Dáil Éireann - Volume 652 - 23 April, 2008
Tributes to the Taoiseach.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: Anois, ráitis in ómós don Taoiseach. Now, statements of tribute to the Taoiseach. Iarraim ar cheannaire Fhine Gael, an Teachta Éanna Ó Cionnaith, a ráiteas a dhéanamh.
Deputy Enda Kenny Deputy Enda Kenny
 Deputy Enda Kenny: When it comes to paying tribute to a man, too often we articulate a list of his achievements. I grant that it is one way to measure a man — it piles up the objectives reached, goals attained and targets hit — but it is also a way to lose sight of the essence of a man by focusing on the little round of deeds and days that make up his curriculum vitae. The essence of a man is to be found not in his notched-up achievements, but in the mosaic of traits that make him what he is, traits that, in their totality, are as unique to that man as his fingerprints and traits that, in a politician, evoke a response from the people which is as unique as the man himself.
A key piece of the mosaic making up the man that is Bertie Ahern is his unequalled zest for people. For him, people were never an interruption to his main task — they were the main task. They were the focus, the purpose and the point of his political life. There was never a pretence about it. He enjoyed every human contact, whether it was a hand fleetingly grasped on a canvass, an assistant murmuring something before a meeting or an elderly constituent confiding a problem. To each he gave his concentrated, infinitely respectful attention. From each, he drew the meaning of his political life. For them, to be listened to by the man was to feel valued and important. He heard, absorbed, responded, remembered and attended to those individuals.
Nor was he a man who later peddled stories about the people who confided in him for help. He has never been that kind of politician. In fact, that is one of the traits of Bertie Ahern that is little noticed. Nobody ever says that he tells a great story about this, that or the other, that his party piece is this or that or that he is the life and soul of every party. He is popular not because he draws attention to himself by being entertaining, anecdotal or great craic, but because he draws attention away from himself. He is always and everywhere focused on others. He is an absorber of other people’s hopes, dreams and problems. He is a silent supportive listener, rather than the life and soul of the party. He is a mirror of other people’s needs.
I have described you, Taoiseach, as the ultimate paradox — a sociable loner. I can accurately suggest that you are at home in a crowd, but at one with your garden. I have watched you in the House since we both entered it many years ago and I have known few who could come near you in terms of diligence to your job. The problems entrusted to you by your constituents and others in recent times would be different from the problems whispered to you and written down by you on scraps of paper in 1977 when you first entered the House. However, the discipline of detail and the follow-up devoted to them have not changed in the decades since your career began.
The novelist Thomas Mann observed: “A man lives not only in his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.” This is undoubtedly true of the Taoiseach. In a time of constant change and serious challenge, one thing about you that cannot be taken from you is the love for your family and your daughters in particular. I recall from the first time they appeared in Leinster House as schoolgirls when the Taoiseach was the Minister for Finance how he displayed this admirable quality. Your love and feeling for your family was palpable. I have no doubt that Rocco and Jay will now become the subject of much more attention. They will not mind who “Grandda” was or is.
I give the Taoiseach full credit for his involvement in chairing the European Council in Dublin during our Presidency. It was a wonderful outcome and in keeping with your qualities as a negotiator. I want to give him full credit for the part he played as Taoiseach and his persistence, diligence and commitment in bringing to conclusion the Good Friday Agreement, which is of such importance as a follow-through to all leaders in the parts they played, and in providing an opportunity for the people of this island to live in peace and to grow in confidence and prosperity as we face the challenges ahead.
 It is tough to relinquish power, and particularly tragic in some cases, for people who love either protocol or vanity and who suffer from pride. The Taoiseach has none of these problems. I do not believe you have any personal vanity. Fame, good or bad coverage or opinion polls have all mattered to you only in terms of what you wanted to do. You have done the State some exemplary service. I do not want to stand here and be seen to be discordant or hypocritical, but the Taoiseach knows my stated opinions on other subjects that are not a matter for discussion today. I have made my point in this regard clearly.
At a conference on victims’ rights I attended with Deputy Shatter recently, a speaker stated that people may forget what one says or does, but they will never forget how one makes them feel. The Taoiseach should be proud of this because a charity group remarked to me on his willingness to preside over any involvement it had in its forum. The woman in question stated that Bertie will probably be more helpful to her group when he is no longer in office because he would never abandon it. In its own way, this little sentence demonstrates how people were positively affected by his presence as Taoiseach.
In many ways, it probably is one of his more important and admirable traits.
I have two stories, the first of which is of connection and understanding. A number of years ago, I saw the Taoiseach on a social occasion with a man who clearly was very much under the weather and who had a face as bright as the jacket being worn by the minister for happiness. He was explaining his case vociferously into the Taoiseach’s ear, while spitting words and saliva at the same time. You caught my eye and raised your eyes up to heaven as if to say: “We are in this together.” I am unsure whether the Taoiseach sorted out the man’s problem.
When people ask me whether I ever was jealous of Bertie Ahern, I reply that I never was. However, I suffered from envy on the odd occasion, one of which took place at Croke Park when Mayo played Dublin. The Taoiseach went onto the pitch and the band played the Taoiseach’s salute. One cannot attend an occasion like that without the hairs tingling at the back of one’s neck. I believe I have told you this previously.
