Bertie Ahern is the prime minister of Ireland, a position which is referred to in Gaelic as An Taoiseach. The satirical British publication Private Eye used to publish spoof letters from Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, to his golfing partner, in which he made regular mention of The Teasock, usually prefixed by such choice adjectives as 'bogtrotting' and 'potato-eating'. That was back in the 1980s, when southern Ireland was encumbered with debt, unemployment and emigration, and was generally good for a laugh. Northern Ireland, of course, was only worth a grimace. These days, however, it's the Irish who are smirking. People no longer refer simply to 'Ireland' - they talk about the 'Celtic Tiger'. A couple of weeks ago, the circle of this new era was completed when the Celtic Tiger paid a trade visit to its somewhat larger sister feline, China. At the end of the trip, the delegation arrived in Hong Kong and at an unspeakably early hour I presented myself at the Mandarin hotel to meet the Taoiseach for 30 minutes. This was evidence of a frantic schedule but Ahern, who has made a professional career out of affability, opened the door to his suite with only the mild observation, 'Sure, they're keeping me on the go all right.' He is a red-faced, slightly shambling man who manages to look creased even before the pressures of the day have fully kicked in. Back in his early days on the stump, he was known for being an accountant who wore an anorak which suggests he isn't one of those fashion-conscious dignitaries whose photograph will soon be adorning the walls of Shanghai Tang. The anorak, indeed, took on a life of its own. 'I'd never take it off, I'd just say 'Ah to hell with them', but you know, in television clips and things, it became an issue. So I moved on.' In other words, he was spin-doctored, his image made over for the new, yuppified Ireland. 'Ah, well, no, I haven't changed,' replied Ahern, picking at his fingers. 'But the anorak was auctioned by a Protestant school which was trying to raise money for a new roof, and I heard it made a fair bit.' The most important word in that sentence, of course, was 'Protestant'. Ahern is too much of a politician to leave such a vital adjective out, the sub-text being that here was a Catholic prime minister bonding delightfully with the other side. He remarked several times on the new, tolerant Ireland, 'as near to a pluralist society as you'll get', though it could be observed that true pluralism requires no labels. Still, it's certainly true to say that Ahern himself, in three significant ways, is the living embodiment of all that is currently defining the country. At 47, he's the youngest prime minister it has ever had. He seems genuinely to care about Northern Ireland (much rarer in a southern Irish politician than you might think, Belfast being just as much a dread word in Dublin as it in London). And, although married, he lives with a woman who is not his wife. That this is deemed acceptable by the famously conservative Irish electorate is astonishing - almost as much as the fact that one of the products which is currently rejuvenating Ireland is Viagra, which is manufactured there and which alone is expected to boost this year's economic growth by a manly 0.3 per cent. So is Ireland, the recipient of huge injections of European money, enjoying an equally artificially-induced, but short-lived, boom? 'No, in 1987 we developed a social partnership agreement with farmers, employers, trade unions, when we agreed to cut public expenditure and in return they got a fixed increase of 2.5 per cent for three years. We had four three-year agreements, and economic growth has been 8 per cent in the past five years. This year it will be 9 per cent.' Despite a world downturn? 'Ah, God, I hope so. If we can work through this recession at 5 per cent, I'd be very happy.' The cultivation of China is part of a long-term plan for Irish exports. Didn't he feel very small during his visit? 'Ah you do, you do,' sighed the prime minister. 'Jesus, when you see Pudong with US$100 billion invested there ... but we can piggy-back up on that. Clinton and myself signed an agreement with Baltimore Technologies this day two weeks ago. They make a heck of a lot of money and they could feed into Pudong.' Clinton, of course, was primarily in Ireland to show support for the Good Friday peace agreement and to attend a memorial service for the victims of the Omagh bomb. Wasn't Ahern furious that the extreme gravity of that visit was ludicrously undermined by continuous questions about the Lewinsky affair? 'To be honest, I felt sorry for him. It was his own guys, the journalists from America, who were chip, chip, chipping at him. Clinton has been amazingly supportive, and if the president is committed, then the whole administration is helpful and it helps us to put pressure on Blair.' Ahern's mother died a few days before the Good Friday agreement which must have made it a strange week. Although he is a Dublin lad, his father managed a farm for an order of priests on the outskirts of the city which explains the rural air which both critics and supporters say clings to him. When I asked him what he remembered about the peace agreement, he grew animated. 'I went for a walk round Stormont on Good Friday morning, to keep awake and clear my head, it was cold, about four o'clock, and these crows were working away on their nests. All these crows.' Similarly, four months later, when he was at the Donegal wakes of three children killed by the Omagh bomb, he recalled: 'One mother was out of her mind, she kept on saying she had to go out into the fields. She wanted to get wild flowers from the fields for the coffin. I said that was a great idea, to go on out into the fields.' One of the dead boys, an eight-year-old called Oran Doherty, had been a Celtic football supporter. 'The father was in bits and he asked us if we could tell the club. We were in the kitchen and we rang one of the directors, who was in Spain, on the mobile. And three of them came over for the funeral, including your man's favourite player, and they carried the coffin. Not that it meant a lot to the poor fellow who was dead.' So while Ireland grows prosperous and trades with China, will Northern Ireland ever mend? Ahern, who has announced anti-terrorist measures so draconian that a variety of human rights groups has protested their introduction, looked weary. 'The Continuity IRA are still there, they're lunatics. You'd hope they'd say, Jesus, and just leave it. But whether they drift back ... Compared to earlier years, it's only a handful.' It only takes one, I said. 'Ah, God, I know,' replied the Taoiseach.