Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Celia's loyalty marks her out as a friend indeed

She was never quite first lady. and the substitute titles variously attached to her, from first girlfriend to first consort, were always slightly snide - emphasising her ambivalent status.

Despite waiting - and waiting - for a ring, an acknowledgment of her steadfastness, maybe even a child, but above all a public display of commitment from the man to whom she was clearly devoted, Celia was left with some unenviable baggage. Yet another label: that of most publicly rejected woman in Ireland. With such a millstone around her neck, you'd expect her to be an object of pity. She's not. Celia has too much innate dignity for us to condescend to her, to feel sorry for her. I watched her yesterday on TV holding her head high as she tap-tapped into the lion's den, past a nest of dragons at the mouth of the cave. And I respected her pluck, her poise, her professionalism. She has heart, Celia Larkin.

Those years by Bertie's side weren't wasted. She knows that, rightly or wrongly, appearances count. Her sleek blonde bob was professionally blow-dried, her suit was chic and cut to flatter, her makeup was understated and flawless. She's 48 and wears it well.

This is a package any man in his right mind should be glad to claim, should be proud to have on his arm, should be grateful to see going out to bat for him.

But when did any of us pay attention to shoulds? Especially in connection with love affairs?

The relationship between Bertie and Celia went off the boil, as sometimes happens when one half of the couple wants the status quo maintained ('if it ain't broke don't fix it' - a male perspective generally) and the other half wants to shake things up. Wants progress. Wants more than vague promises. And maybe, frustrated, delivers an ultimatum that backs both parties into a corner. I said we don't pity her but many of us did sympathise with the plight Celia found herself in as the Taoiseach's plus one, tucked away in corners at certain official events, allowed to pop up at others, used as a stick with which to beat Bertie by rivals and critics. She was held personally responsible for the social morality issue which characterised their relationship, as it did others (although less publicly) during a state of flux Ireland.

And she didn't even win the prize she was expecting at some stage - despite the 1995 referendum paving the way for divorce, the man she called Bert had no interest in applying for a decree absolute. He preferred the ambivalent category of being not quite married and not quite unmarried.

There were advantages in that No Man's Land - not being obliged to re-marry, for example, especially if (you never know with women) Wife Number Two might want a baby as well.

Celia Larkin may well have been the one who walked away from that long-standing relationship with the Taoiseach in 2003. But just because a woman feels obliged to end a love affair, conceding either that it has no future or can't offer her what she needs, doesn't mean she wants to do it. It simply means she accepts she's never going to get what she's hankering after.

Celia remained true to the Taoiseach through some lean times, taking most of the flak for their liaison in that bizarre, Victorian, dual morality standard we continue to operate. The one where we reduce complex people to cardboard cut-outs: The Woman Scorned, The Scarlet Woman, The Poor Sap Trying To Keep Two Women Happy.

If Bertie had thrown Celia a few scraps she'd be with him still: some genuine hope of a public commitment eventually, as opposed to the shilly-shallying she spent years trying to alchemise into an act of faith.

None of us know for certain, of course, and Celia has too much discretion to confirm it; but it seems the Taoiseach adopted the typical passive-aggressive male stance of forcing her to take the initiative and end a stalemate. To call time on their relationship because he wouldn't do it - it might make him look heartless, after all.

She's not the first woman to have reached the church metaphorically to find no bridegroom at the altar. She won't be the last. But what separates Celia from the herd is her loyalty. She remains a friend to the man who was the love of her life, but with whom she never enjoyed much more than a half-life - a compromise she recognised and rejected ultimately. Bertie comes across as a politician who doesn't believe in regrets, a pragmatist who deals in facts and realities rather than the emotional quagmire of the might-have-beens. Yet I can't help believing he will come to regard his parting of the ways with Celia as one of the gravest mistakes he ever made; an error of judgment that will mean he is lonelier, in the years ahead, than he needed to be. Nobody can buy constancy such as she has shown him. Nobody is entitled to it.

Nobody encounters it in life often enough to become blasé about it. Celia may be the one wishing she was with Bertie now, but I suspect he'll be the one who ends up missing her.

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