I have known you since 1977 and we participated on many sporting occasions on behalf of the Oireachtas and so on. Thomas Jefferson said: “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend” and I say this to you. In conclusion, tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go maith leat agus go mbeidh saol sona agat as seo amach. Go gcumhdaí Dia thú agus nár laga Dia do lámh riamh.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore Deputy Eamon Gilmore
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: It is a little unusual to be paying official tributes of this kind to a retiring Taoiseach two weeks before the date of his official retirement. Two weeks is an awfully long time in politics, particularly in the case of this man. Give him two weeks and one would never know what he might pull out of the hat. Your final day in this House as Taoiseach truly marks the end of a remarkable era in Irish politics. When you were elected to the office of Taoiseach on June 26 1997, very few of our friends in the Press Gallery or on this side of the House believed you would hold that office for almost 11 years.
However, you are an extraordinary politician whose work rate is 24-7. Few, if any, have so seamlessly combined the duties of statesman with service and availability to constituents. The Taoiseach has been difficult to oppose because of his consensual ability to embrace and to absorb and criticism and to make it appear his own.
It is not in any way to underestimate your subsequent achievements to state you were in many respects a lucky Taoiseach who came to office at a time of remarkable opportunity. As the outgoing Taoiseach said following your election on that day in 1997:
 The economic conditions in which this new Government will enter office in a few hours are exceptional in historic terms. Never before have we seen such rapid growth in employment. Never before have mortgage and interest rates been at such a low level. The Government also comes into office at a time when the foundations have been laid for major moves towards a settlement in Northern Ireland.
The Taoiseach enjoyed office during a time of rapid and sustained economic growth, conditions that would have been the envy of any of his ten predecessors who had the honour to lead an independent Irish Government. You did many positive things in your time in office that will remain as a monument to you. There was a great growth in personal wealth, for some at least. There was a huge increase in the number of people in employment. You showed a great commitment to the social partnership process and delivered a period of almost unprecedented industrial peace. While there were other things we believe you could and should have done, that analysis can be left for another day.
Perhaps the achievement the Taoiseach can be most proud of is his work in regard to Northern Ireland. As the outgoing Taoiseach noted in 1997, the foundations had been laid for major moves towards a settlement in Northern Ireland. However, everyone knows of the enormous effort and commitment that the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair put into the efforts to secure a permanent peace and political stability on this island. Your patience and ability as a negotiator and conciliator were never more needed than in that process. I am sure that when the Good Friday Agreement was signed ten years ago this month, you had hoped that you were approaching the end of the road and could little have appreciated the time and effort that would still be required to bring the process to finality. The Irish people, North and South of the Border, and indeed the British people, owe you an enormous debt of gratitude for your work in helping to create the political institutions that at last appear to be taking firm root and finally freeing the people of this island from the scourge of politically motivated violence. The Taoiseach’s role in this process alone would guarantee his place in Irish history.
I also wish to pay tribute to his work on the European stage as I am familiar with his commitment to the European project. I know, from my own contacts though the Party of European Socialists, how well you are regarded for your work in Europe by politicians of all political hues.
It is the duty of Opposition parties to hold the Taoiseach and the Government of the day to account. It was our duty and obligation to criticise and challenge actions of his Government and to question at times his actions, including the political implications of issues that emerged at the Mahon tribunal. You have proven to be a difficult opponent for Members on this side of the House. Your knowledge and understanding of the range of issues that are thrown at you on a daily basis from this side of the House have been remarkable. You have rarely lost your cool, despite the confrontational and adversarial nature of many exchanges in this House. I also want to put on record that, like my predecessors, I have always found you to be exceptionally courteous in any of our private dealings.
You have had a remarkable record. You are the second longest serving Taoiseach in the history of the State, with a string of three successive election victories under your belt. You are a Taoiseach who presided over Government though unprecedented economic growth, who played a central role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and who is a highly regarded player on the European stage.
The Taoiseach, his family and his party can be justifiably proud of his achievements. You are retiring from the position of Taoiseach at a relatively young age. I hope you will enjoy the honour bestowed on you in being invited to address a joint session of the United States Congress. I wish him well in his retirement and fulfilment in whatever role he may now decide to fill.
Deputy Eamon Ryan Deputy Eamon Ryan
 Deputy Eamon Ryan: On my behalf and that of my party, I wish to pay personal tribute to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, as he prepares to step down from his office. It is personal because I wish to recount some simple recollections. While the Taoiseach may not remember some of them, I first saw him in the Phoenix Park at a road bowling event some time in the early 1980s. A tribe from Armagh had come down, together with a tribe from Cork and they went around the Phoenix Park, which was rather unexpected and worth seeing. The Taoiseach was there, bowling, and adding to the occasion. Your hair had not seen a comb for a month and your anorak — to use the correct technical term — was askew. However, there was a glint in your eye. A man was standing 100 yards in front of you who, in proper west Cork west of the road fashion, was saying “Knock me down between my two stockinged feet”. The Taoiseach was there with a glint in his eye that was pure west Cork, where his people came from. This is an image I remember.
I encountered the Ahern brothers, Noel and Maurice, on Dublin City Council and it was interesting to hear you talking about your days on that city council recently. You spoke of the excitement that often would attend to that chamber in the presence of the media and the public, who were fascinated by the latest developments and decisions. Some of the disagreements we had in respect of views on planning or transport may have been maddening. However, it must be recognised that in any chamber, it is the commitment to one’s constituents that must be recognised, regardless of one’s political persuasion. The Taoiseach has shown such commitment over those 30 years, beginning with, and presumably learned, during that time on Dublin City Council. That is something he has consistently retained.
