happy is arguably more impressive.

Last Thursday night for example, was something of an object lesson in human relations from the former Taoiseach in terms of his interaction with both Miriam, and his current and closest female companion, Anna Bogle, both of whom were present -- albeit at different stages in the proceedings -- for the occasion of his retirement.

While Miriam attended the meeting of the O'Donovan Rossa Cumann in St Luke's, the Sunday Independent understands from an impeccable source that she politely declined an invitation from her former husband to join his party for a drink across the road at Fagan's pub afterwards.

At this point, Anna arrived at St Luke's, "just in time" as one person in the St Luke's set put it, to accompany Mr Ahern to the gathering at his favourite watering hole.

While an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that the two women in the former Taoiseach's life were somehow trying, or being helped, to avoid each other, the explanation is far more innocent, it seems.

As a member of the O'Donovan Rossa Cumann, Miriam was entitled to attend the meeting in St Luke's, while Anna was not.

Later that night, Bogle, a woman whom informed sources within Ahern's Drumcondra circle variously describe as his "girlfriend", "companion" or somewhat more mischievously the "fourth secret of Fatima" appeared at her ease as she sat at the bar in Fagan's, chatting amiably with members of his former team of special and political advisers. Those in attendance from Ahern's time as Taoiseach included Gerry Howlin, Brian Murphy and Olive Stephens.

Ahern, meanwhile, was similarly at ease, as he enjoyed a pint of Bass and chatted with friends and supporters, in between posing for photographs with the many members of the public who came up to shake hands with him.

Gone from the Taoiseach's office and now on his way out of the Dail, Bertie Ahern was all at once the ordinary man he had always claimed to be.

Sunday Independent