By popular demand (well, a few Facebook friends and a few Irish journalists) here are some of Bertie Ahern’s reflections from my 80 minute chat with him at the Cheltenham Book Festival.
As I tweeted yesterday, he thought Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize was premature; that these prizes should be for achievement not expectation, and on that basis he did not exactly demur from my suggestion that perhaps he and TB might have expected one at some stage for Northern Ireland, and that but for Iraq, it might well have happened already.
He had an interesting take on some of the key players in the peace process. Like me (see The Blair Years) he found Martin McGuinness – ‘straight as a die’ – easier to deal with than Gerry Adams – ‘if it’s Sunday, he’ll say it’s Monday and then in fact it’ll turn out to be Tuesday’. He found David Trimble infuriating at times, but felt both respect and sympathy for the way he dealt with his Party. ‘These are people whose idea of a perfect Saturday is a conference to give the leadership a hard time.’ Ian Paisley ‘ended up a good friend’ but for years he would not shake his hand or even look him in the eye. ‘Sure, there was a lot of abuse along the way but sometimes you just have to take it.’
Of the various Northern Ireland Secretaries he dealt with, there was not much warmth for Peter Mandelson. ‘I liked his dog.’ John Reid was ‘a great guy but maybe the wrong temperament for Northern Ireland.’ Paul Murphy had the right temperament. He had many fond memories of Mo Mowlam, including when she stormed into the room during the Good Friday talks, threw her wig on the table and asked ‘what are all you fecking men actually doing?’
TB’s role, he said, was central and relative peace in NI simply would not have happened without him. He gave a long and rather moving assessment of TB’s handling of the process and concluded by saying ‘the man is a hero in the whole of Ireland.’
He said if he was a politician in Britain, he would be Labour ‘not the Labour of Michael Foot, but the Labour of Tony Blair.’
He came from a very Republican family and his Dad was a member of the IRA, who was jailed from time to time, but was passionately opposed to violence. Bertie talked of his first trip to Belfast amid a period of violence, and another visit in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. He said that even though ‘the legal eagles’ had turned the inquiry into an over-expensive and over-long process, it was the right thing to have had one.
He had an interesting take on the struggle for a united Ireland, said he still believed in it and wanted it, but that there had to be a period of stability and calm. He thought re the battle with Al Qaida that it was always worth finding out if there were people to talk to.
Some of my favourite passages in his autobiography relate to his early days in Irish politics, and some of the rough, tough stuff he had to get up to. He clearly felt deeply the limitations of a PR system which tended to deliver minority government, but rather wistfully said even De Valera had failed to persuade the Irish to change it. As chief whip, he said he had to get up to a fair few tricks ‘including forgetting how to count’ when pairing MPs for tight votes.
He denied, unconvincingly, his mentor Charlie Haughey’s description of Bertie as ‘the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning’ of Irish politicians. And he denied Charlie McCreevy’s assertion that nobody really knew him. He confirmed his view that the first rule of politics is that ‘the other lot are the opposition, but your enemies are on your own side.’
He raised a good laugh among the Cheltenham audience when he told the story of the time he went to see Haughey to tell him he would lose a leadership vote. It ended with the words ‘feck off.’
He admitted he had sacrificed his marrriage to Miriam for his career. Getting into another relationship, with Celia Larkin, was politically fraught. He admitted too that he resigned in part because of the incessant allegations made about his finances which became the subject of the Mahon tribunal.
When I asked him if he might run for the Irish Presidency, he said,interestingly,’I thought you said no difficult questions.’ He then gave a long and elaborate answer which certainly did not rule it out.
He is very nice about most people in his book. I am ‘brilliant’, for example. How kind. I pointed out that the two for whom he seemed to have the greatest contempt were ex-Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, and the singer Dana! He clearly felt Lamont had been useless when chairing the EU finance ministers in the lead up to the ERM crisis (NB David Cameron was Norm’s advisor) and paid insufficient regard to the impact of events on Ireland. As for Dana, she was a religious right-winger and ‘a bloody nuisance’.
Anyway, the whole event seemed to go well and it was great to catch up with him. I went from the racecourse to the town hall for an event on my novel, All In The Mind, with Kirsty Lang. Lots about mental illness, lots about politics, and plenty more evidence that Cameron is not home and dry. People just are not sure about him and his Party.
Kirsty asked me about my next novel, and I told her it was about a film star and explored what happened to people, their friends and families, when they become famous. Taking my lead from the Barack Obama peace prize, I unilaterally declared that it had won the Nobel prize for literature. And it’s not out till February.