I attended an event in the National Gallery at which he gave a speech on the political book being launched. He started his speech by citing every single councillor in the room, a trick with which I was very impressed. He had someone check who was present and he mentioned each of them. He has acted similarly in most of the events he attended as Taoiseach over the past 11 years and the Irish people have noticed and liked that willingness to engage. This practice gives rise to difficulties for Opposition Deputies. I once attended an event with the Taoiseach to launch a sponsorship drive at the Kilmacud Crokes and he approached me afterwards in the way that journalists have recorded, put his hand on my elbow and asked: “How is the hardworking man?” I was thrown by that. I thought to myself, the Taoiseach thinks I am a hardworking man. That is a hell of a trick.
When I sat on the bench on which Deputy Durkan currently sits, I tried to catch the Taoiseach out in questions or on the Order of Business. It was not easy to do so under the former Ceann Comhairle but we did our best. Afterwards, I would review the detail of every word that was uttered and think, God damn it, he had the details. That characterised his work as Taoiseach and, I am sure, as Minister. He is a hardworking politician and he uses that hard work to get to grips with the details.
I wish to characterise the Taoiseach’s clearest and main legacy. I speak as a member of a party which prides itself on having consensus politics as our foundation and roots. He was good at consensus politics and skilful in applying them to the historic issue we faced on this island in terms of sovereignty. He applied consensus politics to Europe like no other European politician has managed to do. Nobody else has had the same success in pulling people together. I have seen him in action during the 11 months I have been in government and it is interesting to see how he works. Sometimes an issue comes to a head and we do not agree on it or think it will work. He would approach it, let it back out and give it some time before returning to it so that people have the chance to work through words and see if a consensus decision can be found. That significant legacy will be left behind him.
 He was also fortunate to be Taoiseach for 11 remarkable years of prosperity and success unlike anything we experienced in the past. There is a collective sense in this country that we want to hold on to that good fortune and a fear that if the Taoiseach leaves us, some of the fortune will also depart. I hope he will leave it behind. He should touch his wooden desk as he departs and leave that good fortune for the Irish people. In whatever new role he takes on, everyone here wishes him good fortune in deploying his hardworking, consensual and people skills.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Ba mhaith liom mo dea-ghuí pearsanta a chur chun an Taoisigh agus é ag éirí as oifig. Is léir go bhfuil moladh tuillte aige as ucht a ndearna sé chun próiséas na síochána a chur chun cinn agus chun Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta a chur le chéile. Bhí sé i measc siúd a bhí chun tosaigh ag cruthú ré nua síochána sa tír seo. Níl an obair sin thart go fóill.
I join in the personal good wishes to the Taoiseach as he prepares to participate in his last session of Taoiseach’s questions in the Dáil. I have been participating in Taoiseach’s questions since my election in 1997 and I commend the Taoiseach on his courtesy which was consistent over the years. His clarity was a different matter, but if we crossed swords on many occasions it was never personalised and so it shall be today.
The outgoing Taoiseach’s contribution to the development of the Irish peace process was very significant and deserves full acknowledgement. He built on the work of his predecessor, Albert Reynolds, and played a key role in the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. We have a consolidated peace process and a developing all-Ireland political process. That will require continued commitment from all of us and renewed energy from the Taoiseach’s successor, the Tánaiste, Deputy Brian Cowen. I say a sincere “well done” on the Taoiseach’s role in that historic process, which alone guarantees his place in the history of our country.
I do not want to spoil the bonhomie this morning, but I cannot participate in a back-clapping exercise in isolation of the consideration of the record of Governments led by the Taoiseach over the past 11 years. I repeatedly called on him to resign primarily because of the disastrous state of our health services over which he has presided. Despite all the successes that are rightfully being attributed to the Taoiseach this morning, that failure has overshadowed his role as Head of Government for over a decade. He and the Government have failed completely to deliver an equitable, efficient and truly reformed public health service.
I listened to the Taoiseach’s reply yesterday to the question put by Deputy Kenny on Leaders Questions and I wondered how he had become so disconnected from the reality faced by so many of our citizens today, how he had turned his back on the people of Monaghan and elsewhere and had never visited our beleaguered hospital or shown an iota of care for the plight of those who have depended on its services. These are serious matters. This week, sadly, the two coincide, as the clear indication of the closure of our hospital as an acute facility has been signalled to take place before the end of this year.
We see the results all around us and as the Taoiseach leaves office, patients in the public health service are again suffering from HSE cutbacks that hurt the old, the sick and the disabled. Our local hospital, like so many in the network, is being devastated. Pharmacists are pulling out of state medicine schemes and the public health system is being allowed to crumble while the Government promotes the private for profit health business. Tomorrow morning the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, will officially open a public health conference with participants paying over €500 per head to attend. On 24 April 1916, an important date of which I know the Taoiseach is well aware, the Proclamation of Independence was declared. On 24 April 2008 the privatisation agenda is being furthered.
 The stepping down of Deputy Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach will mean little if it does not prompt a new direction in Government policy. That would require a beginning to the delivery of a truly equitable health service, prioritising education and other public services and abandoning the privatisation agenda. The departure of the Minister for Health and Children with the Taoiseach would help, but of itself it would not be enough. What we need is a change in policy.
The departure of the outgoing Taoiseach is undoubtedly the end of an era in terms of political personalities. In his own terms and those of his party, he was extremely successful — I acknowledge he was so on several fronts — but only a fundamental realignment in Irish politics, ending the domination of conservative influences and parties, can bring about real change. Having said that — this is not the first time I have put these views on the record here — I again make the point that personally I hold the Taoiseach in high esteem and I take the opportunity to wish him peace and contentment for all the years before him.
