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Miriam Lord’s Week: The men who dined for Ireland made sacrifices too

Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell remember how they had to ‘endure Jamie Oliver’s squid in ink for lunch’ in Downing Street during Belfast Agreement negotiations

Never mind the men who died Ireland, the men who dined for Ireland made sacrifices too.

As former taoiseach Bertie Ahern continues doing the rounds of peace process anniversary events, one of his Government colleagues who participated in the difficult series of negotiations following the signing of the Belfast Agreement told the Seanad about a couple of their culinary adventures.

Bertie was in the Upper House on Tuesday to deliver an address on the 25th anniversary of the referendums held on both sides of the Border to ratify the agreement. He gave Senators a detailed inside account of what happened behind closed doors during the difficult days and months of negotiations.

Senator Michael McDowell, who was minister for justice at the time, said he had been privileged to see “the incredible work” done by Bertie and his British counterpart, Tony Blair in the aftermath of the talks breakthrough in April 1996.


‘I spent the next month digging meself out of that hole’

“Meeting after meeting: Weston Park, Leeds Castle, Hillsborough Castle, Downing Street – the amount of work that was put in to make the Good Friday Agreement a success was huge” he marvelled.

There were other things too, recalled McDowell.

“We both had to endure Jamie Oliver’s squid in ink for lunch one day in Downing Street and that was a bit of a trial, I think, for both of us.

“The second thing was a very interesting breakfast in Tony Blair’s room in the St Andrews centre in 2007.”

He didn’t know why it was “very interesting”.

Bertie added that people occasionally say to him “all of these meetings seem to be very sweet and honey”, but that was not the case.

Some of them were “lengthy and very divisive”. He explained that it really depended on who you were dealing with at the time.

He will “always remember that famous day” when they were having difficulty with secretary of state Peter Mandelson. Some of Bertie’s officials “were very upset with him” so he encouraged his top civil servant, “a straight-talking Kerryman” called Paddy Teahon, to get on the case.

“I said ‘listen, you need to tell this to Tony Blair so that he understands it. There’s no point in me just saying it because he’s tired listening to me, so you should say it.’

“I set up the call and we were in Malahide and Tony Blair was in No 10. So we were having a meeting discussing what we would do. Paddy Teahon gave it straight down the line to Tony Blair – what he thought of Mandelson. Then Tony Blair rang me an hour later to say, “By the way, Mandelson was listening to that call.

“I spent the next month digging meself out of that hole.”

The Boy Who Started Celtic

You wait a lifetime for a book about Brother Walfrid Kerins to come along and then a pair of them arrive at the same time.


In 1855, 15-year-old Andrew Kerins left his home in Sligo in search of a better life in Scotland. He joined the Marists, became Brother Walfrid and went on to found Glasgow Celtic FC.

He was also the great grand-uncle of Irish Times writer and author Alison Healy and is the inspiration for her latest children’s book: “The Boy Who Started Celtic”.

It was launched on Friday in Sligo’s Liber bookshop along with Walfrid, A Life of Faith, Community and Football, a weighty tome by Scottish academic and Celtic supporter Dr Michael Connolly. “A beautiful biography” according to former president, Mary McAleese.

I’m excited for them to read about a boy from a humble background who survived the Famine, emigrated with nothing and grew up to change people’s lives

Both Healy and Connolly are speaking tonight at an event in the Michael Davitt Museum in Mayo to mark the founder of the Land League’s connection with the world famous club. Davitt – whose portrait hangs in the Taoiseach’s office – was patron of Glasgow Celtic, bringing a piece of Irish ground with him to Scotland when he laid the first sod on the new Celtic Park in 1882.

Brother Walfrid, a teacher, never forgot his tough early years in the famine ravaged West of Ireland.

He and his friend Bart McGettrick sold a calf at the fair in Ballymote to pay for their passage on a cattle and coal boat from Sligo to Glasgow. He established the football club because he wanted to raise funds for the poor in his adopted city.

Alison Healy feels young Andrew’s story is one of hope for children growing up in a world where so many worrying things are happening. The book, for readers age 6+, also looks at how some of today’s sports stars, such as food poverty campaigner Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, are using sport to help improve people’s lives, just as Brother Walfrid did.

“I’m excited for them to read about a boy from a humble background who survived the Famine, emigrated with nothing and grew up to change people’s lives. More than 100 years after his death, Brother Walfrid is still bringing joy to people today through Celtic, and that’s something to celebrate.”

The Boy who Started Celtic (€12.99) is published by Argyll.

The extraordinary days of Gubu

But back to Bertie Ahern, basking in the limelight this week and knocking great mileage out of the “will he – won’t he” speculation about a run for the Áras.

Nobody is quite sure whether Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was speaking in hope or in expectation when he told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show last week: “I don’t believe Bertie will be running for the presidency.”

On Wednesday night he launched The Taoiseach and the Murderer, Irish Times reporter Harry McGee’s great new book about the extraordinary Gubu days of 1982 when a deluded upper crust dandy called Malcolm Macarthur hatched a deranged plan to boost his flagging finances by embarking on a criminal spree which would leave two young people dead and almost bring down a Government.

