Miriam Lord: Bertie asks what one tree can do for yew

The former taoiseach dispensed with wisdom at the Kennedy Summer School

The fiscal space is this big: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former CNN presenter Gina London and former deputy first minister Mark Durkan at the Kennedy Summer School. Photograph: Mary Browne

The fiscal space is this big: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former CNN presenter Gina London and former deputy first minister Mark Durkan at the Kennedy Summer School. Photograph: Mary Browne

 

The new political season is upon us. It landed with the last of the summer schools and the autumn sound of calls for the Garda Commissioner to resign. And so to Wexford for the John F Kennedy Summer School.

The three-day yakathon sold out five weeks ago, leading to a spike in sales of anoraks around the county – although the Kennedy Summer School likes to see itself as a little edgier than its rivals. It even attracts a number of patrons who like to think they can still cut a dash at Electric Picnic.

Political-anorak-in-chief Noel Whelan is a martyr to the summer schools. So it was only a matter of time before the Wexford-born barrister and Irish Times columnist established one in his home county.

Many of the summer-school regulars can be observed at the JFK talkfest. After months gadding around the byroads to unburden themselves of big thoughts on the state of the nation, these deep thinkers go into a form of hibernation, venturing out only to join panel discussions on current-affairs shows – their equivalent of methadone.

The New Ross-based festival of Irish and American history, culture and politics closes on Saturday night after “An Audience with Ryan Tubridy on JFK and Much More . . .”

Paschal Donohoe was the main attraction at a lunchtime event on Friday. The Minister for Finance, back from his holliers with the family, delivered a weighty address about his budgetary plans and future economic strategy, thanked the organisers for giving him the chance to speak, thanked everyone for turning up to hear him and then thanked the caterers for the lovely food.

During a question-and-answer session, Dr Robert Mauro of Boston College asked Paschal to name the Government colleague he most admires. All of them, naturally. There was a better chance of walking down to the Kennedy ancestral home in Dunganstown and finding President Kennedy alive and well in his rocking chair than there was of the Minister giving a straight answer to such a delicate question. He started talking about the economy.

When pressed again on the issue he then plumped for Katherine Zappone – “she is a very special person” – which meant he wasn’t insulting anyone in Fine Gael.

It may also have been because the Minister for Children, when asked a similar question the day before, declared in an instant that Paschal is the one she admires the most.

Bertie Ahern was also a guest at the lunch, which was held in a marquee on the grounds of the very beautiful JFK Arboretum. “Ask not what your one tree can do for yew,” etc. The former taoiseach, who was looking very well after his annual holiday in Co Kerry, and taking part in a panel discussion on Brexit later in the evening, told reporters he isn’t very impressed by the UK’s approach to the issue. “There is little light at the end of the tunnel . . . I can’t see much progress being made,” he said.

As he sees it the British, having agreed a basis for negotiations, haven’t an earthly notion of sticking with it. And that, he says, will only get the back up of all the other EU countries, apart from Ireland, because it’s of no value to us to “get into a dogfight”.

Bertie is very busy these days with the Brexit. “The phone’s been going nonstop” with news outlets and academic institutions from around the globe ringing for his opinion. He’s very good on the subject, too.

Lend a hand

Paschal was delighted to see his fellow Dublin Central man and called for a special round of applause for him.

Perhaps he could suggest to Leo Varadkar that it might be a good idea to get Bertie doing a bit of work for us in Europe on the Brexit front. He could form a formidable double act with Enda Kenny.

In his speech, the Minister for Finance got stuck into the economic mistakes of the boom years, when Bertie, a former minister for finance, was in his pomp.

The Minister for Finance got stuck into the economic mistakes of the boom years. Bertie, sitting just a few metres away, stared stoically into the middle distance

The former taoiseach, sitting just a few metres away, stared stoically into the middle distance.

“I promise that, unlike in the Celtic Tiger period, I will do nothing today that will have to be completely undone tomorrow,” because the days of the “failed economic shock and awe – the awe of an attractive, lucrative, feelgood tax cut, followed by the shock of a penal, unbearable tax hike just a few years later – are over”, said Paschal.

His address contained more than a nod and heavy wink in the direction of middle-income earners as he talked about making “steady and affordable progress” in reducing the tax burden for them.

Having said that an income-tax system that takes nearly half of every euro earned by someone on the average wage is neither efficient nor sustainable, Paschal disgusted journalists by then announcing that he is “neither willing nor able” to give any details.

“This is a cap on aspiration and places a ceiling on the ambitions of our people.” You can see that line ending up on the election literature, for the workers – early rising or not.

The Minister finished his speech – it lasted half an hour – with quotes from two political giants. (At least in Paschal’s book.) The first was from JFK, the second from Leo Varadkar. So maybe the Taoiseach won’t be too annoyed that he didn’t make the top of Paschal’s most-admired list.

As for Bertie, who is clearly relishing being celebrated in his new role as the sage of Brexit, he can’t get over the way the negotiations have been going between the EU and the UK.

“It’s amazing. The abuse on both sides has been as bad as it was before article 50 was triggered. I thought we would have it for a month or two but then that would be it. I said it then and I say it again: I think they should all take a walk in the park and calm it down.”

Good man, Bertie.

As for Paschal, he returned to Dublin to launch a book on the history of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That’ll be a page-turner.

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