Deputy Mary Harney Deputy Mary Harney
Deputy Mary Harney: It is a great pleasure for me to join other party leaders in paying tribute to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, as he stands down. I am very conscious of the comment made by Deputy Gilmore that two weeks in the life of this Taoiseach is a long time. I know he goes to America next week and there is a presidential election there.
Deputy Denis Naughten Deputy Denis Naughten
Deputy Denis Naughten: They are looking for a compromise candidate.
Deputy Mary Harney Deputy Mary Harney
Deputy Mary Harney: You never know what he might pull out of the hat, to use your own phrase.
I am the only leader in this House who in the past 11 years has not been in a position to put questions to the Taoiseach from the Opposition benches, as did the former Deputy John Bruton, Deputy Noonan, former Deputy Spring, Deputy Rabbitte, Deputy Ó Caoláin, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, and even former Deputy Joe Higgins. It is an unusual position to be in. Over those years, many people have tried to capture Bertie Ahern. Joe Higgins said that asking him questions was like playing handball against a haystack. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, spoke about Planet Bertie, and used terms like that to try to capture him. I have even heard of industrial coating being used — the Teflon Taoiseach — and the sports writer in The Irish Times spoke of him in terms of religion — the Zen of Bertie.
People have spoken of your extraordinary political skills but I think the key to your successes are your personal qualities. There are many here who would say nobody really knows Bertie Ahern but one thing I know from my experience over the past 11 years is that nothing is too unimportant for you. You use your strengths to concentrate on the issues that matter and to make the impossible a reality. You have embraced some impossible tasks and made them happen, not least the Northern Ireland peace process. When many others would have lost patience because endless patience was required, you never gave up. Although there were many involved in the success that is now the peace in Northern Ireland, you were the prime architect. I know of no political leader on this island or elsewhere who contributed so much to the peace of their own people than you did. It has to be a matter of particular pride for you, as you stand down from office, to know that in your own time and your own land, you were the prime architect of peace after what we endured for so long.
Deputies: Hear, hear.
Deputy Mary Harney Deputy Mary Harney
 Deputy Mary Harney: In 1997 when we went into Government, most people did not give us a chance. The previous experience of Fianna Fáil in coalitions was that they ended prematurely. Not only was it a coalition Government, it was a minority coalition. It survived because of your skills. Although you are the leader of the largest party on this island, you understood the importance of accommodating small parties and understanding their requirements. You often seemed to have that impossible 360º vision whereby you could see the whole picture and knew what mattered. That is why you were elected Taoiseach on three successive occasions and are the only Taoiseach to have been re-elected while heading a coalition Government. Others have said you were difficult to oppose. I can say you were impossible to have a row with.
Democratic politics is about competing ideas and from time to time difficulties arise. One thing you engendered in the Government was the importance of stability. We set out in 1997 to provide this country with stable government — not perfect government but, certainly, good government. As you leave office, this country is much better placed than it was 11 years ago — of that there can be no doubt. It is not perfect but it is an awful lot better — we can use any yardstick we wish, whether it is unemployment, living standards, peace, educational attainment or, indeed, health. When Ireland joined the EU, our life expectancy was two years less than the EU average. Today, a child born in Ireland will live longer than a child born in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Belgium or the UK because of better health treatment — that is a fact. It is not perfect. The task is to focus on the imperfections, put them right and not give up.
It has been said by others how calm you always seem to be — I can confirm this to be my experience. Deputy Kenny referred to parties, some of which I attended. The Taoiseach was usually the first person to leave the parties to go back to work. When he told us of his intention to stand down, I told him I hope he gets more time to spend with his family and friends, and gets a life for himself. I know of nobody who has put in the commitment you have over the past 11 years. I would frequently get calls from the Taoiseach at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. on a Sunday, or very late on a Saturday night. He never seemed to take the normal time to sleep that most of us do.
I know the Taoiseach’s family matter a lot to him. A sign of how long he has been in office is that when we first met his daughters, they were just tiny little girls. When he became Taoiseach they were students and now they both have extraordinarily successful careers. I am delighted for him. I know how proud he is of them. He has very few photographs in his office, but he has one of them.
I have learned over the past 11 years that what may appear small things matter to the Taoiseach. Each year as Taoiseach, he made sure he contacted every member of the Government on Christmas Eve. I have been called out of butcher’s shops and other places to be told the Taoiseach was on the telephone and wanted to talk to me. If he got to a family member first, he had a long conversation with them. When everybody else was involved in the rush of Christmas, the Taoiseach found time to contact his colleagues. I know how much personal relationships mean to people. If there were illnesses in families, the Taoiseach always seemed to find time to inquire and be genuinely interested. That is a unique quality.
He has been criticised for shaking too many hands but the people of Ireland genuinely found in the Taoiseach somebody who was one of their own, who did not get too big for his boots and did not lose the run of himself with high office. That is a terrific strength. Sometimes the trappings of office can remove some of us from the reality of everyday life. That certainly never happened to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern.
I want to pay him a genuine tribute, personally and politically. It has been a pleasure to work with him as a member of his Government, as Tánaiste in particular and as leader of a  small party. I know for a fact my party would not have been in Government for such a long period if it was not for the skills that he in particular displayed, whether with the Independents supporting the Government or, in the current case, with a three-party Government. Who here would have thought in 1997 that there would be a coalition Government involving the parties currently in Government?
