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He can sing, but will we warm to Brian like we did to Bertie?

Published 08/04/2008

Who would have thought, 10 years on, that we'd be looking back to the 1998-2008 period as a golden era, when Tony and Bertie and David and Ian and Gerry were in charge of our destinies?

How different it will be when the personalities have changed to Gordon and Brian and Peter and Martin - all much more conventional politicians, reluctant to take too many liberties with their supporters.

We have a pretty good idea that, if all goes according to plan, Peter Robinson will never be as chummy with Martin McGuinness, the only survivor from the 2001 executive.

For his own good, and his party's, he can't be; if the honeymoon had continued, the DUP would have disintegrated.

Brian Cowen is largely an unknown quantity, though he has made the odd faux pas on Northern Ireland. At least he didn't react badly to those shameful cracks by Ian Paisley about his lips, and how his mother had put glue on them to discipline him.

But he certainly isn't in the Bertie Ahern mould - who could be? - someone for whom the united Ireland ideal meant so little that he was prepared to go to any lengths to get peace, because that was essential to the prosperity of both parts of the island. He pulled it off, because nothing or no one offends him, and because he found a fellow pragmatist and persuader in Tony Blair.

They were a once-in-a-lifetime pair of negotiators, at a crucial period in history and, for this alone, they deserve all the accolades they have been given.

To have persuaded David Trimble and John Hume to accept such an open-ended agreement - without IRA decommissioning or support for the police - was an amazing achievement, especially as it marginalised them forever.

To the outside world, it must be astonishing that just as Bertie Ahern is being congratulated for 'solving' one of the world's most intractable problems, he has had to resign because of relatively small-scale financial irregularities in the distant past.

He may be able to show that he has done nothing wrong, as he claims, but it certainly looks as if he was as unorthodox in his banking arrangements as he is in his private life.

How many accountants, party treasurers and finance ministers conduct their business affairs without having a personal bank account?

Clearly there was money flowing in and out, coming from personal and party benefactors, that he cannot now account for. That's the way things were, throughout the Haughey era.

It's wrong that the Republic's politicians should be so careless about their personal affairs, but I suspect that their ability to cut corners explains a lot about the Celtic tiger. No holds are barred when it comes to dealing with a big investor, especially if it is destined for a government-held marginal constituency ...

Back in the 1980s, I remember making a post-lunch bus tour of Galway's industrial zone, along with influential continental journalists.

An official started quoting the usual statistics before sizing up his audience and launching into a fine rendering of 'Galway Bay'that enchanted the visitors.

Whatever they wrote, and someone made sure they had all the facts, I'm certain it was complimentary.

In the same way, no one ever came away from a one-to-one session with Bertie Ahern without thinking warmly about him.

He was so ordinary, so self-effacing and so eager to be helpful that he charmed everyone he met - and remembered names forever. His secret, someone once told me, was that he had no life outside politics.

He might be talking to the President in the White House one day, but back in Dublin he might go straight to his local pub, or start knocking constituents' doors, to find out what people were saying.

I've mentioned before what a stumbling speaker he was, when leader of the Opposition, addressing Methody sixth form. I thought him a poor substitute for Albert Reynolds, who was obsessed with us, but how wrong I was. During negotiations, Tony Blair devised grand plans, but Bertie Ahern was far better at working rooms, listening and finding compromises.

Brian Cowen will be more combative, but he has his sociable side, too.

Ministers seldom hang around, after addressing meetings of journalists, but I remember a Dublin lunch where he was still smoking, talking and joking, hours later. He sings, too. Unless he acquires an unsuspected interest in north-south matters, Northern Ireland should figure much less in Irish politics in future. The North was Bertie's speciality, it's solved - they think - and now it's up to the politicians to get on with running the place.

That's the way they would like to see it in Dublin, but the reality may be different. The issue of where Northern Ireland belongs, in Ireland or the UK, will always be central to politics here, whoever the personalities are. In our segregated society, it's something that can only be managed, by flexible politicians, not solved.

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