TONY BLAIR says Bertie Ahern was one of his “favourite political leaders” and a “true friend” who was “cunning in the best sense” and “heroic” throughout the peace process.
In his newly published autobiography, Mr Blair lavishes praise on Mr Ahern, saying the former Taoiseach had the crucial quality which defines great politicians – being a student of history rather than a prisoner of it.
Surface elements of both men’s premierships were remarkably similar: both came to power in 1997 and went on to lead their parties to three consecutive terms in office. Both were also forced out of office before the end of their third terms, however, in each case making way for their respective finance ministers.
But it was on the North that the two men truly found common ground, and Mr Blair tells in the book how he reached out to Mr Ahern ahead of the elections in 1997 when both men were still in opposition.
“I cultivated ties with David Trimble and the unionists. I sent messages showing interest in Sinn Féin. I met Bertie Ahern, also a leader of the opposition, and we got on immediately like the proverbial house on fire. The Taoiseach John Bruton was a great guy, but was plainly going to lose,” Mr Blair writes.
“Bertie is one of my favourite political leaders. Over time he became a true friend. He was heroic throughout the whole process, smart, cunning in the best sense, strong and, above all, free of the shackles of history.
“That is not to say he had no sense of history; on the contrary, his family had fought the British, had been part of the Easter Uprising, were republicans through and through; but he had that elemental quality that defines great politicians: he was a student of history, not its prisoner.”
Mr Blair also writes how Mr Ahern was less than impressed at one point during the peace process when a row over Ulster- Scotch, or Ullans, threatened to derail progress.
“I had an awful meeting with Bertie and David Trimble, in which Bertie did not take quite the same relaxed view of the importance of Ullans as I did, suggesting that maybe David would like to speak some of the ‘fecking thing’ so we could hear what it sounded like; and David taking umbrage at the idea that the dialect was a unionist invention, explaining solemnly and at length the Scottish roots of Ullans with all the sensitivity of a landowner talking to the village idiot.”
On the peace process as a whole, Mr Blair admits in the book he lied at various stages to prevent its collapse. He said he took “horrendous” chances and stretched the truth “past breaking point” as he dealt with both sides.
He also revealed how a leading Orangeman described him as unfit to be prime minister because “my wife was a painted jezebel who claimed her allegiance to Rome”.
Mr Blair said politicians were obliged from time to time to “conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it” in the interests of bigger strategic goals.
“Without operating with some subtlety at this level, the job would be well-nigh impossible,” he said.
Mr Blair is set to appear on the Late Late Show on Friday night to promote the book, which is published by Random House. He is also to sign copies of the book in Eason’s in Dublin on Saturday.
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