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The Teflon Taoiseach

PROFILE
By James Helm
BBC News

Paisley gives Ahern a ceremonial gun
Visiting the Battle of the Boyne site with Ian Paisley
Bertie Ahern took office within weeks of Tony Blair and after 10 years' toil, the pair have finally seen peace in Northern Ireland. Mr Blair is stepping down, but his opposite number in Dublin hopes for a second decade in power.

Last Tuesday, in Stormont's Great Hall, one-time enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness smiled and laughed together. The two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, looked happy and relaxed. It was Devolution Day in Northern Ireland.

When Mr Blair addressed the audience gathered for this moment in history, he paid tribute to the Irish Taoiseach. "No other prime minister has shared as many cups of tea with me as we've toiled through the long hours of negotiation, but Bertie has always been there, willing to surmount yet another obstacle."

After the speeches, Mr Ahern waited in a crowded Stormont corridor - the atmosphere was one of exuberance.

"There's a huge sense of satisfaction because whatever your political life holds for me, you won't beat this," Mr Ahern said. "This is trying to change a whole mindset that had gone on for 700 or 800 years."

The week's diary included another symbolic moment - a joint visit with Mr Paisley to the site where the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690. Next Tuesday, he will address a joint gathering of the Lords and Commons at Westminster - a rare honour.

Key to the peace process in Northern Ireland has been Mr Ahern's close personal relationship with Mr Blair. The pair took office within weeks of each other in 1997.

Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications at Downing Street, witnessed the tortuous Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998, made no less tense by the death of Mr Ahern's beloved mother. He broke off negotiations to attend the funeral, and was back within hours.

Blair and Ahern - in his black tie
Signing the Good Friday Agreement
"Sometimes people say when they see the pictures of the Good Friday Agreement, 'why is Bertie Ahern wearing a black tie?' and that's the answer. I think it says a lot about the man."

He notes that his former boss and the Taoiseach found something in each other that meant they could persevere when the going got tough. With Mr Ahern, it was his resilience.

"They both understood that from time to time they'd both have to act as punch bags and take the pressure. That was something that Bertie Ahern did with real calm and cool."

Once the agreement was reached, Bill Clinton, then the president of the United States, paid tribute the "unbelievable job" done by the pair.

Staying alive

Like Mr Clinton, Mr Ahern is affable, but there is steel to him as well. The late Charles Haughey, the flamboyant and controversial former Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail, once famously referred to him as "the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all."

Bee Gees
One of Mr Ahern's favourite groups
One of his nicknames is the Teflon Taoiseach - criticism doesn't seem to stick. Over the past year he's had a pretty torrid time, facing repeated questions over his past financial dealings.

Last October, he admitted receiving cash from businessmen back in the 1990s during his separation from his wife, Miriam. This, after years of public revelations about the corruption of the Haughey years. Mr Ahern gave an emotional TV interview, where he appealed directly to the Irish people.

"It was not illegal or impermissible to have done what I did. But I now regret the choices I made in those difficult and dark times. The bewilderment caused to the public about recent revelations has been deeply upsetting to me and those nearest and dearest to me."

Applause came from his supporters in the chamber. But Enda Kenny, the leader of the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, was not impressed.

"This is supposed to be the day when standards are defined and standards are adhered to. This Taoiseach is still the great evader."

Mr Kenny is now vying with Mr Ahern to be Taoiseach, in a tight election race. Mr Ahern's party is broadly centrist, pro-business and pragmatic. Fine Gael would be seen as slightly to its left.

Home turf

His parents, staunch Republicans, came from Cork, but it's inner-city Dublin that is both home and his political power base. He's kept his accent, and kept to his roots. Columnist and broadcaster Sam Smyth says his principal asset is likeability.

He had a marriage breakdown, which in a very conservative Catholic country would never be considered a career asset, but Bertie managed to get the sympathy of everybody
Broadcaster Sam Smyth

"He's sort of everyman - Bertie Ahern grew up on a farm in inner-city Dublin, his father was farm manager of the farm owned by the Catholic church. He's never left his inner city roots behind, still has most of his boyhood friends.

"Outside of this blokeishness, it also disguises a steely determination where he sacrificed everything in his personal life to become Taoiseach. He had a marriage breakdown, which in a very conservative Catholic country would never be considered a career asset, but Bertie managed to get the sympathy of everybody."

The close up, face-to-face nature of Irish politics plays to Mr Ahern's strengths. It's mattered little that he sometimes stumbles over his words. Mr Smith chuckles when he recalls Mr Ahern talking about "upsetting the apple tart". But these "Bertie-isms" might have helped endear him to voters.

The only touch of showbiz about him is that daughter Georgina is married to a member of Westlife. His other daughter, Cecilia, is a best-selling writer. Earlier in his career he was known as the Anorak Man due to his favourite article of clothing. He's a practising Catholic. He's an avid sports fan, attending most of Ireland's rugby and football matches and is also a Manchester United supporter.

And he likes nothing better than a pint of Bass in his local in Drumcondra. His lack of grandeur pays political dividends, says Mr Smyth.

"He spends at least eight to 10 hours a week, usually at the weekend, just walking round his constituency speaking to people."

Too familiar?

This weekend on lamp-posts the length and breadth of Ireland, Mr Ahern's face looks down from election posters. Fianna Fail's strategists want to keep the country's economic success in voters' minds during this campaign. And despite the questions surrounding Mr Ahern's dealings, the party sees its leader's personal popularity as absolutely vital.

Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte
Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte
But Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte says the election offers the chance for a change after 10 years of Bertie. His criticisms of Mr Ahern are political rather than personal.

"People are tired of the same old faces and failures, the inability to put the hospital crisis right; [the] social issues which ought to have benefited from economic growth. Longevity itself is not necessarily an excuse to be retained in office."

All the polls suggest the election on 24 May will be extremely close. And that lively barometer of Irish opinion, the bookmakers, reckon Bertie WILL be back, but probably with different coalition partners. His opposite number may be leaving Downing St, but Bertie Ahern - ordinary guy, pillar of the peace process, Teflon Taoiseach, plans to head into a second decade of running this country.

Profile is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturdays at 1900 BST and on Sundays at 1740.

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