Wednesday 21 March 2018

How Bertie beat the blues

Ciaran Byrne watches a terribly testy Taoiseach transformed as he gets into election mode -- in Africa

Ciaran Byrne

Just when you thought it was safe to go out, Bertie turns up at the hotel bar for a drink with some advisors. It's gone midnight and we thought he was in bed. There's a 7am start tomorrow and a meeting with President Thabo Mbeki but Bertie is buzzing.

Rampant levels of violent crime in Johannesburg make it unwise to leave the hotel at night, so the bar at the Hyatt Regency is busy.

Sipping a South African Castle lager, Mr Ahern is leaning against a stool and chatting with Frank Gormley, the Irish property developer.

There too is Mr Ahern's ever-present close-protection garda officer who scans the room constantly. You just never know...

It's understood on these trips that these are the rules; Mr Ahern nods politely at us but the message is "stay away lads".

The Taoiseach leaves shortly before 1am. After a gruelling 18 -hour day including a bumpy flight from Cape Town 800 miles away, he must be shattered.

Just before Mr Ahern is woken at 6.30am on Tuesday morning, an advisor is in the Hyatt's business centre printing off the morning newspaper headlines from home.

"Taoiseach accuses Kenny of telling a bare-faced lie" says the Irish Independent. "Ahern rattled as FG land a blow in tax controversy." The other papers have similar leads.

The headlines all stem from Mr Ahern's "doorstep" opportunity with the Irish media in Cape Town the day before.

Arriving in the southern port city at the weekend, Ahern is said to be in bad form after Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny calls on him to quit over his tax affairs.

Labour's Eamon Gilmore has joined in too and in Mr Ahern's circle there are angry assertions that Kenny is playing unfair and dirty in embarrassing the Taoiseach while he is abroad.

It's Sunday night and we are summoned to meet Mr Ahern's spokesman who breaks the news that the Taoiseach will not be answering any questions on domestic matters in the course of his trip.

It's an unprecedented move for a leader abroad not to speak about home matters and as the meeting breaks up there is serious tension between Mr Ahern's aides and journalists.

Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs look on aghast, fearing this will become the story and derail months of careful planning.

In Dublin and at the Irish embassy in Pretoria, officials have spent months planning functions and events to be attended by the Taoiseach over the next five days.

The trip, to South Africa and Tanzania, is designed to get maximum exposure for trade, aid projects and programmes funded by the Irish taxpayer through Irish Aid.

Now it looks like Bertie's bad humour and the unstoppable juggernaut of his personal affairs are going to occupy the week's agenda.

"It looks like it's going to be a very difficult week," says one veteran political reporter. "I haven't come out here to give the government a free ride."

It's just after 9am on Monday when the Taoiseach's cavalcade sweeps into Freedom Park, about 45 minutes west of Cape Town.

Dressed in a crisp olive suit, Mr Ahern bounds out of the car into the 35-degree heat and starts shaking hands with anyone in his path.

The Niall Mellon Township Trust is about to get a cash injection of €5million from the government and Mr Ahern is anxious to meet the man behind the project.

As we wait, RTE's David Davin-Power is on the phone to Morning Ireland. It's 7am at home and DDP, as he is known, is telling listeners how unusual it is for Mr Ahern to have ordered a blackout on domestic affairs.

Standing nearby is a government spokesman, listening to the live bulletin on his mobile phone. Ireland is waking up to the news that Mr Ahern is throwing something of a tantrum.

You wouldn't think it looking at the Taoiseach. By now he is striding around Freedom Park, shaking hands with a gaggle of little boys, some of whom wear Dublin GAA shirts. He's talking to mothers and fathers and laughing as he sees a sign saying "Moore Street" put up in his honour.

"They've moved me constituency," cries Bertie. It's like he's in election mode now, eight thousand miles from home but flashing his consummate skills as a politician.

It's seems simple, really, and quite amazing to watch: people, whether they are in Moore Street in Dublin or Moore Street in a Cape Town shanty sprawl, love Bertie Ahern.

The mood is beginning to change. Smiles are becoming more frequent, Bertie looks relaxed, still working the crowd, cracking jokes, shouting "howya" to everyone.

Mahon and all that seems like a million miles away.

The moment is coming closer; the doorstep in which he will refuse to answer questions, the moment the trip could be blown off course.

We were told he would ignore the questions but we ask them anyway. "Taoiseach, how do you answer claims by Enda Kenny that your tax affairs are not in order?"

Bertie, the old fox, is ready. After Morning Ireland, he has ditched the no-talking strategy. Enda Kenny, says Bertie, is a liar. "He is telling a bare-faced lie, and he knows he is wrong."

The Taoiseach aides look a bit sick and like they can't believe what he has just said. The journalists look like they've won the lottery and phone Dublin immediately. Enda branded a liar, what a good yarn.

After that, it's all go. In a police motorcade that travels with alarming speed, the Taoiseach moves on to Johannesburg.

South African police and protocol officials are waiting at Laseria airport, a private airfield about 70km from the city.

The journey to the five-star Hyatt takes Mr Ahern past townships that are home to hundreds of thousands of people who live without electricity or water.

His last day in South Africa is a busy one. By now Mr Ahern has attended a dozen or more functions and literally met hundreds of people.

We arrive at the Saxon Hotel for a Tourism Ireland event.

Bertie is in flying form, telling everyone he hates sleeping in hotel rooms, the air conditioning last night was either too hot or too cold.

Then it's on to a Bord Bia/Enterprise Ireland lunch. As guests tuck into Irish beef marinated in stout, Bertie asks people to buy more. "We have to do something with almost seven million cattle. There's only so much of it we can eat."

And he talks sport: "Hopefully we will see you at the World Cup in 2010 but that's looking perilous unless we find some new players. But then 10 per cent of our population is non-Irish so you never know."

There are 38 tables in the room, with close on 400 people eating lunch. Before he leaves, Bertie visits each table and shakes the hand of every guest. "Astonishing," says one South African businessman.

The trip is almost done. The motorcade speeds to Pretoria and a meeting with President Mbeki. Afterwards Bertie visits an Aids hospice run by Irish priest Fr Kieran Creagh.

Shot and left for dead last year, Fr Creagh has not only recovered but has returned to work with plans for expanding his 18-bed facility.

Mr Ahern has come a long way off the beaten path to be here at Leratong Hospice and inside, after sitting with some people who are close to death, he is almost moved to tears.

It's a triumph for Father Creagh too and his 40 volunteer staff who do their best to comfort the dying at Leratong, which means place of love.

Five people died the day before Mr Ahern arrived and it's likely the people he met on Tuesday will be dead by the time he gets home to Dublin today.

Questions about Mahon and tax and Enda Kenny suddenly seem so inappropriate. Bertie, the man with the supreme people skills, just shrugs his shoulders and says: "Jaysus lads, after seeing that, it really was just such a leveller."

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