Bertie Ahern had sat down with a mug of tea and a small plate of chocolate digestives, just as “Murder, she wrote” was starting, when his mobile rang. It was lashing down outside, real cats and dogs with extra dogs weather.
He frowned at the number. He didn’t recognise it, and had problems in the past with smart alecs getting his number and giving him abuse over the phone. The gas thing was that every one of them thought he was the first fella to do it. Bertie rarely hung up, just put the phone in the breadbin in the kitchen and went about his business, letting them tire themselves out. He’d occasionally pick up the phone to see if they were still there, catch a “Galway tent” or the like, and just carry on. They’d normally hang up in frustration, although one got quite distressed at the fact that Bertie had neither replied not hung up, and started asking was he OK. The former Taoiseach had ended up talking to that one, and they spent twenty minutes talking about the upcoming Premiership season. Your man hung up with a cheerful goodbye, having completely forgotten why he’d rung in the first place.
Bertie answered the phone.
“Mr Ahern? This is the Federal Chancellor’s office: can you take a call from Chancellor Merkel?”
Half of his chocolate digestive fell into his tea with the shock. He hadn’t spoken to her in a few years.
“Oh, eh, yeah. Of course.” His brain was racing. Could this be some smartarse radio DJ?
When the voice came on it sure sounded like her. Her English was better than people thought, but she didn’t really feel at ease using it. She always struggled to sound happy to be talking to someone, even when she was.
“Hello, Bertie. I hope I’m not, eh, putting you out?” She said, using the phrase that he’d introduced to her and she now clutched to as an attempt to build a rapport. As it happened, they had gotten on perfectly well when he’d been Taoiseach. She’d found him calm, rational, straightforward to deal with and pragmatic. Not a million miles from her own approach to politics. Indeed, that’s why his name was in the frame.
“Ah no, Angela, no, I was just, eh, working on some papers,” his eyes flickered to Jessica Fletcher talking to some poor bastard who was almost certainly toast in the next five minutes.
“Good, good. As we are not on a secure line I will not say too much. I have asked our embassy to bring over to your home a scrambler unit so that we may speak discreetly. I have a proposition for you. Would that be alright?”
“Sure, sure, lovely. This afternoon is it?”
“Yes. I hope I have not upset any previous engagements?”
Bertie look at the plate of chocolate digestives.
“Nothing I can’t cancel with a phone call.”
“Excellent. I shall talk to you within one hour.”
The first thing that hit Bertie when he stepped off the helicopter was the heat. It was sweltering. He hadn’t been sure what to wear in Libya, so he’d rang Tony Blair, who spent a lot of time in hot countries, and he always looked chilled.
Big mistake. Bertie slapped his own head within seconds of calling, because of course Blair would have loved the job. Having said that, he was gracious enough not to say that he could do it better than Bertie.
“Linens, Bertie. Shirts, trousers, jackets. And don’t bother wearing underpants. It’s like cooking a lobster. Just make sure that someone irons them every night because they crumple like buggery and you end up looking like some sort of 1950s colonial.”
He’d been right. The breeze, what there was of it, hit him, and blew through the trousers. Jaysus, that felt nice.
All around him it looked like “Saving Private Ryan”, as huge French, Spanish and Italian military vehicles were driven off landing craft. Soldiers were everywhere, all in different uniforms, but all with an EU flag prominently displayed somewhere on their uniforms. In the distance gunfire and explosions could be heard.
A Finnish general saluted Bertie.
“Commissioner Ahern: welcome to the European Union Refugee Security Zone.”
Bertie saluted back, and was introduced down the line of both military and civilian advisors. Away from the landing pad, assorted media shouted questions at him. He couldn’t resist sauntering over.
“Commssioner Ahern, how does it feel to be running Europe’s first colony in 150 years?”
“Ah lads, we’re just here to help. Nobody’s colonising nobody,” Bertie said, waving at the other questions and following the lead of the general. Around him a group of tough-looking French Foreign Legionaires clustered.
A large mobile command centre had been set up overlooking the beaches where combined European forces were still coming ashore. Already large numbers of engineers were laying out de facto streets in between portable housing and offices.
The soldiers all stood to attention when Bertie entered with his staff. He waved them all to relax and looked over the map off the large area of civil war strewn Libya that the EU had just annexed. Not that it called it that.
On a bank of televisions on a far wall, Europe and the world’s news services were passing judgement on the breakneck speed of Operation TintIn. From the joint press conference one week ago where most of the EU’s leaders announced the safezone, to Chancellor Merkel’s clear statement to would-be migrants: if you attempt to land in the EU illegally you will be immediately deported to the safezone.
Then came the invasion, or as Brussels called it: the deployment. The various Libyan factions protested and put up resistance but retreated quickly under heavy air and ground fire.
The Libyans in the region were given a clear message: disarm and you will be compensated, and will benefit from the huge European expenditure about to occur, or fight a huge European army. Plata o plomo, as some in the left-wing media suggested. The smart Libyans hid their rifles and turned up for work, helping to building the huge camps that started to emerge from the sand almost immediately.
Bertie’s appointment, as the civilian leader of the project, had been rushed through with both France and Germany supporting him. Most of the rest of the European Council had some memory of him, and raised no objection. Bertie was a fixer, a dealmaker, a settler of arguments, and all expected the safezone to have no shortage of those.
