Page last updated at 06:12 GMT, Tuesday, 6 May 2008 07:12 UK

Last hurrah on political battlefield

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

Bertie Ahern resigned last month as Taoiseach
Mr Ahern resigned last month after almost 11 years as Taoiseach

It has been "Bye, Bye Bertie Day".

Since he announced his intention to quit early last month, the Taoiseach has been saying his many goodbyes, the highlight of which was his address to both houses of the US Congress last week when Mr Ahern memorably told his audience: "Ireland is at peace".

On Tuesday, he met Northern Ireland's First Minister Ian Paisley, who will also soon quit the political stage, on the "green, grassy slopes of the Boyne".

Twelve months ago in the middle of the Republic's general election, and just after the return of devolution and the political institutions to Northern Ireland, the two men met at the same site.

They opened the visitors' centre, just in time for the 1690 Battle of the Boyne commemorations on the Twelfth of July.

Despite only getting to know each other in recent weeks, it was noticeable that the Taoiseach singled out Ian Paisley for special praise in his last Dáil speech for the DUP leader's role in the latter part of the peace process.

Tribute

The two leaders, who seem to genuinely like each other, took the opportunity to pay tribute to each other for their role in normalising relations on the island.

Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern
Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern pictured last year at the Battle of the Boyne site

But it was also the day that Bertie Ahern stood down as Taoiseach by returning his seal of office to President McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin, her home in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

His successor as both Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, takes over on Wednesday and already speculation is mounting about how he will change his cabinet.

Most people expect a limited cabinet reshuffle with the major changes to come next year after the local and European elections.

Mr Cowen has warned people not to pay any attention to what they read in the papers, saying it is all speculation and only he knows what's in his mind.

But few would be surprised if Cavan-Monaghan TD Brendan Smith made it to the cabinet as a full member; Brian Lenihan, the Justice Minister, became Tánaiste or Deputy Prime Minister; if either Micheál Martin or Dermot Ahern became Finance Minister and Donegal's Mary Coughlan became either Minister for Foreign Affairs or Enterprise, Trade and Employment Minister.

No honeymoon

Mr Cowen is not expected to have much of a political honeymoon.

His first electoral test is just weeks away with the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty that reforms the European Union.

Brian Cowen
Brian Cowen will be in the thick of it from the beginning

All the main political parties with the exception of Sinn Fein are urging a yes vote, but the polls show growing support for those opposed, especially in the farming community.

Ireland is the only country holding a referendum on the issue, so a defeat would have wider consequences than the fate of Mr Cowen's reputation

And all this is happening against a background of economic uncertainty, falling property prices, rising mortgages and worries about whether the famed Celtic Tiger, the booming economy of recent years, still prowls the country's shores.

The Taoiseach-elect has already signalled that he believes in major reforms for the Irish public sector to make it more relevant to a modern economy.

But past experience shows talk of reform and the reality of reform, in the face of trade union opposition, are often very different.

And Brian Cowen will, indeed, have to be a BIFFO, a Big Intelligent Fellow From Offaly, to deliver on that.

But that's all for another day.

Tuesday is Bertie's day, his last hurrah as Taoiseach.


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