There were almost 4,000 words spoken. They ranged across 800 years of what he called a “close, complex and difficult history” between Ireland and Britain.
He spoke about the parliamentary contributions in Westminster of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. He found a lovely little phrase to describe the 1916 Rising – “a hinge of history” – and there were inclusive references to the Somme.
He was more robustly republican that many of us imagined. Let us not deny the truth, he said: the history of Ireland and Britain was one of “division and conflict, of conquest, suppression and resistance”.
But of that 4,000 words, there were just four that carried, that took flight and resounded around the magnificent and gilded walls of the Royal Gallery in Westminster.
And they were: “Ireland’s hour has come.”
The words, of course, came from – who else? – John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But it wasn’t just another politician drawing inspiration from the well of JFK. Fitzgerald had used those four words when he became the first American President to address Dáil Eireann. And four decades later, Bertie Ahern borrowed them as the first Irish Taoiseach to address the House of Lords and the House of Commons in Westminster.
Here was a politician, a self-professed 100% commoner born and bred on the northside of Dublin, delivering a speech in Westminster, the cradle of democracy, the heart of the Empire. And with an expectant audience that included prime minister, Tony Blair, the next prime Minister Gordon Brown, and an ex prime minister John Major as well as the great and the good of British and Irish politics and society, including Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny.
Since 1939, only 31 world leaders have addressed the Joint houses. Bertie Ahern found himself in the company of such distinguished world statesmen as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lam, Nikita Khruschchev, Michail Gorbachev, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Ostensibly, the honour bestowed by Blair recognised their efforts for peace during 10 horrendously trying and difficult years. And when Blair paid tribute, it was with genuine warmth. He recalled the death of Ahern’s mother during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.
"He was a man I could always trust, a man with a vision for the future not just of Ireland but for these islands,” he said.
Ahern’s speech dwelt heavily on “the dawing of a new era” in the North. But he was also brave enough also to refer to loose threads like collusion, his own republicanism, and to robustly assert his world view.
If here was a theme it was this: the dynamic has changed from old enemy to closest friend. And he reciprocated the compliment to Blair: “He has an honoured place in Irish hearts and in Irish history,” he said.
And that was the nub of it, that transformation of mind-set from inferiority complex to relaxed equal.
“For decades our relations have been filtered through the prism of conflict. Now building on the peace and progress of the last decade, we can begin to pay greater attention to the wider partnership of common,” he said.
And strangely, it came powerfully through in the passage on our emigrants, those millions who came to Britain, some of whom thrived, most of whom survived, some of whom fell by the wayside.
The view Ireland had of Britain, James Joyce once memorably observed, was seen through the “cracked looking-glass of a servant.”
No more. Bertie Ahern stood in the Royal Gallery in Westminster yesterday and with four words – Ireland’s hour has come – told us all we need to know.
From today's Irish Examiner