Monday 21 January 2019

'When he was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he was forgiven'

Medb Ruane

In the days when Bertie Ahern was a fledgling accounts clerk, a sickly-sweet movie gave Irish men and women a new line. "Love means never having to say you're sorry" was bad advice, but it had sticking power. Say it straight and you could sound sincere.

Who knows if young Ahern heard the words when he took young Miriam Kelly to see the film Love Story on one of their first dates? Because something of the tearjerky sentiment survived this week when Bertie told the nation he was leaving, so that the business of Government could go on.

"I know in my heart of hearts that I have done no wrong and wronged no one," he said through quivering lips. "I want everyone to understand one truth above all else. Never, in all the time I have served in public life, have I put my personal interest ahead of the public good."

It was a 'hand of history' moment. The nation's 31-year love affair with Bertie -- and his with it -- had lasted longer than some lives and many marriages, his own included. It was just as complicated.

When he was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he was forgiven. Until his former secretary Grainne Carruth had her sterling moment in the Mahon Tribunal, there was still some hope he'd been truthful -- as well as sincere -- in his 2006 interview with Bryan Dobson, where the same trembling lips and misty eyes put the Irish people before the instruments of State, asking them for a break, a bit of ordinary human understanding.

What Ahern actually stood for is a mystery. He represented everything and nothing at the same time. Officially a strict Catholic with ashes stamped on his Lenten forehead, his private conduct offended both the Church of Ireland and, later, Cardinal Desmond Connell who did not want to meet Celia Larkin in the receiving line.

Officially a strict Republican, he negotiated brilliantly with extreme unionists, charmed citizens into abandoning the territorial claims of Articles 2 and 3 but at the same time found himself first in denial and then unable to explain how and why he'd trousered hundreds of thousands of euro when other citizens were obliged to toe the line.

Prince Charming or Prince Conman? It was hard to decide. His talent for spotting talented people began with Miriam, went on to Celia Larkin and extended to friends and colleagues who became his advisors and served him well.

He believed in honour. "The public are entitled to have an absolute guarantee of the financial probity and integrity of their elected representatives, their officials and above all of Ministers. They need to know that they are under financial obligations to nobody," he said in 1996.

Ahern liked money and encouraged the nation to like it too. It was OK to be worth it. More people had money than ever imagined they would and the economy thrived. Himself one of the best-paid Prime Ministers in the world, he saw no reason why taxes shouldn't pay for his make-up, his transport, even subsidise the price of his pint in the Dáil bar. It was in the public interest, he probably believed.

There were downsides to this love of money. If in 1997 you found a tenner on the street, odds were you'd hand it in. If you found it in 2008, odds were you might think it wasn't worth the trouble. Ahern's can-do imagination helped a can-do culture to emerge. Everything was possible given enough momentum. At one stage, Ahern even thought it possible he'd attended UCD and the London School of Economics until someone found he had not.

The man who stood for nothing -- other than his own survival, perhaps -- was capable of powerfully symbolic acts. The dignified state funerals of Kevin Barry and other executed volunteers allowed the nation to finally move on. The Special Olympics celebrated difference, while parents still went without to pay for special education and medical care.

The Belfast Agreement was a triumph; but he didn't succeed with all his referendums. Under him, the public service grew to the size of a former Soviet state and the health service became so centralised that you couldn't order biscuits without HQ approval.

His Bertie Bowl cost a fortune and came to nought. More legislation was drafted than passed, and he cut his own time before the Dail because he didn't like having to explain himself. Reports on how to make change enriched consultants but never saw the light of day.

Bertie's speech from the dock -- sorry, deck -- of Government Buildings lacked the elegance of Charles J Haughey's Shakespearean quotes but it spoke straight to people, carving out a point in time so well that in years to come it may become a 'where were you when you heard?'

As the nation's love affair with Bertie shudders to a halt, the island is at peace. Ireland has a broader role in the world and is better for it.

Prince Charming or Prince Conman? For him, the gap between truth and sincerity is still outstanding, as is the question of whether he was a throwback to old political culture or a sign of something new.

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