You are the only socialist I could say so many nice things about. The former Minister for Finance said there was only one other socialist in the Dáil but he has not told me yet who is that other person — perhaps he has told the Taoiseach. I genuinely wish you well. You are being honoured in the United States next week. You are the fifth person to be honoured in the United States and the British Parliament and the only person to have been so honoured in a single calendar year. You are being honoured not necessarily because of your personal qualities, although they are the key to your political success, but because of your extraordinary political achievements for the people of this country and this island. I thank you very much and wish you everything you wish for yourself.
The Tánaiste Mary Harney
The Tánaiste: Ar nós na cainteoirí eile, ba mhaith liom fíor-buíochas a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach as ucht an sár-obair atá déanta aige mar Thaoiseach éifeachtach den chéad scoth. Tá cúrsaí eacnamaíochta, sóisialta agus polaitíochta na tíre seo an-threán de bharr an cheannaireacht a thaispeáin sé le linn na 11 bliain ina raibh sé i gcumhacht mar cheannaire an Rialtais. I join with previous speakers in acknowledging the tremendous achievements of Deputy Bertie Ahern as our Taoiseach and as a member and leader of our party. I want to thank him on behalf of all of the thousands of activists and hundreds of thousands of supporters of our party, who have reposed in him their constant confidence in the management of our national affairs, and who are deeply appreciative, as has been said by other speakers, of the very genuine attributes he brought to the office, which were very much in synch with the mood of the times.
He is without question the consummate politician of his era in this country. Many talented politicians who have faced him and confronted him have come to know that and have been gracious enough to acknowledge it, while I also acknowledge their contribution in the role they played.
It is important on occasions such as this to recognise that for all the adversarial and sometimes phoney confrontation that takes place in this House, there are times when we can rise to the occasion and leave partisan politics outside it, but the great genius of the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern’s politics and methodology has been his ability to extend his appeal beyond party. We know from our electoral success that he has been a tremendous strategist. Colleagues like myself and others who have worked closely with him on those campaigns would be the first to acknowledge that that sense of strategy, not regularly articulated and often denigrated to the point of its non-existence by some who commentate on our public affairs simply because he does not articulate it, is a facet of his personality that is grounded in his belief that we are here to solve problems and represent the people.
At times we do not reach those standards, despite the best of our ability — all of us have suffered from that — but that is the motivation behind what we do here. That is the reason there are politicians in this House today who represent the people, because they have that democratic mandate. While from time to time what goes on here, which is the public conduct of our public affairs, may be amenable to be characterised as a circus, it is important work and as Taoiseach and leader of this country, both domestically and abroad, Deputy Bertie Ahern has always, in my knowledge of him — it has been a fairly intimate knowledge of how he has conducted his business — devoted himself, with a great seriousness of purpose, to that task because of its importance in the democratic life of the country. He has displayed, in a way that  others strive to do, although perhaps not as successfully, that it is possible to be a man of the people in discharging the duties of this high office of Taoiseach.That ability to identify and empathise with the people is a connection and a requirement in our democratic life that stands to its strength and robustness even when it is often ridiculed or denigrated, sometimes with justification but sometimes with an exaggerated sense of importance.
The Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, is someone with whom I have worked very closely throughout my political career. I stated here in one of the heated debates recently about his fitness and suitability for office, about which I never had a question, that loyalty is a political virtue. It is not the sole political virtue but it is one. I am convinced that unless that trait is displayed in times of difficulty as well as in good times, the ability for us as a Government or as a party to collectively work together is put at risk because there will be good and bad times in politics. There will be ups and downs. I am sure there will be, from the mass media outlets we contend with as part of our mass mediated world, opinion polls on a weekly basis. There will be shifts and trends and much significance attached to many issues, but as politicians we have a duty to maintain our focus on what is important, which is having colleagues that will work with and stand by one. What is important is that one can come into this House and be accountable, and rightly so, in the interests of the checks and balances that make for the democratic life of this country of which we should all be proud. It is also important that one pursues one’s vision and clarity of purpose regardless of the winds and, on occasion, the gales that blow into one’s face.
When the career of the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, is trawled over and detailed, there are achievements which can never and will never be taken away from him because of the type of man he is and because he regarded it as a genuine privilege to be Taoiseach of this country and leader of this party. That love and affection for party and country has been reciprocated in full measure by people and membership.
When we talked, as the largest party, I never suggested that the nation and the party are one and the same thing. That would be an absurd and foolish comment to make but I believe, if I may introduce a partisan point, that representing the nation at its best is something that has given Fianna Fáil the continuous support of the people to put us in government. While I will always respect Deputy Ó Caoláin’s views in terms of asking that we resign or move aside, I often have to remind some people that it is the democratic mandate of the people that has us on this side of the House——
Deputies: Hear, hear.
Deputy Brian Cowen Deputy Brian Cowen
Deputy Brian Cowen: ——and we accord to those who support us the same respect and weight of vote as I would accord to those who oppose us, although it is not often reciprocated, particularly in one exceptional case this morning.
Deputies: Hear, hear.
Deputy Brian Cowen Deputy Brian Cowen
Deputy Brian Cowen: Today is not a day for me to engage in self-celebration or self-congratulation for this party because we have among us an exceptional political figure of this generation, as has been graciously acknowledged not only domestically but abroad. There have been a few occasions — Deputy Kenny referred to them — when the hair stood on the back of the head because of the sense of achievement and pride one felt in working with someone who achieves great things.