It’s a gripping story which reads like it should be within the pages of a crime novel.

‘People didn’t take life too seriously – you drank your way around constituencies’

As Bertie put it: “It’s an enormous read but it’s a true story. I think the present generation probably have to shake themselves to realise that such a thing could happen four decades ago in the heart of Dublin.” (And surrounding counties.)

When he isn’t putting together award winning podcasts or writing non-fiction thrillers, Harry toils in a dingy Leinster House garret alongside a barely house-trained Irish Times political team but he remains remarkably well adjusted.

Episode one: The murder of Bridie Gargan

Listen | 28:09

For readers whose parents were too busy having fun to buy a newspaper or switch on the news, Gubu is the acronym for the phrase coined by controversial taoiseach Charlie Haughey when he got caught up in the political storm after fugitive MacArthur was cornered by garda detectives in the empty Dalkey apartment home of the then attorney general.

“Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre, Unbelievable” rasped Haughey.

His successor treated guests at the launch to a typical Bertie speech – self-deprecating, by turns amusing and unfathomable, almost all about him and all over the place.

He was a young TD for Dublin Central when this shocking and tragic story hit the headlines. But he was a clever politician on the way up and his mentor was Charlie.

The early part of 1982 was all about canvassing and helping out in byelections. “Byelections were great in those days. People didn’t take life too seriously – you drank your way around constituencies ... and you had to go around trying to remind fellas they had to canvass as well as drink” said the Bert as the jaws of the more youthful guests gently hit the floor of The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar.

“Nowadays they don’t do that. They don’t drink in Leinster House at all. They’re a politically correct bunch that’s in there now.”

And then the awful events, so well recounted by Harry in the book, happened in July of that year “and Charlie got dragged into it because everything that happened then – if the swan went down the Liffey, they would have said Charlie misdirected the swan.”

When Bertie was under the cosh due to his dubious personal finances and telling a tribunal risible explanations of how he came to have sums of money in excess of his known public sector earnings he used to say “if the cat had kittens they’d blame me for that too”.

Naturally, there was talk of the peace process with a story of one session when he faced “combatants from all sides” across the table because the politicians wouldn’t meet each other.

One notorious paramilitary leader tried to unnerve him at the start.

“He said: ‘Prime minister, as far as we all know, you’re the only non-murderer in this room.’ I looked around, I won’t tell you who he was, people we’d all know fairly well were sitting to me right and to me left, but anyway, that’s nuttin’ to do with this book. That’s for the next one!”

The Dubs and the GAA scene in 1982 got a mention as did Fianna Fáil’s political travails during the year when he was Chief Whip and Ray MacSharry, father of Independent TD Marc, was the minister for finance.

“Or Ray the Knife, as he was known, for those of you who can remember” stuttered Bertie to the bamboozled 30 and 40 somethings and the equally confused wrinklies who could only remember “Mac the Knife”.

Ah, you’d miss him.

But not that much.

A shindig for Varadkar

News just reaching us of a big fundraiser for Leo Varadkar on Thursday night in the Castleknock Hotel in Dublin West.

This was his annual constituency dinner to boost his election war-chest and with well over a hundred supporters in attendance and admission at €200 a plate he pulled in a tidy sum for the team Leo coffers.

As it was a constituency event the guests included his closest advisers and supporters while a large contingent from lobbying and PR firms forked out for the occasion along with a big turnout from members of the law library.

At last year’s dinner the presence of so many barristers was put down to the fact that the then tánaiste was going to be in charge again at the end of the year and would have to chose an attorney general. This time, a lot of judges jobs are in the pipeline so there might have been a few hopefuls hoping to make an impression.

While this may have been a personal fundraiser for team Varadkar the party will have the begging bowl out for next year’s local and European elections and, no doubt, their leader will provide.

A bit of Good Friday fatigue

An unfortunate clash of dates on Tuesday night when the Ceann Comhairle hosted his Good Friday Agreement panel discussion in Leinster House. It was moderated by broadcaster Sean O’Rourke and speakers, along with the ubiquitous Bertie, included Gerry Adams, Bríd Rogers, Monica McWilliams and Liz O’Donnell.

The event had been flagged well in advance to the various political parties but, on the night, fewer than half a dozen Fianna Fáil politicians turned up despite the presence of their former leader while Fine Gael could only muster around three attendees. Sinn Féin’s TDs and Senators, on the other hand, turned out in force.

It seems Fianna Fáil members were at an event at the Royal Irish Academy in nearby Dawson Street marking the centenary of the birth of former president, Patrick Hillery.

It would appear that TDs and Senators are suffering from Good Friday fatigue. Or maybe many of them are too young to remember the Troubles or the huge significance of the signing of the agreement 25 years ago.

Earlier on Tuesday, the attendance in Seanad Éireann for Ahern’s speech on the subject – at the invitation of the Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer – was very poor.

However, it did not go unnoticed by those interested parties who did show up for the evening panel discussion that quite a large number of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael members somehow managed to drag themselves to the drinks reception before it started.