Monday 18 November 2019

Bertie Ahern: UK leaving Europe may force new Irish referendum

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern speaking during the Newry Mourne and Down District Council hosted Brexit - The Big Debate on the implications of a UK exit from the EU at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry, Northern Ireland
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern speaking during the Newry Mourne and Down District Council hosted Brexit - The Big Debate on the implications of a UK exit from the EU at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry, Northern Ireland

Michael McHugh

Bertie Ahern has warned a UK exit from Europe could force a new referendum in Ireland.

The former taoiseach said the Republic should be as helpful as possible to Britain as it seeks concessions from the EU ahead of a poll on whether to exit as early as next year.

But he recalled his experience of European referenda showed they opened up new issues not envisaged by treaty negotiators and could be exploited by foreign interests.

Mr Ahern said: "Treaty change is difficult, if you have treaty change it means every one of the 27 (other member states) have to ratify in national parliaments or in referendums.

"I don't see how you can make the changes the British Prime Minister (David Cameron) is looking for without some sort of treaty changes."

The former Fianna Fail leader served as taoiseach between 1997 and 2008. In 2004 he held office as president of the European Council during which European leaders agreed a new European constitution.

The British Government wants that constitution to be significantly reformed if it is not to leave the EU, touching on issues of sovereignty, competitiveness and immigration.

Mr Ahern supported the Irish Government's position that Ireland should be a helpful good neighbour to Britain.

But he recalled battles over Irish referenda on the Lisbon and Nice European reform treaties in the first decade of the 21st century.

"When you negotiate these huge agreements and bring it to the people you get different issues.

"Pollsters said it was about Irish neutrality or about abortion and there was interference by several countries who could not get their own way in their own country so came over to try to influence us in our country."

Ireland voted twice on the Lisbon Treaty, which centred on the creation of a European constitution, approving it in 2009.

Mr Ahern was in office during the poll on the Nice Treaty, which reformed the institutional structure of the EU to accommodate eastern expansion. The referendum was passed with a yes vote in 2002.

He told a conference in Newry, Co Down, his views had changed since the referendum on Ireland entering the EU.

"I don't love Europe as much as I did in 1972. The alternative is something that we sure don't want."

He said Ireland had strong reasons for wanting its major trade partner the UK to remain within the EU, particularly preserving trade links.

But he acknowledged: "I understand many of the UK's objectives, the Irish Government have said they are open to considering sensible proposals."

Those include immigration and benefits.

"Preventing any abuses of freedom of movement will serve to strengthen the freedom of movement in the long run."

He said there was a "simplistic" view about the impact on trade agreements if the UK pulled out, leaving the Government to negotiate individual agreements with many countries or blocs.

"When it comes down to it (Europe) is still a huge part of our economic life, it is a huge part of trade and business.

"The reason we are successful, the reason we managed to book our work through another recession, the reason we can give good employment and educate people and keep things going North/South is because we are part of a trading block that is the EU."

Relations between British and Irish ministers could suffer if the UK leaves the EU, the former Taoiseach warned.

Bertie Ahern said the chemistry between partners could change if the European connection and side meetings in Brussels were lost.

He warned Northern Ireland could be particularly affected.

"We are all practical people, most people in here are business people. Politicians are the same, half the time the business is done on the side.

"The letters are flying back and forwards and the memos are flying and emails but it is that side business where you can go to a colleague at a European meeting and say listen, there is something going on, can you help do anything, on almost a personal basis.

"There is a huge benefit when that happens in Northern Ireland between British ministers and Irish ministers every week of the year and Europe would lose that if we were to split."

Mr Ahern and Tony Blair brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Belfast which largely ended violence in Northern Ireland.

It followed years of intensive talks between unionists, nationalists and governments in Belfast, London, Dublin and Washington.

Mr Ahern addressed a Newry conference on Britain's referendum on Europe.

"There is a huge amount of meetings in a European context and it does help chemistry between politicians and so therefore if that European connection went it would not change the policy but it would change the human relationship and that would be a worry.

"Those human relationships, Albert Reynolds had it with John Major, I had it with Tony Blair, it continues on with the ministers now, that is very important and where I would have concern."

PA Media

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