I recall the Taoiseach coming home from the Good Friday negotiations, doing that deal, showing that generosity and making the political calls which are the responsibility of politicians, despite the welcome and important advices we receive. Having the real courage to make those  calls is something I was particularly proud of as I met him when he returned to Dublin Airport from Belfast after those marathon negotiations, which finally resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. I could see that this was a person who was not constrained by the ideas of an outdated ideology but who had a present and future idea of idealism in Ireland in the 21st century and our capacity to rise above the constraints of our history to make our own history. This generation is making its own history rather than being victims of a previous history when mistakes were made. That is the magnitude of the Taoiseach’s achievement today.
When we encapsulate and look back on the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern’s role in the establishment of social partnership and what that means, this was a person who did not articulate in a philosophical way what he believed in or what he was about but who escaped, and helped us escape, from the confrontational 1960s style industrial relations which we imported from a neighbouring island that itself was not competitive with Europe, on the basis that we did not intend to allow the same to happen here again. We understood and advised that the Republic we were trying to build is not simply about dealing with workers and the narrow confines of labour and capital, but that workers are entitled to be involved as stakeholders in the way we devise our social policy, increase participation in education, improve our health services and ensure the generational disadvantage of the past is not replicated because of our ability to sit around the table and provide a real stakeholding for all the constituent partners that make up the social partnership today, and to do it in the most difficult of consequences. Perhaps people now wish to make a virtue out of necessity in hindsight. It was one of the most difficult collective decisions ever taken. Every stakeholder, including the trade union movement, employers, Government and farmers, can and should take a bow for their ability to go beyond their constituent interest and recognise that the national interest determined that we had to take certain very difficult decisions. They were shared by Alan Dukes in his leadership of Fine Gael at the time and we were able to proceed along that basis.
We will continue to have democratic contests but that occasion should be recognised by everyone in this House. The person beside me was one of the architects, not the sole architect, but we all know the particular chemistry he could create, the leadership he could provide and the bona fides he could establish, uniquely, because of the political skills he has were a key determining factor not only in making the process a success for then, but a real continuous possibility of success for this country as the 2016 ten-year framework agreement provides for us. We are facing those talks now. This has been a lesson for all of us to learn and perhaps he is not the sole teacher. However, he has provided for us in the way he has discharged his responsibilities in that context and in the context of Northern Ireland.
I return to the point of the pride I have had in sitting beside him when he acted for this country. I have never spoken about my next memory publicly. I will never forget the final negotiations for the draft constitutional treaty, when 26 other Heads of Government and State, as well as their delegations, stood in applause of the Irish Presidency. They knew in their heart of hearts there was not another politician in the room with the capacity to ensure the deal was done in the coherent way it was.
Deputies: Hear, hear.
Deputy Brian Cowen Deputy Brian Cowen
Deputy Brian Cowen: That is a matter of pride for all Irish people. I was there on that evening and I recall the pride I had in him, what he had achieved and the privilege it was to work and learn from him. There was much I had to learn.
I say this to Bertie Ahern today as he heads to the United States, where a fitting tribute will be paid in another cradle of democracy, the Houses of Congress. The Irish diaspora has had a  very real historical presence there through the years, from the time we faced catastrophe and cataclysm in our own history 150 years ago. He will go to that place, the cradle of the American democracy, and be feted for what he has done, and not only for the Irish diaspora and those millions of Americans who feel themselves part of Ireland today, as they and their forefathers were in the past. He has given an example — with others, as he will always claim — that even in many forsaken parts of the world, where conflict is a constant, it is possible through politics and constitutionalism to ensure people’s difference and diversity can be accommodated in a co-operative way. This is a way that will provide for Ireland the prospect of being acclaimed throughout many parts of the world in future as a result of our ability to live beyond our history and create our own.
Be it in the United States, the European Union, Northern Ireland, this House or any parish, town or village in Ireland, we have seen consistently a standard of statesmanship and political skill which it has been our privilege and pleasure to observe. He has grown and developed too. His potential has been realised and there is more to come, le cúnamh Dé, in whatever task he puts his mind to in future. On behalf of my party, he is a resource we will not easily let go of.
Deputies: Hear, hear.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: The Taoiseach will be aware there is a long-standing convention that the Ceann Comhairle does not participate in tributes such as this. Let it be said that the fact something is left unsaid does not mean it is also unfelt. I join with all of the party leaders in wishing you, sir, long life, happiness and success.
In the immortal words of a Prime Minister from a different jurisdiction in a different context, now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
The Taoiseach: I thank Deputies for their kind words and their courtesy not just today, but in the past few weeks. I would be grateful if the House might indulge me in a few words and the short acknowledgements I wish to make. I will not make a long speech on policy or any of the events I have been involved with. I will just say a few words of thanks.
I am proud to have been elected Taoiseach by this House three times. It has been a great privilege to serve my community and our nation, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity that the House and my constituents have given me. I am always conscious I would not be here if my constituents did not give me the opportunity, like everybody else in the House.
I was first elected Taoiseach on 26 June 1997. The cliché says a week is a long time in politics, and a few colleagues noted that this morning. I am told that when I leave office on 7 May I will have served 565 weeks as head of Government. It has been both a long journey and a real pleasure to have played my part in bringing this country forward and working with everyone in the House to do this over almost 11 years.
As my time comes to an end, I thank all my ministerial colleagues. I am very grateful to all my Cabinet colleagues and my Ministers of State who served with me since 1997. They have soldiered with me, they have sustained me and they have served with loyalty and great skill. I include the Ceann Comhairle in that.
I acknowledge the wise and skilful advice I received from the Attorneys General with whom I served, David Byrne, Michael McDowell, Rory Brady and the current Attorney General, Paul Gallagher. They are very important people these days. Through my Ministers, I thank their respective Secretaries General and departmental staff, who have always provided the Governments I have led with every proper assistance as we endeavoured to do our duty for the people.
