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May 11, 2007 8:45 pm

In the Spotlight: Bertie Ahern - ‘Teflon Taoiseach’ goes for a record

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Bertie Ahern makes history on Tuesday when the 55-year-old Dubliner becomes the first Irish prime minister to address both houses of the British parliament in London. Tony Blair’s invitation to the Taoiseach, to use his Irish language title, is in recognition of his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process.

It underscores not just the sharp improvement in British-Irish relations but the close personal rapport between the two leaders, forged over long days and nights searching for an agreement to bring a permanent political settlement to the troubled British province.

Ironically, Mr Ahern’s speech at Westminster Hall to an invited audience of members of both the Commons and the Lords, comes days after Mr Blair confirmed a date for his long anticipated departure from Downing Street and ahead of an Irish general election, where Mr Ahern is seeking a own third term.

The former accountant is already the most successful Irish prime minister of recent decades, presiding over a 10-year long economic boom, which only now is starting to cool.

He caused some wry comments when last year he described himself as a socialist. His record is broadly pro-business, without being doctrinaire.

Economic success has given Ireland a new clout in the world. Mr Ahern has proven well up to this new responsibility, earning the plaudits of fellow prime ministers after his adroit handling a difficult six-month presidency of the European Union in 2004 at the time of the crisis over the European constitution.

His stumbling syntax – which political opponents believe is often deliberately done so as to avoid awkward questioning – belies a shrewd political brain.

Once known as Anorak Man for his lack of sartorial awareness, he is more often described as the Teflon Taoiseach for his proven survival skills in the bear pit of Irish politics.

In 10 years in office, while several financial scandals have been unearthed over planning corruption and payments to politicians, Mr Ahern has so far remained unscarred.

There are some questions over his relations with the now disgraced former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who gave him his first big break, appointing him assistant whip in 1980. Controversially Mr Ahern was party treasurer at the time and was in the habit of signing blank cheques, which it has since transpired Mr Haughey then used to kit himself out with French hand-made shirts and other luxuries.

Mr Haughey famously described the young Mr Ahern as the “most cunning and most devious” of all politicians, which it is sometimes forgotten was intended to be a compliment.

Certainly, his record as a vote winner for Fianna Fail is difficult to gainsay. As a schoolboy he recalls he spent election time shinning it up lamp-posts to erect posters for his local Fianna Fail candidate in Dublin Central, a seat he has retained since he was first elected in 1977.

Canvassing in Mayo, in the west of Ireland last week, one voter was heard to enthuse “he’s just so ordinary”.

His pint-drinking, football-following friendliness is real. He appears genuinely liked.

This affability shapes his political instincts too, where he prefers conciliation to confrontation. He first put this to good use in his first cabinet job as labour minister in the late 1980s, when Ireland faced a number of bitter industrial disputes.

Similar skills have been deployed in holding together the coalition with the market-oriented Progressive Democrats for two successive full five-year terms. In 2002 his government became the first since 1969 not to be booted out after one term.

And it is broadly these same abilities he used in the negotiations on Northern Ireland, which led last week to the historic establishment of a power-sharing executive composed of the province’s political extremes, the hardline Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, a party which for 30 years of the Troubles was seen as the political face of the Irish Republican Army.

Mr Ahern is said to have won the trust of both Ian Paisley, the DUP leader and first minister, and equally of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, and Martin McGuinness, the executive’s new deputy first minister.

Where Irish prime ministers would once have felt it their job to champion their co-religionists in Northern Ireland, Mr Ahern was even-handed. Mr Paisley now refers to him as Bertie, as most Irish do.

If Mr Ahern forms the next government, he will be only the second Irish leader to win three successive elections, something last achieved in the 1940s by Eamon De Valera, the pre-eminent politician in post-independence Ireland.

With Mr Blair’s retirement, he would become the EU’s second longest-serving leader after the Luxembourg prime minister.

Last week he appeared in some difficulty after new allegations surrounding his personal finances. But the Irish voters are not so judgmental as the media it seems. The latest poll showed Fianna Fail recovering ground. A record third term is still on the cards.

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