John Dolan: He might not like the comparison, but Teflon Bertie and Boris have so much in common

Boris and Bertie have the same Teflon immunity to failings and perceived wrongdoings, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: He might not like the comparison, but Teflon Bertie and Boris have so much in common

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Sam boal/Rollingnews.ie

‘THE Teflon Taoiseach’ was the name they used to give to Bertie Ahern, back in the dying embers of the last century.

Just like your morning feed of sausages and rashers floated around those magical pans and didn’t stick and burn, thanks to Teflon, so it was with any mud slung at Bertie during his long-lived heyday: It just slid off him and left him as squeaky clean as ever.

His ability to ride out any storm and remain as popular as ever among the public irritated the hell out of his critics, as his Teflon-coated armour continually rebuffed the slings and arrows of politics.

I thought of Bertie and his magic cloak of protection this week, as observers both here and in the UK wondered at how Prime Minister Boris Johnson could remain so popular, and fly so high in the polls, despite an ever-growing litany of scandals and failures.

The answer? It is for the very same reason that Bertie kept riding high for so long.

Boris and Bertie have the same Teflon immunity to failings and perceived wrongdoings — for the simple fact that a very sizeable chunk of the population likes the cut of their jib.

The two men are, in many ways, the antithesis of what we consider a politician to be; they are ordinary Joes, amiable fellas, men of the people, unambitious despite making it to the highest office.

Furthermore, both have a loveable rogue streak which means the public almost expects them to get into scrapes, before quickly forgiving and forgetting them.

In fact, the voters adore them for it, whatever their policies and principles — or lack thereof — and whatever their foibles.

The more I think about it, the more I see that the two men have a great deal more even than that in common — however much Bertie may recoil from the comparison.

Peak era Bertie and modern-day Boris have boasted record approval ratings with the public. By 2007, the Taoiseach was scaling never-seen-before highs of 60% approval, while Boris hit the 53% mark in recent weeks.

Numbers like these leave many politicians and the media, who spend their lives in the parliamentary bubble, puzzled. But it is the very ability of Bertie and Boris to be an integral part of that bubble, while appearing to the public to be outside it, that is the key to their popularity.

Such has been their success at carrying off this public persona, that Bertie Ahern and Boris Johnson are perhaps the two most popular leaders in Ireland and the UK respectively in the past half century.

Who else in that period has enjoyed being on first name terms with voters, in the sense that their first names are what we best know them by?

Another striking similarity between early years Bertie and Boris is the fact they both are the sole driving force of their party’s popularity — and their colleagues know it. This affords them huge power, making their positions as party leaders as safe as houses, since any heave may see those doing the heaving quickly out of a job themselves. Such security of tenure means Bertie and Boris were able to run their Cabinets as they pleased, knowing they were untouchable.

Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach. Picture: House of Commons/PA Wire
Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach. Picture: House of Commons/PA Wire

Curiously, too, both men seem to have a special appeal to women. Opinion polls show Boris is actually more popular among females than males, and commentators pointed to Bertie’s “boyish demeanour and cheeky smile” as pluses among women during the 2002 election campaign.

The two men’s private lives have also gone against the political grain: the ‘ideal’ of the nuclear family.

Bertie, who was separated, created something of a stir in European circles 20 years ago by bringing his partner Celia Larkin to events, when diplomacy usually meant it was spouses only. There was speculation that Bertie may seek a divorce and become the first Taoiseach to wed in office, but he never did.

Boris, meanwhile, became the first Prime Minister to marry while in office in 199 years when he wed Carrie last week.

But we need to go right back to their start of the men’s political careers to see where the similarities between them begin.

In 1986, Bertie became Lord Mayor of Dublin, and the stand-out part of his tenure saw him organising the Dublin Millennium festival. Boris also became Mayor of his capital city, London, in 2008, the stand-out part of his tenure being the London Olympics.

It’s interesting that, even in those early days, both men were exhibiting — or perhaps cultivating is a better word — a penchant for not caring about their appearance. It is an appealing trait among the masses, but drives the political classes to distraction.

Of course, Boris is renowned for his unkempt appearance. As far back as 2012, chat show host David Letterman cheekily asked him how long he had been cutting his own hair, while he was criticised for looking scruffy, wearing an unbuttoned jacket and putting his hand in his pocket during the Olympics closing ceremony

Although Bertie smartened up his act later as Taoiseach — that canary yellow suit on a beach aside — he became Mayor of Dublin on the back of what was labelled at the time a “man in an anorak” image.

A description from 1985 stated unkindly: “Bertie Ahern looks as though he has slept in for work and got dressed in a hurry. His tie is askew, his shirt collar well-fingered, his navy-blue pinstripe suit rumpled...”

Recognise anyone in that?

The similarities continue.

Both men give the impression, true or otherwise, that they don’t care for money. Their finances are, to put it kindly, unusual.

Bertie, a man who liked a punt, famously didn’t see the need for a bank account, while Boris has variously been described as hard-up and skint in recent months.

Then there is their penchant for mangling their language. Boris is frequently awarded the epithet ‘bungling’, partly because of his um-ing and ah-ing. Bertie, of course, gave the world the Bertie-isms ‘smokes and daggers’ and ‘don’t upset the apple tart’.

In the face of what could be a worrying failure to communicate, their adoring public merely raises their eyes to the heavens and stifles a chuckle.

With Bertie, you often wondered if such slips were practised and deliberate — after all, this was someone his predecessor Charlie Haughey dubbed the most cunning and devious man he knew. Was Bertie concealing his intellectual capacity behind a ‘man of the people’ shtick?

It could be argued that Boris, too, a product of Eton and Oxford, hides his intellectual capacity. He has written several weighty tomes and is said to be working on one on Shakespeare. Hardly the sign of a shambolic mind.

While the Northern Ireland peace deal in 1998 was Bertie’s crowning glory, many leavers in Britain adore Boris for getting Brexit done. Both events swept the men to greater popularity.

Of course, Boris’s popularity does not extend across the Irish Sea, where he is viewed as a dangerous menace. His actions on Brexit and Northern Ireland have prompted fierce criticism here, including from one Bertie Ahern, who has labelled him “a blustering buffoon” and “a slippery eel”!

Bertie is living proof of the old adage that all political careers end in failure... eventually. He rode high as Taoiseach for 11 years before his ignominious fall.

The thought of Boris lasting as long will send a shudder down the spines of politicians here.

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