It was Bertie’s day in the sun. Behold the Taoiseach, applauded by priests and poets, by businessmen and actors, by princesses and prime ministers. Up there in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, it was Bertie’s finest hour.
His predecessors as guests of honour in the holiest of parliamentary holies included Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterand. On Wednesday, the list of political dignitaries in attendance embraced John Major, Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock, Peter Brooke, General John de Chastelaine, Senator Maurice Hayes. All had been players in the peace effort. They came to honour Bertie.
Sportsmen Eddie Jordan and Keith Wood arrived to bow the knee to Bertie. Ireland’s business elite in the UK greeted Bertie. BA chief Willie Walsh was there; investment banker Hugo McNeill was invited; so was designer Paul Costelloe. The Great and the Good of the Irish in England rubbed shoulders.
Suddenly, along the Royal Gallery strode the slimmeddown figure of Sean Dunne (or Lord Ballsbridge’ as he is sometimes known). One of the invited guests told me that he gasped at the sight of Sean.
The same shock must have passed through the mind of every guest who recognised the colourful builder from Carlow. Here was the greatest day in Anglo-Irish history. All the main players in the peace process seemed to be on parade and there in the middle was property mogul Sean Dunne. Despite the dogfight for tickets, Sean somehow bagged one.
Dunne’s presence was peculiar enough. After all, he is merely an Irish builder with a beautiful wife. A multi-millionaire, probably a Fianna Fail supporter. But even stranger, there was a remarkable absentee. The man who played the noblest role from our side of the Irish Sea was not invited.
Albert Reynolds failed to make the cut.
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness can put the past behind them. Bertie Ahern, great peacemaker that he is, can still not salute the role of his predecessor. The unsung hero of the peace process was excluded while Sean Dunne, speculator supreme, was a feted guest. There was room for 625 others too, but no seat for Albert.
Echoes of the snub delivered to Seamus Mallon just a week earlier. The loyal deputy- leader to John Hume in the darkest years of the Northern troubles was excluded from the opening of the Assembly in Stormont. On that day, where was the man who held the peace line deep in the provo stronghold of South Armagh despite severe pressure from violent republicans? Mallon never flinched when he was under threat; it would have suited him to make more militant noises.
His reward: Mallon, from Markethill, South Armagh, was last year appointed a board member of the ailing ESB. Quite a consolation prize; but the €17,500 director’s fee would be useful income to a guy who does not enjoy the same resources as Sean Dunne.
Perhaps Dunne was in Westminster sizing up the joint? Maybe he thinks that the Palace would be a prime development site? Perhaps he plans to ask her majesty the Queen for a wing or two to build a few 32-storey apartments?
Bertie’s decision to invite Sean Dunne to place his backside on a seat at one of the most coveted events in Irish history is a mystery. Was this man meant to represent Irish business? Or was he just a friend?
Last week I put the question to the Taoiseach’s office. Why was Dunne there? What did Lord Ballsbridge ever do for the peace process? Who else was on the Taoiseach’s list? And why was Albert Reynolds slighted?
The reply was comical: the poor spokesman was sent out to say that “if someone was in London and rang up and asked to attend, the Taoiseach tried to facilitate them.” There was a silence when I asked what Dunne had done for the peace process. Next, the spokesman failed to respond to the Albert question. He muttered that the gig should be seen in the whole context of Anglo-Irish relations.
And what had Sean done for them? Another silence. Perhaps we are about to discover the Dunne Peace Foundation for cross-border communities? Somehow I doubt it.
Perhaps Bertie wanted to honour the booming construction industry? If that is the case, then Sean was a strange choice. Because Sean is currently negotiating the most sensitive planning application of his life. And the planning process is still politically driven.
The noble Lord Ballsbridge may have been strutting his stuff around Westminster last week, but back home his plans for the controversial Jurys/ Berkeley Court site were running into a spot of bother.
The whole world now knows that Sean paid a stunning €370m for the Jurys/ Doyle and Berkeley Court sites. Today he must be under pressure to fast track a planning application to help fund this massive purchase. As every day passes, the interest bill could be rocketing. More pressing still for Sean must be the knowledge that many of his competitors have publicly suggested that he paid too much for the sites, that it was vanity purchasing.
And even more stressful for him could be the sudden tremors in Ireland’s property market and the hikes in interest rates.
The night before the big event in Westminster, Dublin City Councillors had made a pre-emptive strike against Sean’s plans for Ballsbridge. They were against re-zoning Ballsbridge to suit one man. Wendy Hederman, the energetic local councillor and guardian of the area’s planning process, pointedly insisted that no different planning considerations should apply just because a sky-high price had been paid for the sites.
More directly she told me: “There should be no special treatment for Sean Dunne.” Wendy should have whispered the same message in Bertie’s ear. Sean Dunne is suddenly facing an uphill struggle in his Ballsbridge ambitions.
The presence of Sean at the Westminster gig tells us a lot about Ireland. Pride of place today goes to property billionaires. Guys who have not manufactured as much as a paper clip are honoured, while real wealth creators are ignored.
If Bertie wanted to give the world a view of successful Irish business, why was Michael O’Leary of Ryanair the most brilliant Irish entrepreneur of his generation not invited? Bertie is not mad about Michael. Bertie is not mad about Albert. Granted, the peace process is partly his creation, but it does not belong to Bertie Ahern.
Property developers are often decent, honourable businessmen; but it is a measure of their uncomfortable ascension to the top of the Irish business scene that their most flamboyant but certainly not their most successful member was chosen to view a historic event for Ireland from a seat of honour.
Better business people were left on this side of the Irish Sea.
It was a good week for Bertie. His speech at Westminster was masterly. He won the debate with Enda. He deserves credit for his management of the Irish economy. A pity he cannot detach himself from the developers.