Outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was today praised as being the most skillful politician of his era by opponents and allies as they marked his last full day in the Dáil.
Some of the country’s most senior TDs paid tribute to Mr Ahern’s 11 years in power and to his skills as a negotiator and dedication to ending conflict in Northern Ireland.
Mr Ahern thanked his Dáil colleagues and took time to pay his own tribute to the North’s outgoing First Minister Rev Ian Paisley, who is due to leave office within weeks of the Taoiseach.
“Like me, Dr Paisley will soon leave office. He has played a significant role in the history of this island. Today, I acknowledge his courage and kindness to me,” the Taoiseach said.
“I wish him and his wife Eileen well in retirement. This island has come a long way and I thank God for that.”
The Taoiseach resigns from office on May 6, with his address to Congress next week in the United States one of his last major engagements.
In a warm tribute, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny praised the Taoiseach’s good nature adding that he had an unequalled zest for people.
“For him, people were never an interruption to the main task. They were the main task. They were the focus, the purpose, the point of his political life,” he said.
“He is – always and everywhere – focused on other people. He is an absorber of other people’s hopes and dreams and problems. A silent supportive listener, rather than the life and soul of the party. A mirror of other people’s needs.”
Mr Ahern’s coalition Government colleagues added their praise with Taoiseach-designate Brian Cowen describing him as a courageous leader and tremendous strategist.
“We have seen consistently a standard of statesmanship and political skill that it has been our privilege and our pleasure to watch and observe,” Mr Cowen said.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore described the Taoiseach as an extraordinary politician who had been difficult to oppose.
Mr Gilmore said it was a little strange to be paying tribute a fortnight before the Taoiseach stands down.
“Two weeks is an awfully long time in politics, in particular in the case of this man. Give him two weeks and you never know what he might pull out of the hat,” the Labour leader quipped.
“Your workrate is 24/7, and few, if anybody, has so seamlessly combined the duties of statesman with service and availability to constituents.”
Health Minister Mary Harney said Mr Ahern was the prime architect for lasting peace in the north.
“One thing I do know from my experience over the last 11 years is that nothing is too unimportant, you use your strengths to concentrate on the issues that matter and to make the impossible a reality,” she said.
“You have embraced some impossible tasks and made them happen.”
Eamon Ryan, Green Party TD, praised the Taoiseach’s commitment to his constituents and efforts to strike deals in the north and in Europe.
Mr Ahern responded to the tributes by asking the Dáil to indulge him for a few minutes.
“Peace has been the overriding priority of my political life. I have given that cause my all,” the Taoiseach said.
“I want to salute today the leaders of all the political parties in Northern Ireland who have travelled the extra mile for peace.
“Our journey is not done, but our path has been set, and we have seen in our times how much we can accomplish when men and women of goodwill dare to take the risks required in the quest for peace.”
Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghin O’Caolain offered the only dissenting voice claiming it was a charade to ignore problems in the health service while praising the Taoiseach.
“I repeatedly called on the outgoing Taoiseach to resign primarily because of the disastrous state of our health services over which he has presided,” Sinn Féin’s Dáil leader said.
“That failure has overshadowed Bertie Ahern’s role as head of government for over a decade.”