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Bye Bye Bertie

Bertie Ahern's retirement: the speech in full

The full text of Bertie Ahern’s speech to his local branch of Fianna Fáil, where he said he’d be stepping down at the next election.

The following is the full text of a speech given by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to his local branch of Fianna Fáil this evening.

In the speech Ahern indicated his intention to step down from political life at the coming general election.

Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening to you my closest and my longest standing friends in Fianna Fáil – the members of the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann.

It is 40 years ago, this week, since I joined Fianna Fáil.

At the beginning of January 1971, I attended my first meeting of this cumann.

I did not know it then, but that was one of the defining moments of my life.

Through the long years and the tumultuous events since, the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann has been my political home.

It remains my political home tonight.

Decades later, I can vividly recall how proud I was then to join Fianna Fáil forty years ago. That same pride remains with me now.

The members of this cumann have done so much to shape my political thinking and to guide my political life. I owe the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann an enormous debt of gratitude for the unstinting support given to me every single day of my political life.

I learnt a fundamental lesson from those who had gone before me and from those who worked along with me in this cumann, that politics at its best is patriotism. Politics is about love of country and politics is about concern for one’s community.

Those were the values I learnt in this cumann. Those are the values intrinsic to our party and to Irish republicanism then, today and tomorrow.

Over the decades, hundreds of people have given of their energy and of their enthusiasm to build a better Ireland through their membership of the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann. Tonight I salute them, and from the bottom of my heart I thank them.

All of us who are members of this cumann, are proud of the history and of the traditions of the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann.

Named in honour of the great Cork Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, this cumann has been at the core of Irish republicanism for generations.

As a republican organisation, we can trace our lineage back to a Fenian cell which operated in Drumcondra in the 1860s and subsequently merged into Sinn Fein in the decade prior to 1916.

Following the foundation of Fianna Fáil, the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann was one of the first cumainn to move en masse into DeValera’s new party.

This is the tradition from which we come. This is the tradition of which we are proud. This is the legacy we aspire to nurture and to hand on. We share a belief in an Ireland that is free, an Ireland that is fair and an Ireland that is progressive. We believe in a truly republican society.

Fianna Fáil was established to vindicate those beliefs. That is our purpose, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Today it is hard, and for some it seems impossible, to keep faith with Ireland’s tomorrow. I know and I understand that now we are in the eye of a great economic storm. People’s confidence has been knocked back. Plans for the future have been put on hold. Aspirations have been sundered. And for some, for those who have lost their jobs, there are truly difficult circumstances and really hard times.

But if these are difficult days, we can have a genuine confidence for the future based on the real, the sustainable and the lasting gains which Ireland has made. Yes some gains have been lost, but in truth many remain.

The truth about the achievements of the past decade and about the prospects for the one unfolding in front of us now is that, despite what the critics may say, neither extreme of arrogant overconfidence or self-defeating pessimism are justified or helpful.

Ireland is not “banjaxed”. Ireland is not “an economic corpse”. Ireland is a country of real achievement and yes of real and pressing problems. The truth is that our country will recover. We will regain our stride and we will succeed in holding on to many of the gains we have made together.

And the next generation will build on our success and they will learn from our mistakes. It is not just that life will go on; I believe that life will get better. We are an innovative, we are a resilient and we are an achieving people.

As somebody who had the great privilege of leading the Irish people, I believe in the courage and in the capacity of our country.

Now and out of necessity, we are forced to step backwards after years of unprecedented progress. But the race is not over, the context is not lost, the future is still ours to win.

Ireland is fighting back.

Every single hard day, we are regaining ground. If progress seems slow, it is sure. And it is surest of all because we are handing over our future to a rising generation of unsurpassed capacity and self-confidence.

And I, for one, deeply believe in the next generation. They are the brightest, the best educated and the most capable generation this island has ever produced.

That is the lesson and this is the great gift of Irish history. Each generation builds upon the achievements of those who have gone before them. And we do bequeath achievements, achievements that will serve Ireland well in navigating a way out of our current crisis.

