Willie Kealy: ‘We’d be foolish not to make the most of Bertie’s rare talent’

The former Taoiseach was in sparkling form last week, appearing before a Brexit committee at the House of Commons, says Willie Kealy


Common sense: Bertie Ahern. Photo: PA
Common sense: Bertie Ahern. Photo: PA

I met Geraldine Kennedy recently, who frequently performs the role of talking head on the airwaves, and I complimented her on the common sense and good judgement she generally displayed in her contributions.

I added that I would feel this way about very few members of the commentariat, but I would have to pick out one other for honourable mention – our former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. She did not disagree.

Bertie has been making his presence felt of late and only the most curmudgeonly or politically biased would say it is not a welcome presence. In recent weeks, he has talked about the nurses’ strike and the children’s hospital cost over-run, but mostly he is on the subject of Brexit. And that is perfectly logical. Because Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement are very closely linked, in that the continued existence of one is threatened by the looming approach of the other. And let’s face it, the Good Friday Agreement is Bertie’s baby.

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Bertie keeps himself busy these days. Flying off to Papua New Guinea to help broker a peace deal there between warring tribes is not anybody’s idea of a junket, unless you are an airplane junkie. But that is one of the many commitments he has undertaken since leaving office, and it was on one of those return trips that he tragically lost his great friend and political wingman, Paddy Duffy.

Last week Bertie was operating a bit closer to home, in the House of Commons in London, addressing the Exiting the European Union Committee. Despite their specialist brief, the members of this committee did not seem any clearer on Brexit, than the rest of the Tory MPs we regularly see braying in the Commons chamber. One Scottish Nationalist MP, Peter Grant, wanted to know how the Irish people responded to the idea of Ireland “unilaterally going against the requirement of the EU treaties by not carrying out its responsibility to maintain the border of the EU after Brexit.” He also asked how we felt about leaving the EU and seeking to “re-join the United Kingdom”, which gave you some idea of the level of Brexit debate in London.

Bertie could have said that with our track record during the economic crash, it is highly unlikely that we would ever say no to the EU about anything. But given the rest of the question, he was probably right to confine himself to saying: “I’ll just be kind and say, not very well.”

Overall, it was not a very useful meeting, but it did allow an opportunity for some enlightenment. Like when he reminded the MPs that the Good Friday Agreement resolved the constitutional issue in Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, and that Northern Ireland, as of now, remains part of the United Kingdom, until (not unless, Bertie is still a united Ireland republican) some day that changes by the will of the people.

He then took the opportunity to have a well deserved pop at Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, though he did not name him. And he was polite – as he invariably is with his erstwhile political opponents at home – referring to “some very distinguished members of parliament”, the views of whom he “totally respected.”

But when they “talk loudly” of no basis existing for divergence of any kind between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, “I look to wondering had I turned into Rip Van Winkle, that great man from the legend who fell asleep for 20 years and woke up finding everything changed”.

This was vintage Bertie, off the cuff, not pre-prepared, unlike some who make cliched out-of-date references to “Father Ted stuff” and think they have nailed the zeitgeist. He then proceeded to tell them that “when I changed the constitutional position of Articles 2 and 3… I said there was a difference between Belfast and Finchley. So the argument that Belfast is precisely the same as Finchley is constitutionally incorrect as per the Good Friday Agreement”.

Sean Lemass started the peace process when he hooked up with Terence O’Neill. Albert Reynolds gave it a significant push forward with the help of John Major. But it was Bertie who sealed the deal with Tony Blair. Nevertheless, it might have been better to have given the rest of us a little credit for changing Articles 2 and 3. After all, we did vote for it. But that’s a small complaint.

Today Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair are probably not very far apart on the question of Brexit. Unfortunately, Blair destroyed his political capital and influence over the war in Iraq, so his countrymen and women do not wish to listen to him anymore.

Bertie left office with some kind of cloud hanging over him too, but it was a manufactured cloud, with whipped-up indignation over the private affairs of a public man, trying to provide for his family in difficult circumstances. The fact that we are happy to listen to the pronouncements of the former Taoiseach at this time of potentially great economic peril shows that we are neither hysterical or knee-jerk in our attitude to such matters.

And when he suggested early on that the parties should seek to find the kind of fudge that would allow a solution acceptable to all sides, he was not talking about confusion but rather about a constructive process where the issues that are the most contentious are not allowed to dominate the debate, and those most likely to yield agreement are focused on. Accentuating the positive, if you will.

I bumped into Bertie over the Christmas and he was in good form and looking spry as ever. It reminded me how impressive he had been throughout his career and also how rare his type of talent is in political life. And how foolish we would be not to avail of it for as long as we are lucky enough to have it available to us.

Sunday Independent

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