Taoisigh fear worst if Border returns
‘Violence will return quickly if Brexit deal goes sour’
The three "wise men", with a combined 17 years of government leadership, all believe Ireland's links to Britain via the European Union contacts proved very beneficial over the past 45 years.
Now Brexit poses another loss beyond immediate economics, trade and complications around the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
John Bruton, Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997 and later the EU's ambassador to Washington from 2004 to 2009, put it rather pithily.
"Between 1922 and 1973, no British prime minister ever felt it was worth his while to come to meet his counterpart on this island.
"This indicated to me an unequal relationship - that all changed when we joined the EU together," he told a Brexit conference organised by Institute for International and European Affairs at the Mansion House in Dublin.
For the former Fine Gael leader, these Ireland-UK contacts on EU issues at senior official and political level had proved invaluable and their potential loss would have considerable consequences.
Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach from 1997 until 2008, said he had negotiated with Britain at the EU table on all sorts of issues over a period of some 20 years.
He agreed that ways must be found to maintain close contact with a near neighbour and major trading partner, and he suggested the neglected Good Friday Agreement structures could be called into play.
Brian Cowen, Taoiseach from 2008 until 2011, agreed ways must be found to maintain close relations with Britain. He also saluted the EU's support for the Northern Ireland peace process and suggested ways must be found to maintain this.
But Mr Ahern had a word of warning for current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He said the Irish Government must secure a Border deal well in advance of an EU leaders' summit next October, which will sign off on a UK 'withdrawal agreement'.
"The reality in EU Council meetings is that late at night you're asked to compromise so everyone can agree and move forward. That could happen in October. I wouldn't recommend anyone in the Irish Government plan a Halloween party," Mr Ahern said.
- Read more: British approach to dealing with Irish border 'defies logic' - former Taoiseach Brian Cowen
He warned that if the Border remains outstanding until the last minute, the Taoiseach would come under enormous pressure to compromise to save the bigger EU-UK €50bn settlement.
"That's how it works - that's the way it always worked," Mr Ahern said.
Mr Bruton and Mr Ahern each warned of the risk of violence if Brexit causes a return of Border customs controls in Ireland.
On the potential threat of violence, Mr Bruton said some form of Border control for goods must be put in place if Britain leaves both the EU customs union and single market. "We know from history that the existence of Border posts, however unobtrusive these might be, symbolises for many people the partition of the country - something many people are disinclined to accept," Mr Bruton said.
The former Fine Gael leader said the return of Border controls would increase the potential for smuggling, which was closely related to paramilitary activity and criminality.
Mr Ahern, leader of Fianna Fáil from 1994 until 2008, said there would be no delay on the return to violence if Border controls emerged from Brexit.
He stressed his hope that controls would not happen and hoped compromise can be found but he foresaw attacks on any Border control points.
"You wouldn't have to wait too long for violence. The communities on both sides of the Border would pull down anything put up - with their bare hands," Mr Ahern said.
All three former Taoisigh were keen to strike an optimistic note. But there was more hope than confidence on display in their thoughtful offerings on this make-or-break issue for Ireland.