 I have the height of respect for this country’s Civil Service and believe they are one of the great cornerstones of our democracy. Over many years, I have found them to be the most impartial, dedicated and talented public service on this Continent. One cannot do this job for a year, never mind 11, without working closely with those people. I have huge admiration for them. In that regard, I also mention the many people who work in our State agencies and semi-State agencies. They have always been most helpful to me in my role as Taoiseach and they too can take great pride in their work for the people. It is often forgotten but they work hard.
I thank the secretary to the Government and the Secretary General of my Department, Dermot McCarthy, who encompasses all of the best traditions of the Irish public service. Through him, I thank all of the officials at every level in the Department of Taoiseach. Their professionalism and commitment has been a source of inspiration to me in performing my duties. The Ceann Comhairle will appreciate that when one is in a Department for 11 years, one probably gets to know more about the Department than one should, even more than civil servants would like you to know. I have worked very closely with many of the civil servants and ended up being friends with them, as well as being head of Department.
I acknowledge my advisers, past and present, and especially my long-serving and loyal programme manager, Gerry Hickey, who has been with me since I went to the Department of Finance in 1991. I also thank all those people who worked with me over the years in the Department of Labour and the Department of Finance. I was appointed Minister for Labour on two occasions and Minister for Finance on three occasions. I worked briefly in other Departments also and I thank all the people I worked with.
I thank the Oireachtas Press Gallery, who report on proceedings here, for being courteous down through the years. I understand they have a job to do and deadlines to meet. I appreciate their work.
A Cheann Comhairle, I wish to express my gratitude to you for many years of friendship. In your elevated position, I commend you on the wise use of your parliamentary skills, honed over years of experience, your impeccable judgment and most of all your decency and fairness. I wish you and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle every success.
I will always hold a deep and lasting affection for this House. My respect is rooted in the fact that generations of our people had to fight and struggle to establish a truly representative native Parliament. That sense of respect is further enhanced by the people who serve this House. I have the highest regard for Members on all sides. They work extraordinarily hard to get here and then to remain. They do so because of their concern for others. My long experience of Members is that they give everything and sacrifice a great deal to try to do the best they can for people. The demands placed on them, in every way, are horrendous. Those demands seem to become more onerous each year. Politics is a tough career for officeholders and for those on the front and back benches. There are far easier and more lucrative careers. I think almost every other career is more lucrative. I appreciate and admire Members for all they do.
The staff of Leinster House have always treated me with great courtesy and have always been ready to provide assistance. I particularly wish to acknowledge all of the ushers with whom we deal every day and who are fountains of knowledge on the history of the Oireachtas. These men and women are unfailingly polite in carrying out their duties. I often wonder if all the stories they tell are true but, in any event, they sound good.
I wish to turn now to another place which has my deepest affection, Northern Ireland, and I thank previous speakers for mentioning it. Peace has been the overriding priority of my political life. All of us in the House have lived through the difficulties that arose in the past. I  have given that cause my all. I salute today the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland who have travelled the extra mile for peace. They are all friends of mine now. Our journey is not done but our path has been set. We have seen in our times how much we can accomplish when men and women of goodwill dare to take the risks required in the quest for peace.
Many people from all walks of Irish life and beyond our shores have played an honourable role in fostering reconciliation. It is difficult to single out individuals. Sometimes when one tries to do so, the list becomes too long. I will just mention one individual but I thank them all collectively. So many people played consequential roles but today I wish to make special reference to the First Minster of that other fine democratic Assembly on this island. Like me, Dr. Paisley will soon leave office and bring to a close a long and distinguished career. He has played a significant role in the history of this island. I acknowledge his courage and kindness to me. I wish him and his wife, Eileen, well in retirement. It was my task to work with Dr. Paisley to try to turn matters around. At our early meetings, he stated he would never shake hands with me and there were rows and scowls between us on many occasions. However, we have ended up good friends and I acknowledge his contribution. This island has come a long way and I thank God for that.
I wish to say a word of thanks to all my colleagues at the European Council. I thank previous speakers for their remarks about Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union, which occurred in a special and most enjoyable period of my career. Across Europe, it is recognised that all of Ireland’s presidencies have been good.
Our staff in our embassies and our diplomats in Europe and the wider world represent this country with flair and distinction. People will appreciate that having been an officeholder for 19 and a half years, I have travelled to all parts of the world with these people. I thank them for all the work they do. In recent years we expanded our diplomatic corps across the globe and its members do a good job keeping the Taoiseach of the day abreast of all the issues that arise in the world’s trouble spots. They also help our business interests and Irish people involved in activities in the Third World. I admire the huge efforts these people make. There were many tragedies during my period as Taoiseach and the staff of our embassies have been obliged to work exceptionally hard as a result. I thank them for the dedication they displayed in that regard. Their work made matters much easier for those of us at home.
I wish now to refer to my colleagues in the House. I shall continue to be a Member of the Dáil and thank God for that. I look forward to working with colleagues in the House in a different capacity. I will be earning my living looking after the needs of the people of Dublin Central again. I look forward to doing that.
I look forward to working with Deputy Cyprian Brady, my great friend, in the future for the betterment of our local organisation and the communities we serve. I also look forward to my ongoing work for the people of Dublin Central alongside Deputies Costello and Gregory. I particularly want to wish Deputy Gregory good health into the future. I have spent 30 years working with the Deputy and I wish him well. My lifelong friend, Senator Kett, is suffering from cancer. I wish him well and I hope he can overcome the disease.
