Roy Curtis: ‘Bertie Ahern is reduced to villain-or-hero caricature in any debate’

Equivocation, it seems, is not an option when it comes to The Bert.

Bertie Ahern. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos© Collins Photos

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. PA Photo: Chris Bacon© PA

Roy CurtisSunday World

PERSPECTIVE – crushed in the stampede to deliver unbending, often spiteful, half-baked verdicts – tends to be an early casualty in any debate on the life of Bertie Ahern.

The former Taoiseach is among Ireland’s most polarising figures, few among the public willing to even consider that the balance sheet of his political career might be two-sided.

In a society that retreats ever more frequently to angry echo chambers, Ahern is reduced to villain-or-hero caricature.

Nuance was not an option as Bertie’s return to Fianna Fail was confirmed last week.

For his abundant band of vocal and pitiless critics, there is only the damning debit side, the one where the Mahon Tribunal findings shout down all other opinions, render them irrelevant.

To those who continue to fly the Ahern flag – a group less visible on social media, but which remains substantial and steadfast – his role in bringing peace to an island tormented by ruinous tribal violence elevates him to life’s upper rungs.

Equivocation, it seems, is not an option when it comes to The Bert.

Either he was the brilliant author of the most prosperous period in Irish history, or the clueless pilot whose steering of the ship of state into the territory of greedy Celtic Tiger excess ultimately plummeted the country into a dizzying, devastating tailspin.

Tiny is the constituency willing to look at his life in the round, to concede an inch in a frequently toxic debate.

To admit that if he was flawed, he was perhaps also the custodian of an outstanding political mind and the sharpest instincts.

In the same way that, say, Manchester United and Liverpool fans trigger each other’s fear and loathing gene, so there is naked hostility between pro and anti-Ahern camps.

Few are willing to even consider the merits of the rival argument.

Anybody hoping this column might add to the fire and brimstone canon will, I fear, feel short-changed.

My inclination to deliver something other than a black and white viewpoint.

Ahern is no candidate for beatification. He made some grievous errors, his finances were a mess, and he must forever walk through the years beneath Mahon’s cloud.

Yet, there was a humanity and ability to bend at his core, qualities that enabled him to assist in brokering a transformative new dawn in Northern Ireland.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. PA Photo: Chris Bacon© PA

One that made this island an infinitely better place, the guns at last falling silent.

On a human level, I felt uncomfortable in recent days as some commentators sought to out smart-aleck each other with snide, one-dimensional Ahern tweets.

The absence of a single atom of empathy in such loudhailer proclamations is emblematic of these unforgiving times.

Many of the Twitterati are too young to recall those dread days when Northern Ireland was a crucible of barbarity, when the stench of death assailed our nostrils.

Ahern's role in authoring change is undeniable, a towering legacy acknowledged by all sides.

One story merits retelling, shining, as it does, a light on a tumultuous week in the Taoiseach’s life and maybe revealing something of his character.

Easter week in 1998 and the hands of history and tragedy coming to simultaneously rest on Ahern’s opposing shoulders.

The Taoiseach was in the middle of a vital meeting with an SDLP delegation when he received word that his beloved mother, Julia, had suffered a life-threatening heart attack.

Every human urge told him to rush to his mother’s bedside. He stayed.

Recognising the sensitivity of the talks, Ahern not only continued the meeting, he remained at Government Buildings for further discussions with the DUP.

Think about that. Is it not the very definition of service?

His mother would die that week. He hardly had time to grieve.

After spending the entire night alone in the morgue with the woman who made him, Ahern – emotionally exhausted yet relentless - took all parties by surprise by racing to Belfast the next morning to ease the talks to their historic Good Friday endpoint.

Where many of us would have fallen, stepped away, surrendered to private torment, he endured.

The story is not remotely designed to shout down the sincere, passionate, legitimate misgivings of many. Nor is it an attempt to illuminate some saintly halo above his head.

It is merely intended as a gentle reminder in an ungentle age that a balance sheet must, by definition, contain two opposing sides.

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