ALASTAIR CAMPBELL was in Dublin last week, flogging a book, revisiting the past, and standing by an old pal.
Campbell, who worked for nine years as Tony Blair’s spin doctor, has culled from extensive diaries his entries about the Northern Ireland peace process.
The Irish Diaries (1994-2003) is graced with, not one, but two forewords. Campbell’s old boss obliged with his few words, as did Bertie Ahern.
Notably, Ahern is not on the cover of the book, which was published by Lilliput Press. Instead, a photograph taken outside Stormont, of Seamus Mallon, Bill Clinton, David Trimble and Tony Blair, does the honours. The publisher has denied omitting Ahern on purpose, but his absence is convenient when his popularity is in the basement. If some faces can sell a book or magazine, so some faces can turn off potential readers or buyers.
Campbell professed himself surprised and saddened by how his old chum, Bertie, is now “denigrated” on this side of the Irish Sea. At the Dublin launch of the book, on Wednesday evening, Campbell said “Bertie was so fundamental to the whole thing — it angers me when I hear some of the things that have been said about him.”
Ahern was in the audience for the launch. Seated next to him was PJ Mara, who rose to his feet at the appropriate time, and laid out a case for the defence of his old pal.
“I’ve been of the view, for a long time, that whatever faults Bertie Ahern has, and he has faults, as every public figure has, but every Taoiseach this country ever had would have given their right arms to have achieved what this man has achieved.
“Not many people have given him the credit he deserved,” Mara said.
Ahern spurned various approaches from members of the media. For anybody who remembers the former Taoiseach’s propensity to chew the top off the nearest microphone at every opportunity — while revealing little — the refusal to engage was telling.
As a politician, Ahern loved to be loved. He was always available for the most banal quote, anything that might connect him with the public. Of course, most of that was wrapped up in his endless pursuit of votes, but there was also a want there, in the form of that stray gene, known mainly to actors and politicians, that hungers for affirmation, or even acclaim. Ahern had it in spades.
These days, he knows that the sight or sound of him on any media is more likely to inflame.
It took him a while to cop onto that, lost, as he was, in a bubble of deep denial, but, by now, reality has bitten enough to shake him awake to the most immediate reality.
He’s not alone. Most of his former Cabinet colleagues have largely gone to ground.
Mary Hanafin is a rare exception, but she wants to get back in the game. Then, there’s Micheál Martin, who has no recollection of having ever met, not to mind governed with, Bertie Ahern, or any of his other former colleagues.
The others — Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, Batt O’Keeffe, Charlie McCreevy and Mary Coughlan — are nowhere to be seen. None, however, are regarded with the opprobrium that now greets their former leader wherever he goes.
Then, there is the matter of Ahern’s personal finances. I followed his tribunal travails closely, and co-authored a book about him that included detail of the tales he wove, and how they just didn’t stack up. The Mahon Tribunal said it didn’t believe his stories of dig-outs and whip-arounds and money falling off trees. The result was that Ahern’s reputation was dispatched to a holding tank just above those of Ray Burke and Charlie Haughey.
Maybe, if Alastair Campbell knew the details of these two strands in Ahern’s life, he might understand how the former Taoiseach is regarded in such low esteem here, today. Or maybe not.
Maybe Campbell has, to a certain extent, a point. These days, Ahern’s input into the peace process, both in terms of commitment and participation, is largely forgotten. Sure, anytime the North is raised as an issue, somebody will give his efforts a nod, but it’s largely as an afterthought, as if all else to do with his public and private life overshadows that achievement.
Campbell would know, from his own close relationship with Tony Blair, how these things go. In the UK, Blair is now despised by some, loathed by others, and merely dismissed as a failure by large swathes of the population.
The positives of his career, including the peace process, are all smothered under the great disaster that was the UK’s involvement in the war in Iraq. Most people now believe that Blair had committed to go to war because George Bush, and those around him, convinced Blair that the world had to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
Thereafter, any evidence that might validate the decision was pounced on by Blair’s cabal, and anything else was quietly dismissed. Blair and Campbell have long argued otherwise, but they have certainly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the British people.
It may be understandable that Blair’s achievement in the peace process is a footnote in the UK. Interest in the violence and destruction in the North was only heightened over there when the violence visited Britain.
On the streets of their cities today, Islamic fanatics have replaced Irish fanatics as bombers. Few, now, really appreciate what was achieved in a corner of what is officially part of the UK.
Here, south of the border, many affect a superior air to those in Britain, when it comes to the North. There is a general notion that, down here, we all felt the pain of those who were suffering up North.
In reality, most of us were completely removed from it. When it looked, briefly, in the early 1970s as if the violence might overspill, the government’s main focus was on insulating the Republic, rather than finding a solution to the problem.
Since the achievement of peace, the Republic has been subjected to economic calamity. The extent to which the current problems dominate is evident when you hear some commentators describe the bank guarantee as the worst day in the country’s history. Worse than Bloody Sunday? The blowing up of Lord Mountbatten, and three other civilians, in Sligo? The Dublin and Monaghan car bombings? Perhaps, therein, is a clue as to why Ahern is ‘denigrated’ to the extent that he is.
Saved lives are soon forgotten. The sudden, brutally reduced economic circumstances of so many are far more immediate, and responsibility for that has to be apportioned to somebody.
Ahern certainly deserves most of the brickbats thrown his way, but is that the whole story of his legacy? History may well be kinder to Ahern, but between now and then, he’d be better off to keep the head down.
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