Bertie accepts plaudits at the end of an era

 

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's last day in the Dáil brought an atmosphere of warmth, of nostalgia, and also a sense that history was being made - we were witnessing the end of a remarkable era, seeing an extraordinary political phenomenon bidding his adieu after an unbroken 11 years writes  Harry McGee  

The feeling of goodwill seeped outside the formal statements made by party leaders to leaders' questions – it was one of those rare days in the Dáil when the debate was consensual rather than adversarial. 

Having said that, neither the Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny nor his Labour counterpart Eamon Gilmore were willing to let Bertie away fully with it. Both returned to themes that have become almost the default ones for their respective parties. Mr Kenny stood back with his arms folded striking a casual pose with which to ask his final question: did the Taoiseach regret setting up the HSE?

But if he was hoping for a candid hands-up admission, he found the Taoiseach also in default mode. He defended the HSE with a blanket of statistics that pointed to
gravity defying improvements in the past 11 years.

Eamon Gilmore sneaked in a question about electronic voting (a Labour favourite) asking would Mr Ahern use his famous 'peann luaidhe' to draw a line under the €50 million 'fiasco'. Mr Ahern noted that Mr Gilmore might have wished for electronic voting machines last year when Fianna Fail was winning its third election. Mr Gilmore shot back with a reminder that on the day of his appointment as Labour leader, Bertie Ahern
reminded him that he had seen off three Labour leaders already. But it was all done in good-hearted humour. 

The tributes from the leaders of all the political parties (including Fianna Fail leader-designate Brian Cowen) were more memorable for the sentiment and generosity of praise rather than the actual prose. Indeed, few of them cleaved religiously to their pre-prepared scripts with Mary Harney, Mr Cowen and Eamon Ryan (deputising for John
Gormley) all speaking extemporaneously. It was noteworthy too that no mention was made of the circumstance that led to his decision to resign from office. 

Mr Kenny said that Mr Ahern was the ultimate paradox, a sociable loner. Noting his unequalled zest for people, Mr Kenny continued. "I believe I can accurately suggest that he is at home in a crowd, but at one with his garden. I have watched the Taoiseach these many years in this House and I have known few others who could come near him when it comes to diligence." 

That became one of the recurrent themes of the speeches, the Taoiseach's hard-work. Eamon Ryan says that the first time he met him, Mr Ahern greeted him as "the hard-working man". Mr Ryan was chuffed until he realised it was Bertie Ahern's standard greeting to everybody. The truest person it described, Mr Ryan said, was the
Taoiseach himself.

And of course, Mr Ahern's central role in the Northern Ireland peace process, in his stewartship of the economy, and as President of the European Council in 2004 also featured heavily in all of the tributes. 

Tánaiste Brian Cowen said that one of the few occasions when the hair stood on the back of his neck and he felt an ineffable pride for Bertie Ahern was when he steered through the draft European Union constitution in 2004. 

"There were 26 other heads of government who stood in applause at the Irish presidency because they knew that there was not another person in that room who would have the capacity to do that." 

And all of the other leaders referred at length to his personal qualities, that unique mixture of political nous, strategic genius and a common touch that made him so successful. 

Mr Kenny quoted Thomas Jefferson when describing the politician he has worked with, and sparred against, for three decades. "I do not consider a difference of opinion in politics, religion or philosophy to be the cause of a withdrawal of a friendship." 

Mr Gilmore said that Mr Ahern had a remarkable record of achievement, having had three successive electoral victories and also said he was a lucky Taoiseach. 

"There are few of any who so seamlessly combined the duties of a statesman with the service and availability to constituents."

The only discordant note came during the speech of Caoimhghin O Caolain who praised the Taoiseach for his role in the peace process but then launched into a political speech on the state of the health services. 

In a very personal tribute, the Health Minister Mary Harney said that people will say that nobody really knew Bertie ahern. What she did know, she said, was that nothing was impossible to him. 

"I know of nobody who has put in the commitment that he has over the past ten or eleven years… the people of Ireland found in the Taoiseach somebody who was genuinely one of their own, a person who did not become too big for his boots in high office," she said. 

In his speech Mr Cowen put the Taoiseach's achievements into historical perspective. "Whether it is in the United State, in the European Union, or Northern Ireland or in this House or in every city, town and village of the country, we have seen a standard of
statesmanship that it has been our pleasure to witness," he said. 

Mr Ahern, in a relatively short speech, thanked all the people who he had worked with and encountered in over three decades. He finished his speech by saying: 

"I entered politics because I believed it to be a noble profession. Over three decades on, I hold firmly to that view. I have seen at first-hand the long hours, the commitment and the dedication of TDs from all parties to serving the people. 

"… while I know that during my time as Taoiseach, while I did not get everything right, I always did my best and worked to the best of my ability for the people." 

At the outset of his speech, he said he had been head of government for 565 weeks. He also stood in, and won, 12 elections. Bertie Ahern also became the second longest-serving Taoiseach in the history of the State. 

On completing his speech, he was given a standing ovation from all sides of the house.

It was one of those rare moments.