Tuesday 11 December 2018

Blushing Brian's Offaly kiss could start beautiful friendship

Taoiseach Brian Cowen embraces French President Nicolas Sarkozy during a news conference at
Government Buildings yesterday
Taoiseach Brian Cowen embraces French President Nicolas Sarkozy during a news conference at Government Buildings yesterday

It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And it was sealed with a kiss. Nicolas may have begun yesterday with a smacker of a goodbye kiss from his missus Carla, but at the end of his flying visit he was sent home, not with a flea in his ear from Brian Cowen, but with a big hug and a bashful peck on the cheek from the Taoiseach.

No one was too sure how Sarko's scheduled five-hour lightning tour of the Irish psyche -- a sort of Lisbon Guide for French Dummies -- was going to unfold, particularly as Sigmund Freud once ruefully remarked of the Irish, "This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever".

There had been all sorts of skin and hair flying for days beforehand over who exactly would be granted an audience with the great man. A sort of diplomatic hokey cokey promptly ensued, with Labour leader Eamon Gilmore stepping out of the pow-wow and then stepping in again, and Fine Gael's leader Enda Kenny trying to decide whether he was in or out in the first place.

By the time the French President landed in Dublin, just after noon yesterday, the Government was run ragged trying to impose order on an event which was more akin to a melee in a chip-shop than a melange of talking heads.

And no one was quite sure which Nicolas Sarkozy was going to show up in Dublin. Would it be the charismatic charmer who snagged himself a hotly-contested Presidency and a hot singing supermodel, or would Sarko release his inner Napoleon and unite the 'Yes' and 'No' camps of the Lisbon debate in thinking he was as diplomatic as dynamite?

When Nicolas arrived amid a huge entourage at Government Buildings, shortly after 1pm, it was clear from the Taoiseach's body language that he hadn't a clue which Sarko he was greeting. "Bonjour Monsieur le President," muttered Brian self-consciously.

"Bienvenue," he added, extending his hand for a formal no-messing sort of handshake. Both were keen to make a good impression -- Sarko was clad in a sharp navy suit and shiny stack-heeled shoes which brought him almost eye-level with his host, and Brian was sporting his new First Communion haircut. The pair of them then shuffled about awkwardly, shaking hands again for the bank of cameras, both displaying all the ease of a couple who have been set up on a blind date by well-meaning friends.

Then they disappeared inside for a tete-a-tete, while Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Europe Minister Dick Roche entertained French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner with a slap-up feed of smoked salmon and rack of Connemara lamb.

But a bit of chemistry must have sparked between Brian and Nicolas; their meeting went on for almost an hour, and when the French president left Government Buildings to head for the hour-long talking shop in his country's embassy in Ballsbridge, the pair exchanged manly back-slaps and hand-grasps on the steps.

Shortly afterwards, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore emerged from their separate ten-minute meetings with Nicolas. The Fine Gael leader appeared quite smitten, although he described their brief encounter as "a very straightforward meeting".

"President Sarkozy shows a distinct understanding of the sensitivities of this for the Irish people," he explained, conveniently forgetting that a few days previously Nicolas had steamrolled unconcernedly over those sensitivities by suggesting that a second referendum was inevitable. But Enda was too impressed to quibble with such contradictions. "He was more acquainted with the elements of the campaign than I had thought," he added, admiringly.

Nicolas probably thought that the two opposition leaders were playing 'Good Cop, Bad Cop', because Enda was succeeded by Eamon who promptly (according to Eamon anyway), read him the riot act. Or as the Labour leader put it, himself and Sarko had "a lively, full and frank exchange of views" -- which sounds an awful lot like diplo-speak for hurling crockery around the room. And the Frenchman appears to have got a right earful. Referring to Nicolas's second referendum gaffe, Eamon declared feistily, "I told him his comments were distinctly unhelpful".

One suspects that Eamon may have received as good as he got; he admitted that Nicolas was "a very straight talker" and that there had been "no hanging around with diplomatic niceties".

Despite having to put up with sass from Eamon and up to 18 successive harangues from a succession of 'Yes' and 'No' representatives at the French embassy --who were hustled by him at three-minute intervals-- Sarko arrived back in Government Buildings exuding joie-de-vivre.

The two leaders had a brief confab inside and then emerged together for their press conference. Both men made formal statements, but it was soon clear that it was Sarko the Showman who had turned up, with his charm on full high-beams.

He didn't even mind when one question suggested that he might have tried to bully the Irish into doing things his way. He gestured towards his new best friend with a wide smile. "Have you seen the size of the Irish Taoiseach? He couldn't be shaken up or shaken down by me!" joked Nicolas, as Brian didn't know where to look.

"I think he's a courageous man, a brave man," added Nicolas -- anxious to shed the Napoleon comparisons and singing a siren song as seductive as one of his wife's. "I did not in any way meddle in Irish domestic affairs," he soothed, adding that there was no need for Irish people to take the collective hump with him.

"There can be no tension between France and Ireland for a start because we are friends," he cooed.

"To come to Ireland would be to meddle, and not to come would be indifference. It shows the spirit of friendship, to show that we are friends and perhaps I can help Brian," he offered sweetly.

And then Nicolas and Brian said their fond farewells. A big hug, and then Brian puckered up and planted a tentative kiss on the Frenchman's cheek (the Offaly version of a French kiss, no doubt). It was all very touching, but who knows whether this beautiful relationship will add up to a hill of beans. After all, sometimes a kiss is just a kiss.

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