Bye bye Bertie - Cowen ushers in a more sober Irish era

Other News Materials 4 May 2008 07:11 (UTC +04:00)

A new, sombre era in Irish political life was being ushered in Tuesday with the handover of power from Bertie Ahern to Brian Cowen, amid a mood of sober stoicism, the dpa reported.

We know that Cowen will be good for us. It's just that we'll miss Bertie so.

Ireland's new prime minister is associated with fiscal prudence, belt-tightening, cost-saving measures, cutting back and cutting down. Bertie was a good-time guy.

The Bertie years were wealthy and fun. There were loads of jobs and even if the coffers were unwisely managed, there was always more where that came from.

Bertie would provide, it was felt - and during the height of Ireland's late great Celtic Tiger boom in the late 1990s, he nearly always did.

While Brian Cowen, who trained as a lawyer, is not known for levity, Bertie was always good for a laugh.

Cowen's efforts to make himself more edgy by claiming to have smoked marijuana as a student raised few eyebrows in Ireland, partially because nobody believed them.

"Unlike President Clinton, I did inhale," he said in a 2007 interview, but apart from a few wags changing his nickname from Biffo to Spliffo, no one cared.

Bertie, on the other hand, made few claims to being anything other than one of the Plain People of Ireland. When he first came to power in 1997, his common-touch air and baby-kissing bonhomie brought to mind a convivial barman.

His much-cited habit of going for a few pints at his local pub in Dublin's north side worked more to his advantage than the best-laid and most costly public relations plan.

Even his less dignified moments, and there were many, didn't dent his popularity, but further endeared him to his public.

There was the time he turned up in a banana-coloured suit at the G8 Summit in Savannah, Georgia, in the US in 2004.

"I had to put a bit of colour into the place," Bertie protested as his opponents in the Irish parliament charged him with looking like a canary in a coalmine amongst his more sober-suited colleagues.

Then there was Celia. Bertie's former partner, Celia Larkin, was always referred to as Celia, as the Irish public, naturally, were on first name terms with her as well as Bertie.

Celia's relationship with Bertie became public in 1992. During his term as taoiseach from 1997 to 2002, she acted as his consort at public functions. Which was all very fine except that he still happened to be married to his wife, Miriam.

No other European heads of government had similarly presented their partner at official engagements, and although Ahern was separated from his wife, he was accused of hypocrisy for having a relationship with a woman other than his wife while being a practisising Catholic.

Nonetheless, Celia shone as Bertie's consort, appearing as comfortable by Bertie's side meeting then President Bill Clinton on a state visit to Ireland in 2000 as on a bar stool in Fagan's Public House in the Dublin suburb of Drumcondra.

The relationship ended in 2003, but not before Celia had produced a great deal of public mirth, not least in her transformation from a civil servant to a makeover expert, and the implications for Bertie's anorak wearing.

Bertie's successor is a man of few words, but he usually manages to get them in the right order and to make sense. No such claims could be made for Bertie, who was the master of the malapropism.

Bertie-isms, as his linguistic gaffes were called, will be sorely missed.

Pronouncements such as "We're not going to go upsetting the apple tart," and that it was "all smoke and daggers" have cheered up many a parliamentary session.

We will miss his comments about the risks of rising inflation: "The reason it's on the rise is because probably the boom times are getting even more boomer."

And few will forget his response to questions on corruption in planning.

"I never condemn wrongdoing in any area."

Cowen is unlikely to slip up in this fashion, and has even been known to make long, eloquent speeches in the Irish language.

But Ireland will look back with nostalgia at the " bit of colour" that Bertie brought.