Sometime late last night – or even today in a summit that was tediously snailing its way to either success or failure– two of the Europe’s longest-standing leaders interrupted their colleagues to make a joint statement in the wrapping-it-up part.
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair told the other 25 prime ministers that the neverending bush fire that had been Northern Ireland’s political situation had been quenched, doused, and finally brought under control.
This peace unlike all the previous ceasefires and agreements was permanent, forever. With the earlier attempts, violent or trouble invariably returned like a raging fire jumping across a road or a track or a fire-break.
Okay, they didn’t phrase it like that. European Council summits tend to be sticklers for formality. But the net point was this. Following the ceremonies at Stormont and Westminster, this was the final, really final, occasion in which both leaders could do another lap of honour – point to the one great and historical legacy of their close decade-long political partnership.
Next Friday on June 29th Tony Blair resigns after the longest long goodbye in political history. Over the last year, and particularly in the last few months, we have seen him do all the valedictory stuff, his farewell tour– the visit to Iraq, the gradual ceding of power to Gordon Brown, the emotional goodbye in his Sedgefield constituency, the extraordinary day in Stormont (and peace in the North will probably be Blair’s greatest legacy).
But almost un-noticed (in fact not noticed at all) another political career has reached its high water mark and is now beginning to slowly ebb. For the moment that Bertie Ahern grasped a third election in a row, was the moment when he started letting go. To be sure, the anorak braved ferocious elements in its time. But its surprising sturdiness at withstanding everything thrown at it cannot disguise its obsolescence.
Anyone who tracked Blair’s career will know of his near obsession with legacy – his sometimes barmy ideas to ensure that he would be remembered by posterity. Iraq is Iraq. No more needs to be said about that shameful escapade. On the other end of the scale is Northern Ireland, an unqualified success story. In between there are failures (the Millennium Dome), successes (the London Olympics in 2012), as well as a mixed bag of half-completed or half-abandoned ‘reforms’.
And in anointing Brian Cowen as the chosen one last week, Ahern was finally acknowledging his own mortality. His legacy will be a little less tangible. It could have been the National Stadium but that fell asunder. Historically, it will be the North. And generally, it will find expression in the simple language he himself used at a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis a couple of years ago of wanting a “better Ireland”.
Materially at least – and the thumping FF consolidation in the last election was proof of this – that he has achieved. There was a time when TDs from all political parties drove Opel Vectras or VW Passats. Now most drive gleaming big Mercs and BMWs. And like their politicians, the swathe of Irish people that matter (ie those who are not too poor to vote) have all traded-up their lifestyles in ten years.
In the past week, there have been more theories about why Bertie named Cowen as anorak-elect than there are about the whereabouts of Lord Lucan. The problem with a man who made confusion into an art form is that even when he makes a straight statement people read convolution and confusion into it.
Some have pointed out that Cowen and Ahern are not the close friends as the Taoiseach paints it (that’s true). They also say that Cowen doesn’t need Ahern’s imprimatur (that’s true). Some people have suggested that it will give Cowen no help at all, that by naming him that Ahern has performed some unspeakable Machiavellian act. And its net effect is that ht has actually undermined him. (that’s very not true).
But a surprising number of people have said that to me this week as if it were Gospel. To them, I’ve replied: ‘I hear what you are saying’ which is a great euphemism for bunkum and piffle.
For once, let’s assume Ahern was telling it straight. Cowen is his natural successor. Maybe Ahern was also giving public confirmation in a roundabout way that he will not last until he’s 60 (that’s a political eon away in September 2011). Perhaps too he was giving Cowen fair warning that he needs to start to step up his preparations to take on the challenge – or more importantly to take on the challengers, including Micheal Martin, Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and Noel Dempsey.
Ahern has an ability to see around corners. He saw off Sinn Fein in the election (actually somebody described Michael McDowell as the jihadist of the campaign – in destroying Sinn Fein’s chances he also completely destroyed his own). He had the foresight to bring in the Greens, not just for numbers but as a means of winning the 2012 election.
And maybe too he is looking at the future and seeing a long-standing Fianna Fail tradition which was wholly absent during his reign making an unwelcome return. And that’s the Fianna Fail of splits and personality clashes, leadership heaves and bad blood.
And maybe he’s saying that the only way of removing that element of uncertainty is by making sure that a strong Putin-like leader replaces him.
This column appeared in today's Irish Examiner