I dearly wish there was no crisis. I realise that it would have been better if somethings had been done differently. But I will not denigrate the good that has been done, or belittle the effort it took to achieve it. The onward trajectory of this island’s destiny is forward-moving, it is progressive, it is the fairer and republican society we aspire to.

When I joined the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann as a young man of 19, I learnt the lesson of perseverance from older women and men who lived inspiring lives. In hard times, far, far harder than the times we are coping with today, they kept faith, they persevered and they succeeded triumphantly in ensuring that my generation had opportunity that they could only dream of.

That generation lived through harrowing times. Everything they achieved, even survival itself was a struggle. It was a struggle they never shirked. I remember them tonight with deep affection and with great gratitude.

And what I remember most of all is their belief in my generation. Their faith and confidence in us as young people, to build on what had been achieved was generous and it was inspiring.

I remember women like Roisin Page whose was in her 80s when I joined the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann and whose husband had been a civil servant in the First Dáil when Ireland’s struggle was literally for survival and for our legitimate right to national self-determination.

I remember too Curtis D’Arcy who was a sacristan in the Chapel at Dublin Castle and who had lost his own brother in Ireland’s War of Independence.

I remember men like Thomas Holohan, who had served as an officer in this cumann from the early 1930s, when Ireland was in the midst of the Economic War. Decades later, and now decades ago, Tom was Director of Elections for my first election campaign in 1977.

I am talking too about people like the late Brendan Murphy and Emma Murphy, who is still with us.

And people like Sheila Booth, my mam’s great friend, and her daughter Lorraine who brought a long-haired Bertie Ahern to his first meeting of the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann.

From all of these people and from so many more, I learnt to believe in a better Ireland. I also learnt too that if experience is important, the passion, the vigor and the fresh thinking of younger people can bring a new vitality and new blood to politics.

When people like me and Liam Cooper, who is today our chairman, Paul Kiely and, of course, Miriam were young men and women and starting off in the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann, we were always encouraged by those strong and experienced people who had been members for decades.

I respect that inheritance but I also recognise that I only hold it in trust and not for myself.

As a young man my motivation for standing for election in 1977 was to represent the people of my constituency; throughout my political life my greatest honour has been to represent them in Dáil Éireann.

I have been elected on ten successive occasions to the Dáíl, first by the people of Dublin-Finglas and then by the people of Dublin Central as well as being elected twice to Dublin Corporation.

In every election in which I have stood, this cumann has been my political bulwark and this electoral area has given me my highest vote.

This evening, I want to say a special and a deeply sincere thank you to the members of the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann past and present. Your commitment and your friendship has never wavered. We have campaigned together and stayed together in good days and in hard times. I am deeply grateful.

I want to thank all of those who have canvassed for me in election after election as members of this cumann and as part of our wider Fianna Fáíl constituency organisation in Dublin Central.

During my time as Lord Mayor, as Chief Whip, as Minister for Labour, as Minister for Finance, as Leader of the Opposition and for nearly eleven years as Taoiseach, this cumann has helped me through every challenge I faced.

Your advice, your friendship and your commitment were vital to me in carrying out my responsibilities in public life.

And I knew that wherever those responsibilities took me, the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann and the Dublin Central Comhairle could be relied upon to keep the home fires burning.

Your work always ensured I returned to Dáil Éireann with a strong mandate from my own constituency to continue our work on behalf of the Irish people.

It was always my plan, and a plan I made clear as long ago as 2002, that I would step down from Dáil Éireann before I was 60. This evening I have come here, to this meeting of the O’Donovan Rossa Cumann, to say that remains my unalterable position.

With an election due in the spring and my next birthday in September being my sixtieth, I want to confirm tonight that I will not be a candidate at the next General Election.

