Today saw the last appearance of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach in a full session of the Dáil. As usual on a Wednesday, he took Leaders' Questions. But to no one's surprise today's session was special and lacked the harsh and inquisitive questions normally presented to the Taoiseach by the leaders of the opposition parties. Today Dáil Éireann was bidding a fond farewell to the man who has been our Prime Minister for more than ten years.
In thirteen days - after a visit to the United States where he will address a joint session of both Houses of Congress - Bertie Ahern will tender his resignation as Taoiseach to President Mary McAleese and, bar a miracle, be succeeded by the current Tánaiste and Minister for Finance Brian Cowen.
During the session Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny described the outgoing Taoiseach as having "an unequalled zest for people" and said that the public felt valued and important when they were listened to by him. In a rare statement of praise for his main opponent he added that "Bertie Ahern was popular, and he has always been focused on people of whose needs he was aware".
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore declared that today was the end of an era in Irish politics. He said that Mr. Ahern had enjoyed office during a period of sustained growth, which had made his job easier. He acknowledged that many positive things had been done in Bertie Ahern's time in office, but said there were other things he should have done, but failed to do.
Speaking for the Green Party, which is the junior partner in the government coalition, Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Energy and Natural Resources, said Bertie Ahern was "a hard-working politician who has been good at consensus politics".
Sinn Féin's parliamentary leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin congratulated Mr. Ahern on his part in the peace process in the North, which "has guaranteed Bertie Ahern's place in history". But he also mentioned that the governments led by Mr. Ahern had failed to deliver an adequate health service.
On behalf of the Progressive Democrats, who were Fianna Fáil's coalition partner during the entire time of Ahern's leadership, Minister for Health Mary Harney said she believed the key to Mr. Ahern's success were his personal qualities, and that he had "embraced impossible tasks and made them happen".
Listening to the various statements in the Dáil, I could not help but thinking that it was almost like a collection of graveside eulogies, with every speaker being quite cautious not to say anything bad about the deceased. Only Eamon Gilmore and Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin mentioned in sidelines the negative elements of the Ahern era, which is now coming to an early end. No one in the Dáil said a word about the rampant incompetence of the government, the massive waste of money, or the ever rising rate of violent crime in this country.
Well, I can understand that today was probably not the day to present the true balance of the years under Bertie Ahern's leadership. He was undoubtedly a very hardworking Taoiseach and his efforts to bring peace and political normality to the North will always be remembered as the finest hour of his political career. But despite his huge popularity, especially among supporters of Fianna Fáil, there are many flaws in the man, and even more in his policies. Ireland is today a very affluent country, but it is also full of huge problems which have never been addressed by the governments led by Bertie Ahern. As a historian I look at things from a distance and with a wider perspective than the five-year-cycle of the electoral term. And when the definitive history books on our era will be written, I am certain that the assessment of Bertie Ahern in them will be a lot more critical and less favourable than the words that were uttered in his presence in the Dáil today.
For now all political eyes are already set on the next man, the Taoiseach-in-waiting Brian Cowen. He is in many ways a quite different politician than Bertie Ahern, but he also shares one important element with the outgoing Taoiseach: complete loyalty to Fianna Fáil. It is therefore quite possible that he will continue the long established FF practice to put the interests of the party (and its friends) before the interests of the Irish nation.
He has, however, also the opportunity to make a truly fresh start, which would have to include a severe clean-up of recent policies and significant changes to the cabinet. In a couple of weeks we will know if he has the guts to be his own man, or if he is just a dour First Lieutenant who takes over command of the ship from a more colourful Captain.
This morning Brian Cowen said that anyone who does not recognise the achievements of Bertie Ahern during his career "is out of touch with the feelings of the Irish people".
He added that he was looking forward to taking on his new role as Taoiseach, but while Bertie Ahern remained in office he enjoyed the full support of his colleagues.
He made the statement as he arrived to address a conference on globalisation hosted by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in Dublin. The Fianna Fáil leader-designate reiterated his support for the Social Partnership process ahead of new talks beginning tomorrow.
But he warned that whatever deal was eventually agreed on, it would have "to work for all sides and also address key issues, including productivity and competitiveness".
The Emerald Islander