Sunday 18 August 2019

Violence will take centre stage in Northern Ireland unless political leaders 'keep at' talks - Bertie Ahern

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Photo: Damien Eagers/INM
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Photo: Damien Eagers/INM
Jane Last

Jane Last

Violence will take centre stage in Northern Ireland unless political leaders “keep at” the talks in a bid to get Stormont back up and running, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned.

His call on talks was echoed by Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness, and UCC’s Dr Mary C Murphy who warned that if talks don’t happen in a proper forum, people die.

The three were on a panel discussing Brexit at the Women in Media Conference in Ballybunion. The annual event, now in its seventh year, is sponsored by Vodafone and discussion was chaired by journalist Sarah Carey.

Mr Ahern warned the conference that the spree of ATM robberies across the North and Border counties was likely the work of people who wish to buy arms.

He also told the conference the Real IRA were recruiting people, and if politicians don’t stay centre stage, violence will take over.

Speaking about the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, Mr Ahern said British Prime Minister Theresa May was "visibly moved" at the funeral of Ms McKee.

This prompted her to move ahead with opening talks between the parties in Northern Ireland in a bid to break the deadlock, he said.

Mr Ahern described the murder of Lyra McKee as an "eye-opener for everybody".

"The fact that she was a young, articulate, hardworking journalist, a really kind person who was known to so many people across different walks of life from Belfast to Derry, and everywhere in between, I think even made it more horrific.

"I think her funeral and the events around it have been incredibly sad on one side, but a wake up call on the other, [which] maybe is a good thing.

They (the DUP and Sinn Fein) got to the stage where they believed, wrongly in my view, that their own electorate or the electorate generally didn’t really care that there was no institutions.

"And every time you challenge them in private, you get the same old answer. And just the week before Lyra died, I was up in Belfast…. I met the DUP people and I met the Sinn Fein people as well and they were saying ‘listen we’re not under any pressure’.

"That was the difficulty in that they believed there was no pressure on them to actually deal with this. I think there is pressure on them."

While Ms McKee’s murder was shocking, Mr Ahern said we should remind ourselves of the statistics.

"In the last decade, 20 people have died in violence in Northern Ireland. From the time of the agreement in 1998 to 2008, 88 people died in the North.

"In the previous decade, which was the decade up to the peace in the North, it was 658, and in the previous decade, it was just short of a thousand."

Despite the fall in numbers, the threat of violence remains.

"The ATM robberies in the North are not being robbed by the Boy Scouts and since Christmas, I’ve been saying they’ve been robbed for a particular reason.

"It might be criminality but it’s associated with someone who wants to buy arms. And these are the difficulties.

"Politicians should never allow centre stage to the violence.

"If politicians don’t keep the talks going, and I don’t care if they’re successful, they have to keep going, and going and going. You have to keep at it.

"Because the Real IRA are recruiting in the North. They are fundraising. They are not a huge organisation but they’re a dangerous organisation. So politicians have to be centre stage," he said.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness told the conference that when she spoke to British MPs warning them of violence in Northern Ireland prior to Ms McKee’s death, she was "dismissed on occasion for scaremongering".

Ms McGuinness said people have contacted her from Northern Ireland, urging her "not to forget us" when it comes to negotiations on Brexit.

Dr Mary C Murphy, lecturer in politics in UCC, told the conference there is a severe lack of trust between leaders in the north.

"There is a lingering lack of trust in Northern Ireland which is a legacy of the conflict playing out, the post-conflict period playing out the way that it has

"I think, from my perspective, again with an academic hat, is they haven’t been talking to each other. We’ve had a suspension of the institutions for over two years now. And that hasn’t been the first suspension. There’s been several suspensions over years.

"If you’re not talking, you are losing. You don’t need to be talking and finding solutions necessarily. You need to be talking. You need to be understanding.

"You need to be communicating. You need to be sharing. Even if it still reveals difference and conflict. That’s okay. But that’s the forum you need to be doing it in. Because if you are not doing it in that forum, people do die," she warned.

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