It has been an incredible journey and an extraordinary privilege to represent the people of Drumcondra and Dublin Central for over thirty years. I am extremely grateful to all of my constituents from the Navan Road to East Wall and from Griffith Avenue to the Quays for their support in successive elections.

For any citizen of this republic to become Taoiseach is the highest and the ultimate civic responsibility. It has been my great honour to have been entrusted for over a decade with the great responsibility of that office and of leading our country as Taoiseach.

To follow in the footsteps of DeValera, and of Lemass has been the greatest privilege of my life.

As a political leader, the Irish people have given me tremendous support. On great days and in difficult times, the Irish people were staunch in their support, fair in their judgement and deeply kind in their friendship.

That wider network of support and of friendship, that as an elected leader I was privileged to enjoy, was a mirror of the friendship and the support so generously given to me here in my own community.

I want to recall the words of the Irish patriot and poet, William Butler Yeats which this evening seem to me appropriate.

He wrote and I quote:

You that would judge me, do not judge alone/
This book or that, come to this hallowed place/
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon,/
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace,/
Think where man’s glory begins and ends/
And say my glory was I had such friends.

I entered politics because I wanted to serve my community, my constituency and my country.

I passionately believed politics to be a noble profession.

Decades later, and an older man, I still hold firmly to that view.

I am proud of what I have achieved in politics and I am prouder still to have had the privilege to have worked with and for so many fine, patriotic and extraordinary people.

It is not given to anyone in life who tries and tries again not to sometimes fail. Years of apparently great sucess then, are apparently tainted by great failures now. But the truth is more complex and in time it will be viewed more dispassionately. The raw emotion of real shock means it is too soon to take stock. But when that stock is taken, when the eleven years I had the honour to be Taoiseach are more coldly considered, the many positives will be put into the balance with the negatives. The perspective of what lasted and what was washed away will be clearer.

I believe it will be clear that on health, on education, on infrastructure real progress was made and that over time much of the progress we made will be seen to have remained. These examples of Ireland’s lasting achievement are part of our capacity to move forward and to move on.

Stating our strengths is not to ignore our weakness because I have said and I know that now we are in the eye of a great economic storm. I know and I understand that these are tough times.

But if there must be recognition of where we went wrong, there has to be clarity about what we got right.

At a time when in the wider world Ireland is seen in some respects, that are deeply exaggerated and grossly unfair, as a exemplar of bad behavior, we should not forget, nor should the world that Ireland remains a shining light of conflict resolution and peaceful coexistence.

The cause of peace on this island is the single cause that more than any other I devoted my time, my capacity and my political commitment to.

For much of my adult life, violence in Northern Ireland defined global perceptions of the island of Ireland. That dark cloud overshadowed not only what the wider world saw in us, but it deeply darkened how we saw ourselves. Over 3,000 men, women and children lost their lives in a vicious conflict that some thought would never end.

The problems of Northern Ireland also defined the relationship between the islands of Ireland and Britain.

When the conflict raged in Northern Ireland, it is fair to say that relations between the Irish and British Governments and, indeed, often between our two peoples, were characterised by mistrust, suspicion and sadly, at times, outright hostility.

But thankfully old truths have been transformed into new realities. And that transformation has its roots in the Good Friday Agreement. I am proud of the role that Prime Minister Blair and I played in leading those negotiations to a successful and a successfully lasting conclusion.

Cooperation and friendship now define relations between the people of this island and our nearest neighbour. This is as it should be and this is as I confidently expect it will continue to be.

More importantly, armed conflict on this island has stopped. And if a mindless minority of dissidents clings to the tried and failed path of the past, violence as a means to political ends in Northern Ireland is over.

Every single day, I thank God that I have lived to see peace fulfilled.

I have met the families of the victims of bombings, of punishment beatings, of loyalist death squads and of republican gunmen. The years of murder and of mayhem have left a deep scar on people not just in Ireland but in the United Kingdom too, where terrible atrocities were committed by those who misguidedly believed that armed struggle could somehow supersede democratic politics.

