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Friday 24 November 2017

Frustrated Ahern tried to raise stakes in power-sharing drive

Shane Doran and Adrian Rutherford

BERTIE Ahern threatened to take back Ireland's constitutional claim on the North in frustration at the DUP's refusal to implement the Good Friday Agreement, a leaked embassy document reveals.

The former Taoiseach also discussed the controversial proposal with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

And US diplomats felt Mr Ahern might go ahead with the threat to strengthen "his nationalist credentials" ahead of the 2007 General Election.

The previously unpublished revelations are disclosed in the Ireland Cables -- a tranche of more than 1,900 classified documents exclusively obtained by the Irish Independent from the whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks.

Mr Ahern's proposal to restore Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution -- labelled "stunning" by the US Embassy -- is revealed in a 'confidential' dispatch to the State Department in Washington.

The cable details how a frustrated Mr Ahern was ready to dramatically raise the stakes in the push for peace after losing patience with the DUP's refusal to enter government with Sinn Fein.

The then Taoiseach threatened to overturn the 1998 referendum result if the DUP failed "to engage".

Mr Ahern's comments were greeted with alarm by the author of the cable, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy Jonathon Benton.

"The Taoiseach said that if the DUP did not engage in the process, he would consider giving a speech in which he reminded people that the Republic of Ireland had changed its constitution to relinquish its claim to Northern Ireland only on the basis of the promise of the Good Friday Agreement," he wrote.

"If that promise is not met, he said, he would indicate that Ireland could consider changing its constitution again."

The leaked cable was written on February 10, 2006, a key moment in the tense negotiations towards a historic power-sharing deal.

It gives an unprecedented insight into the fragile and highly charged nature of the behind-the-scenes talks.

The dispatch refers to a meeting involving Mr Ahern, US Special Envoy Mitchell Reiss, Michael Collins, who was the second secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach with responsibility for the Northern Ireland peace process, and other unnamed government officials.

They met on January 30 -- just days after DUP leader Ian Paisley declared there was "no prospect" of sharing power with Sinn Fein in the near future. Mr Ahern said the government would keep talking with the DUP, but warned they would "only play along so long".

"Never in their life have the DUP made a positive decision," Mr Ahern told officials. Mr Ahern accused the DUP of failing to implement key parts of the agreement.

Reporting back to then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr Benton noted that Ireland relinquishing its claim on the North was "a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement".


"The Taoiseach's comment that he would consider suggesting Ireland could go back on that is stunning."

In his dispatch, Mr Benton said he thought it was "unlikely" Mr Ahern would follow up on his threat.

But he warned that any speech from the Taoiseach hinting he was prepared to do so would have "major repercussions".

Mr Collins also spoke of his frustration in trying to read DUP leader Ian Paisley's intentions.

"One moment he seems to want to see the institutions up so he can be First Minister and the next moment, he seems to want to end his days the way he has lived them: railing against nationalists and refusing to share power," he was quoted as saying.

Weeks later, Mr Ahern and Mr Blair issued a stern ultimatum that it would disband the Northern Assembly unless both parties elected a power-sharing administration by that November.

However, it would be six months after this deadline -- on March 26, 2007 -- before Mr Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness entered office.

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