Bertie at the Sheraton

Bertie_drinkingThe Sheraton hotel is a strangely shabby place to have a meeting of world leaders. It’s in the Times Square area of Manhattan. TS is beloved of tourists, sure, but to locals like myself its disnified glitter is known as “hell.”

But that’s where Bill Clinton chose to hold his Global Initiative meetings this week. The hotel itself is alright (it gets three AAA stars out of a possible five); a red-carpet led up the entrance steps and inside it was whirring with activity (and security).

The talks included a panel on developing the economic future of Northern Ireland, so I decided to go along. NI, UK and Irish ministers were on the panel. Gerry Adams and other political folk were in the audience, which was apparently full of US CEOs and even Hollywood stars like Martin Scorsese. Bill chaired, with the expected degree of charm and politesse — his jokes were genuinely funny.

It was a presentation, rather than a discussion panel, and the speakers spent most of the time pitching NI’s economic potential to the CEOs (I peered over the shoulder of one, who kept checking his blackberry and answering emails).The funniest, edgiest moment was when NI first minister Peter Robinson spoke of “Londonderry” and his deputy Martin McGuinness corrected him, with “Derry.”

Afterwards I lingered in the lobby, waiting to see who would emerge. RTE’s Charlie Bird flew past in a rush, and at the bottom of the escalator I spotted another familiar figure: former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. I had never never seen him in the flesh before. His face was surprisingly florid, his body plump, and his eyes flicked around nervously. This is the man who led Ireland for eleven years and was Minister of Finance before that. He took us straight through the Celtic Tiger years before depositing us on the other side, his own affairs embroiled in scandal; and he gave us Cowen.

He was chatting to a middle-aged American woman and looking ill-at-ease. I thought about going up to shake his hand. But at the same time, I thought about the state of Ireland now, the corruption that went unpunished, and the reams of ugly unoccupied houses that scar the country. I wanted to say hello. I just couldn’t do it.

(Note: The photo above shows Bertie in his local pub in Drumcondra, and is from a 2008 article in the Irish Independent, shortly after the taoiseach resigned.)


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