Peace is our generation’s greatest achievement. Continuing conflict would have been our greatest failure. And not to have had the courage to risk failure again and again would have been cowardice.

Peace in Ireland has opened a window onto a new era of progressive republican politics. And this has the potential to bring hugely positive benefits for this and for future generations all across this island. The legacy of bitterness and suspicion is being slowly laid to rest.

This was brought home to me on the day I resigned as Taoiseach, when I heard Baroness Paisley’s inspiring speech at the Boyne.

She said on that occasion she did not want to hear anymore about disputes or division on this island, what she wanted to hear was about good jobs and families prospering.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, the challenge for all of the people in Northern Ireland and indeed across this island is no longer defined in terms of old disputes about territory but rather the new opportunities we can make for ourselves together.

The “Irish question” now is not defined by conflict but about how can we collectively do best for all the people on this island – better healthcare, better paid jobs, better innovation, better schools for our children and a better, shared, future.

So the fruits of peace extend far beyond the mere absence of violence crucially important though that is.

A peaceful society allows for an even greater focus on the key priorities of today like delivering jobs, providing quality education and healthcare and growing our economy. It is a peace we can prize even more amidst our economic difficulty.

A peaceful society allows debate and disagreement where once there was only recrimination and fear.

A peaceful society allows economic opportunities to be exploited and, by its nature, rejects the protectionist mentality that says you should only do business and trade amongst your own.

And a peaceful society is one which encourages and fosters cooperation with neighbours, where once a psychological wall of distrust and doubt was a barricade to better relations.

With peace, there is now no limit to what the Irish people, North and South, can achieve.

In planning for economic recovery in past recessions, we never before had the immense benefits that peace and stability across this island can bring.

That is why I am confident about the future. Ireland will rebound. The facts support a positive view. The most recent quarterly figures show that the economy is again expanding. Both GDP and GNP increased between the second and third quarters of this year. This is the first time both measures of activity have been positive since late-2007 so, I believe, we are on the road to recovery.

And there are other larger reasons to be confident. Our society is stronger not only because much of the investment we made which will stand us in good stead. We are a stronger society because we are more republican in the truest meaning of that word. People with special needs have been brought out of the shadows of our society. Light has been shone into the darkest corners of Ireland’s industrial schools. Ireland is a profoundly more equal place for gays and lesbians than it ever was before. These and more are markers not of what we have done, but of the more we must continue to do. They are the signs of the stronger and more republican society we are in the process of becoming.

So peace and progress, success and failure are all part of a whole. The continuing effort is the tribute we pay to a life that is always work in progress, and never ever work we can say is done.

I have stood successfully in twelve elections. Now at the end of this long journey of learning and of leading I want to thank those who helped me along the way and whose friendship means more to me than these words can say.

I am extremely grateful to all my colleagues down through the years in the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. I especially want to extend my good wishes to our Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, who is a leader of great ability and decency. He has my enduring respect.

I want to thank also not just you my fellow members of Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central but the party members and candidates, past and present, from other parties and of no party who I have contested elections with.

I deeply admire all those who participate in our political life and who put themselves before the people. We might differ on ideology or in approach but there was rarely animosity. This is the healthy competition of people and of ideas that is essential for a thriving democracy.

Public service is a noble calling and public service has been my life’s work.

As an elected representative, I have tried and tried again to vindicate the hopes and aspirations that were invested in me by our neighbours and by our community.

Now it is time to stand aside, to pass on the baton and allow others to continue the race.

The future is always unfolding. The unfolding future I see is one of difficulty that will be surmounted, of challenges that will be met and of a country that will achieve its potential. A new generation will define that potential. They will strike out towards new frontiers and they will set a new agenda. Such is life and such especially is political life.

It is with great faith in our shared future, with true hope and with no regret that I have come to my decision tonight. I am deeply privileged to have had this life in elected politics and now at the end and from the bottom of my heart, I say thank you.

Go raibh mhaith agaibh go léir.