Bertie Ahern, who spent 11 years as taoiseach, has, as they say, a complicated legacy. But whether you see him as sleeveen or saviour, the one thing the country, fittingly, can agree on is his work on the Northern Ireland peace process.
Newstalk’s nine-part podcast, As I Remember It, makes no bones about it: this is Bertie’s version of events 25 years ago leading up to the historic Belfast Agreement. So why does he get to tell this story? In short, because he’s such a fundamental part of it, and unlike many of the other protagonists of one of the most significant moments in the country’s history, he’s still alive and kicking.
In his defence, he doesn’t hog all the limelight here: he gets the band back together, so to speak, with himself as frontman, narrator and interviewer. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton both join him for lengthy Zoom chats, with much back-patting and mutual congratulations, but they also give fascinating insights into the mindsets of some of the major players pushing peace across the line. As they remember it, at least.
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There are key voices missing, needless to say: John Hume and David Trimble, the two key architects, died in 2020 and 2022 respectively; Mo Mowlam passed in 2005. But they are ever-present in this podcast, through archival audio and through the testimony of those who are still here.
We do hear from John Hume jnr, as well as Gary McMichael, son of murdered UDA leader John McMichael; former UUP minister Dermot Nesbitt, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, Dawn Purvis of the PUP, Monica McWilliams of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Liz O’Donnell, George Mitchell, and many others who came to the table.
What’s clear from this podcast is how miraculous it all was, and how it almost wasn’t
It’s a slickly produced, well-sourced affair, though the timeline skips around a little and it can be hard to credit Ahern as an interviewer in any journalistic sense – full disclosure, he has a relationship with everyone he talks to, so questions lean more towards the conversational than the confrontational. Still, there’s a powerful story being told and the devil is in the details. Here’s John Hume being driven blindfolded in a car for 24 hours to meet with the IRA Army Council; here are the members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Council being directed to “go back and breed for Ulster”; here’s Mo Mowlam walking the halls of Stormont’s Castle Buildings barefoot, with her wig off and an IV drip in her arm, in the last few hours before the agreement was signed; here are Adams and Trimble side-by-side at a urinal in Castle Buildings.
What’s clear from this podcast is how miraculous it all was, and how it almost wasn’t. The stops and starts and setbacks, the letters shoved under doors, the intermediaries in constant motion, the meeting after meeting after meeting, and Adams’s unsuccessful “pee’s process” joke, as he remembers it. (Adams is the one voice whose absence from this Bertie Ahern show is glaring: a throwback Sinn Féin move to be outside even the talks about the talks.)
[ Blair warns that ‘constant’ political disruption in Northern Ireland will create difficulties for its future in UK ]
The Agreement’s successes and its ultimate shortcomings are also examined with 25-year hindsight, though perhaps the biggest threat to it since has been something nobody anticipated – which was Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. So what now? “There are no permanent defeats or victories in politics,” says Clinton, and surely he should know. “You just have to keep going.”