Saturday 19 January 2019

Bertie's a hero and Cowen's so dignified - spin king Campbell

Praise: Not many world leaders could handle the crisis Ireland faced

HE might not like the title King of the Spinners but Alastair Campbell has earned it.

Sitting in the room in the Merrion Hotel where Brian Cowen quit as party leader and John Gormley pulled the Greens out of Government, he refuses to look negatively on Irish politicians.

He's the man who guided Tony Blair through many crises in Northern Ireland, Princess Diana's death and countless scandals. But he says very little could match Ireland's challenges.

Perhaps because he's worked so closely with them, he takes a less jaundiced view of politicians than is common in this country today.

Brian Cowen, he believes, handled himself with "a lot of dignity" as "a real, full, raging storm" took him down.


"What he endured is something that doesn't happen that often, which is a genuine full-blown crisis for the country. There aren't many and he had one. I think once the crisis really bit, it was always going to be really, really difficult," Campbell says.

In Dublin to launch volume two of his diaries, charting 1997-1999 when he was Tony Blair's government press officer, he is delighted to see the Irish people engaging with the election.

But he seems almost hurt by the public attitude to politicians, including Bertie Ahern.

"You're in a situation now where, because of the economy and what's happened with the IMF and all the rest of it, people are very down on them.

"I understand that. I think it's important to remember that from my perspective, for example, Bertie Ahern is one of the heroes of that book."

Campbell knows his praise of Ahern as someone with "incredible dedication, commitment, attention to detail, creative and all the rest of it" is unlikely to gain him much kudos in the public eye.

But, he says, during the tense lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement, "the impression he made on me was wholly favourable. I speak as I find and I'll carry on saying it even if you can't say that any more."


He says when "history takes its course, people will remember different things".

Ireland and Campbell's opinion on its people feature heavily in the book but the standout moment is an image of the then British Prime Minister in a bath tub mimicking an Irish journalist as the Agreement neared completion.

Campbell recalls the scene with a dodgy Irish accent of his own. "He was in the bath and he went into this thing where he was doing a newsreader, 'Tony Blair has been forced to apologise for marrying a member of the Roman Catholic Church'."

Despite being a former journalist, Campbell is cynical about the media and their ability to influence. But his harshest criticism isn't for political but sporting journalists.

It is influenced by his decision in 2005 to take up an offer from rugby coach Clive Woodward to travel to New Zealand for the Lions tour. It was there that he became friends with Irish players such as Donnacha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara.

He recalls trying to change the players' approach to the media but being beaten back by the writers. The breaking point came after the spear tackle by New Zealand captain Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu that ruled Brian O'Driscoll out of the rest of the tour.

"Clive Woodward was absolutely furious. He wanted to make a big thing of it. We made a big thing of it. We had lots of evidence, slow motion, all the different angles," he recalls.

But the New Zealand media came out as tribal on the All Blacks side and the Lions got little sympathy, he said. As a result Campbell wouldn't do it again.

On Ireland, he says that it's a country with which he feels a great affinity.


"I don't feel English. I do feel British. The last time I did The Late Late Show, and I was fishing for applause because I had no idea it would get the reaction that it did, but when I said I wouldn't go to the House of Lords, that seemed to go down really well. I think that was kind of anti-establishment."

He claims an affinity with Australia and Ireland and when asked about international damage to our reputation in the economic crisis, he's not as pessimistic as many people here.

"Living here you probably have a worse perception than the reality. That doesn't mean you haven't had people right around the world saying IMF and what's happening to the Government and the rest of it.

"Nor does it mean that there hasn't been some reputation damage. But you've still got a very strong base as a country that people are aware of, genuinely good feelings."


- Bertie Ahern: "During that whole period (negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement), the impression he made on me was wholly favourable."

- Brian Cowen: "What he endured is something that doesn't happen that often, which is a genuine, full-blown crisis for the country." He handled himself with "a lot of dignity".

- Being press officer for the Lions during the 2005 tour: "Once they started to lose, and we lost all the test matches, I was getting as much blame for it as the players."

- Ireland's damaged reputation: "You've still got a very strong base as a country that people are aware of, genuinely good feelings."

The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume Two: Power And The People 1997-1999 is out now

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