Emotion sees Biffo turn into Sniffo (almost)

HE ROSE a taoiseach and sat down as Bertie the backbencher.

In the moments between, Bertie had swept through the vote tellers to confirm Brian Cowen as his successor, then the pair briefly paused at the top of the chamber’s steps and clasped hands — the baton had been passed, the future belonged to Brian.

The old taoiseach then asked Johnny Brady to budge-up and slipped quietly onto the edge of the second row from the back, the dignity of the moment only threatened by what seemed worryingly like an attempted high-five from Charlie O’Connor.

The new taoiseach descended the stairs to assume the place Bertie had occupied these past 10 years, 10 months and 11 days, and seemed genuinely in awe of the position he now commanded as Mr Cowen’s voice broke with emotion and he appeared on the brink of tears when mentioning the gratitude he owed his father Ber, whose early death had propelled Brian into national politics at such a young age.

Emotion had also almost got the better of the Offaly man a few minutes earlier when the chamber erupted in unanimous applause as his victory was confirmed.

Mr Cowen turned and waved back at his mother, wife Mary and daughters Sinead and Maedhbh in the visitors’ gallery a few feet behind, but managed to compose himself before any chance of slipping from Biffo to Sniffo.

It was also a day of extreme emotions for his predecessor as Bertie made it clear he just wanted the formalities over with and the inevitable done and dusted.

As the opposition parties went through the motion of nominating no-hoper opponents of Brian, Bertie sat there unable, or unwilling, to hide his glumness.

He fiddled with his tie, he looked into the middle distance, he tapped his fingers impatiently as the reality of the situation appeared to finally break over him and that his long, intercontinental goodbye had left him exhausted.

At one point Bertie rested his head in his right hand, his fingers separated to form a classic V-sign, which happened to be directly facing the press gallery above. Purely coincidental of course, but perhaps also a fitting subliminal message to the media after the past turbulent 18 months.

But politics is a brutal business and few know that better than Bertie.

Behind the Cowens in the visitors’ gallery sat fellow ex-taoiseach Albert Reynolds.

No doubt he was there to cheer on his one-time protege Mr Cowen, but part of him must also have been keenly interested in the fall from power of the man who famously shafted him in the 1997 Fianna Fáil presidential nomination spat.

Brian was carried from the chamber to collect his seal of office at Arás an Uachtaráin on a wave of raw emotion as he was forced to surge through a human wall of goodwill to get to his car at the front of Leinster House as supporters from his home county swirled around him like mobbing a rock star.

Guards had to surround the vehicle to get it to move as Biffo-mania overflowed across the plinth in front of the Oireachtas as the soaring choruses of The Offaly Rover boomed out over the parliamentary buildings as the scene began to resemble the winning team of an All-Ireland final being cheered away from Croke Park, rather than a state ceremonial.

Mr Cowen hesitated in the doorway after shaking the president’s hand, weighing up whether he could hold on for his two daughters as they helped their grandmothers out of the official cars behind and trouped into the house with them hand in hand.

After the seal of office was accepted, Mr Cowen looked startled as a roar of “taoiseach” went up from the dozen or so photographers present — as if it was the first time he fully realised a lifetime in politics had reached its pinnacle.

Mr Cowen’s return with the seal, sealed the fate of ministers less than enthusiastic about their new roles. Mary Hanafin looked particularly despondent as it emerged she had been demoted to social and family affairs.

However, before that could be confirmed the line-up of the new cabinet became a guessing game as Fine Gael filler-busting delayed the announcement. This meant broadcast journalists facing, as it were, live deadlines, had to surmise the situation purely from the order the ministers had entered the chamber in. It was like scrutinising an old Kremlin photo to see who was standing closest to Stalin or Brezhnev to work out which were in favour.

Outside on the sun-drenched plinth Mr Ahern had been spending his first hours of freedom doing what he does best, chatting to the Fianna Fáil faithful and posing for photos as everyone still clamoured for their personal little bit of Bertie.

The day belonged to Biffo, but we certainly have not heard the last of Bertie yet.

Timeline: How the events of yesterday panned out

10am: Bertie Ahern arrived at the Arbour Hill 1916 commemoration, his last official appointment as taoiseach where he received his final salute from the Defence Forces.

1pm: Crowds gather behind Garda barriers outside Leinster House.

2.30pm: Ministers, TDs and senators filled the Dáil chamber for the official election of Brian Cowen as taoiseach. Mr Ahern backs his successor, saying he is “a uniquely well-qualified candidate”.

3pm: Fine Gael and Labour refused to back Mr Cowen and nominate their own leaders, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore.

3.30pm-4pm: Mr Cowen won a nomination vote for taoiseach by 88 votes to 76 after a brief debate.

4.30pm: The taoiseach-designate travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin to sign his warrant of appointment from the President.

5pm: Taoiseach Brian Cowen was handed his seals of office as taoiseach and his power in government by President Mary McAleese.

5.15pm: Ministers were summoned and told of the new positions in cabinet.

6.15pm: Brian Cowen entered the Dáil chamber and revealed his cabinet reshuffle.

8pm: TDs on both sides of the house debated issues ahead for the new cabinet.

9.10pm: The cabinet went to Áras an Uachtaráin to receive their seals of office.

9.30pm: Brian Cowen headed his first cabinet meeting as taoiseach.

10pm: Mr Cowen celebrated with family and friends in the Dáil bar and Alexander Hotel.


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