Teflon Taoiseach - Still a widely liked Irish leader

Bertie Ahern has been the second longest head of government since the foundation of the State. Eamon de Valera was head of government for 16 years from 1932 until 1948, and also two other periods as taoiseach in the 1950s. The next longest serving taoiseach was Jack Lynch, whose two terms extended over almost nine years with a four-year break in between.

Mr Ahern has the added distinction of leading the first coalition government to be returned to office. Like Seán Lemass he never enjoyed an overall majority, but he was able to form stable governments. It is too early to determine how history will see the balance sheet of his achievements, but there is no doubt that the country has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during his period of office.

His great forte has undoubtedly been as a conciliator and his greatest legacy will probably be seen as his role in helping to implement the peace process. His term of office was marked by the greatest atrocity of the Troubles, the Omagh bombing. Against the backdrop of that outrage, his achievements appear all the greater.

The Taoiseach was widely credited by people on both sides of the divide within the North with playing a magnificent role in the brokering of the Good Friday Agreement under the most trying circumstances. His mother died as those negotiations were coming to a climax.

He dealt with the often delicate process of securing the proper implementation of the Good Friday Agreement with enormous skill, and there has been a series of events this year which many people would have thought unbelievable not so long ago.

The Garda and Army Band played God Save the Queen this year before Ireland played England in a rugby international at Croke Park, without any incident of disrespect. The Democratic Unionists under Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin are in a power-sharing government in the North. And Mr Paisley came south to be photographed enthusiastically shaking hands with the Taoiseach.

Those were symbolic images that will long live in the memories of people. It is possible to talk of the peace dividend in a meaningful and realistic way.

There has been no shortage of scandals involving members of the Fianna Fáil Party, and Mr Ahern did not always handle them with the same aplomb, but he still got the reputation of being the Teflon Taoiseach. “He’s the man,” as Charles Haughey once said. “He’s the best, the most skilful, the most devious, and the most cunning.”

Mr Ahern essentially facilitated Mr Haughey by signing blank checks. The party has been mired in a whole series of scandals involving Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor, just to mention two of many.

When others got into political trouble, Mr Ahern would call for an explanation, rather than for a head. “A person is entitled to a bit of space,” he emphasised. Other politicians were not slow to criticise. “I certainly am not that perfect,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil. “No one is infallible or perfect.”

Maybe this has been his secret. He never pretended to be perfect. History will judge his effectiveness, but no one can doubt that he has been one of the country’s most popular leaders.

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