All those on the Fianna Fáil benches know innately how honoured I am to have led them for so long and I thank them for putting up with me. Members of Fianna Fáil bring to this House a proud republican tradition which draws on history but which is also focused on building a better future. It is a generous republicanism — outward looking and modern — which embraces our national identity and also our wider European identity. This is the republicanism which inspired me, as a very young person, to join Fianna Fáil. It is the same republicanism that motivates our party today. I look forward to Fianna Fáil going from strength to strength  in the years ahead. I have no doubt my successor will do our country and this party proud. Deputy Cowen has been a good friend and he will make a great Taoiseach when, hopefully, the House elects him. I thank him for the years of loyalty he has given to me. No one in politics could have asked for a better friend or colleague. He has worked for our party up and down the country.
The Progressive Democrats have been an integral part of the three Governments I have led. Deputy Harney has served with me in the Oireachtas for 31 years. She has my enduring respect and my gratitude for sharing my commitment to a fairer, stronger Ireland. I also want to extend my good wishes today to former Deputy Michael McDowell, who worked closely with me as Attorney General, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Tánaiste.
In years to come, I will look back with pride on my decision to invite the Green Party into government. The Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputies Gormley and Ryan, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Sargent, and their colleagues have proven to be politicians of conviction and talent. It is my hope that the current Administration will run its full term and deliver on an innovative and meaningful programme for Government. I thank the members of the Green Party for their excellent work.
I also wish to acknowledge the Independent Deputies who have given me steadfast support in government. I thank them for the loyalty they have displayed in respect of the policies I have been pursuing.
I have known Deputy Kenny since I entered Dáil Éireann. He is the only politician in the House who has been here longer than me. I wish him well in his continued service to his constituency and to the country. I have worked with the Deputy and we have enjoyed many social occasions together. We worked hard in our political capacities. I have great regard for you, Enda. I thank you for the job you do as Leader of the Opposition in the House and in various other roles. It is not an easy job and I understand that. Each day, you must come here and represent the parliamentary democratic process. The nature our parliamentary democracy means that from time to time we have crossed swords. I would like to think this was not personal and it has never felt that way to me. While we have not always agreed politically, I have never doubted your sincerity or your patriotism. I wish you well. I also wish Deputy Kenny’s predecessors, former Deputy John Bruton and Deputy Noonan well. They are people I respect.
I have long admired Deputy Gilmore. I have known him for many years in various capacities. He is an incisive parliamentarian with a strong grasp of public policy. I am pleased to say I have many friends in the Labour Party.
Deputy Brian Cowen Deputy Brian Cowen
Deputy Brian Cowen: Here we go again.
Deputy Tom Hayes Deputy Tom Hayes
Deputy Tom Hayes: More socialists.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
The Taoiseach: I served in a very good Government with two of Deputy Gilmore’s predecessors, former Deputy Dick Spring and Deputy Quinn. Deputy Quinn and I have been battling against and following each other across various Departments for almost 34 years. It has been a long road but I wish you well, Ruairí. I hold another predecessor, Deputy Rabbitte, in very high regard. I thank Pat, who shadowed me during my times as Ministers for Labour and Finance and later in his capacity as leader of the Labour Party. I thank him for the respect he has always shown me and for his great commitment. I  thank the Labour Party for its good wishes and collegiality over the years. I enjoyed working with its members in every way.
I also acknowledge the work undertaken by Deputy Ó Caoláin and the other Sinn Féin Members of this House who have always engaged constructively with me. I thank them for their work.
All Deputies, irrespective of their party loyalties, have my undiminished admiration. I will always be grateful for the strong values and enduring friendships Members of this House have afforded me. I have many friends in this House for whom I have great respect, as I do also for those I may not know as well. They have shaped the fabric of my politics and, indeed, my life. When I meet them around the country I see what they are doing. I have been in the chicken and chips brigade for 27 or 28 years, so I have watched everybody in their own constituencies and I know the commitment they have made. I entered politics because I believed it to be a noble profession. Over three decades on, I hold firmly to that view which, if anything, is stronger now. I have seen at first hand the long hours and dedication, as well as the pressure on family commitments and the traumas involved.
I would particularly like to mention all the colleagues I worked with here who have gone to their eternal reward. I also wish to mention those who lost out. It is never nice to see people who work so hard losing out because of the whims of the democratic process. I remember all of those.
I am proud that in a hard-working profession I have earned a reputation for being a hard worker. At least you said so, a Cheann Comhairle, and I thank you for that. I openly and honestly admit that during my time as Taoiseach I did not get everything right. I always did my best, however, and worked to the best of my ability for the people. I stood successfully in 12 local and national elections. Public service is a calling and it has been my life’s work. I have enjoyed every day of it, or at least most days.
As I finish my time in the House as Taoiseach, I want to thank every one of you sincerely. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh ar fad as ucht bhúr gcairdeas agus bhúr gcomhoibriú thar na blianta. Obviously, I want to thank my family and friends and while I will not go through all their names, I do wish to thank those close to me who supported and advised me. They include my big brothers Noel and Maurice, and my sisters Eileen and Kathleen who are here. I also thank my daughters who are both out of the country today working hard, which is a good family trait.
I will close by quoting the words of a Jesuit writer, the great Fr. John Sullivan. On good and bad days I read Fr. John’s work, and the following few lines selected from his many writings appear suitable today: “Take life in instalments. This day now, at least let this be a good day. Be always beginning, let the past go. Now let me do whatever I have the power to do.”
Dáil Éireann 652 Tributes to the Taoiseach.