His work rate and his capacity for detail staggered his officials, but what really threw them was his desire not to be sitting in his air-conditioned office, but out talking on the ground. Chatting with the engineers laying sewage pipes, or setting up generators. Nor was he afraid to go into the actual refugee housing, notepad and pencil in hand, talking, taking notes.
Within a week of the first refugees arriving he was organising a soccer league for all the young boys and men, giving out soccer balls and teddy bears to the children. His armoured jeep had a truck following it with cheap shoes, combs, women’s sanitary products, tooth brushes, mobile phones, colouring books and crayons.
Much to the chagrin of his staff, the refugees began to know him as The Bertie, crowding around him, looking for favours, some offering their daughters as a wife. He took it all in his stride.
Occasionally, a glint of steel was needed. On hearing of incidents of sex slavery and forced child marriage, he decided to designate a women-only section, protected by female Irish and Danish troops. When one Imam squared up to him on a street, demanding the return of “our property”, the easy smile slipped and the eyes hardened, and he leaned into the Imam, who spoke good English.
“You go near those girls again and I’ll set them on ye. Got that?” He said, pointing at the squad of Irish Army Rangers now acting as his bodyguards. The Imam backed down. Reporters talking to the city’s residents noted that Bertie was particularly popular with women. “He respects us! And he makes sure our daughters learn how to read and write!” one woman told a BBC reporter.
In the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker looked at the mounting costs of the zone, and pointed out that “Bertie knows something about spending, I’ll give him that!”
But across Europe, the deal was done. New refugees were being intercepted daily and brought to the zone for processing. The message was getting through: don’t got to Europe, you’ll end up in the zone. Polls across Europe showed overwhelming support for the now burgeoning zone.
In its crowded streets, businesses, markets, small farms, mosques and churches and even one tiny synagogue were appearing. Children were going to schools which were, at Ahern’s insistence, mixed by gender, nationality and religion, and where European values were taught. A minority of parents objected to this, but the commissioner was firm: “If you want to live in Europe, you learn European values.”
Those who objected were threatened with expulsion, a threat that carried real power as every residents’ welfare entitlement was based on their biometric ID card. But most parents were delighted that their children were learning European languages, and then skills in the Zone’s German style technical schools.
A French demand that the French language be mandatory in the zone’s schools was parried by Bertie, who suggested that any country that demanded its country’s national tongue be taught must give those who learn it the right to study it there. The Elysee went quiet after that. Those who objected were threatened with expulsion. The soccer league was a big deal, so much so that matches had to be televised on the zone’s TV and radio as the makeshift stadium was too small. Once a week a former BBC reporter would present “Ask Bertie”, where the commissioner would answer questions by text or Twitter on everything from residency processing to his favourite movie.
A form of chaotic order was maintained, by a mixture of EU soldiers and militia recruited from amongst the refugees. There were also terrorist attacks, claimed by both Al Quaeda and ISIS, but the refugees were quick themselves to stamp out extremism. “This is our home!” became the unofficial slogan of the zone. There were attacks and car bombs, but it became very apparent that the militia were even more zealous than the EU security forces in hunting down terrorists.
Bertie was quick to negotiate access to the single market for the zone, and also convinced a number of leading European supermarket chains to carry the various craft and food products now beginning to be produced. He toured European TV channels pointing out that buying products from the zone kept the refugees in the zone and not on the continent. Some accused him of being racist, but it was a point that rang home with Europeans. Nearly every European shopper would throw a few zone products into their trolley to keep “Them Over There”.
He also made sure that legal immigration from the zone into the EU was possible.
“Look,” he told the European Council as he presented his report after 12 months.
“It’s very simple. You’ve a lot of good people here who can contribute to Europe as long as we process them to our needs and our rules. If I’m able to tell people that residency in the EU could be possible, it gives me a carrot to reward people and keeps the lid on disorder. Give them no hope and you’ll upset the whole apple tart.”
Indeed, one of the curious phenomena was that a substantial proportion of those who did get residency in the EU proper, normally for making a positive business, religious or social contribution to the zone, chose not to use it, instead treating it as something to be used in an emergency. But life in the zone was deemed stable enough to not want to casually dispose of.
The personality of Bertie writ large across the now growing city. Almost every business or religious place of worship had a picture of The Bertie on the wall, some torn from magazines or newspapers, others neatly framed. Many homes had them too, with photos of Bertie meeting the homeowner or businessperson taking pride of place. Walking with the commissioner through a bustling market place (why do marketplaces always bustle?) the Irish foreign minister remarked that the commissioner could just as easily be in Drumcondra. “Look at him: shaking hands with shopkeepers, taking notes off aul wans, kicking balls around with kids, I’d swear he just told that Eritrean goat herd that he knew his father well!”
Day after day, the fixing continued. European judges set up a rudimentary court system which quickly became respected for being fair in settling disputes. Certain practices like female genital mutilation and attacking homosexuals were outlawed, and Bertie would happily argue the issues on a street corner with Imams or preachers. When he announced the opening of a LGBT community centre, he was very quick to point out to those who protested that the zone was not a prison. You could leave any time you liked. You just couldn’t go to Europe without a permit, pointing out that “Sure, look it, if you don’t like the gays and the Jews then ye probably wouldn’t like Europe anyway!”
Eventually, the issue of democracy came up, and the question of some sort of elected assembly.
“Right lads, ladies,” The Bertie said to the assembled representatives of various national, religious and ethnic groups.
“Have ye ever heard of a ting called de Single Transferable Vote?”