Tuesday 21 May 2019

'Brexiteers are more of a threat to peace than paramilitaries'

Bertie Ahern tells Shona Murray about the painstaking negotiation and risk that led up to the Good Friday Agreement

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in interview with Shona Murray
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in interview with Shona Murray

Shona Murray

On the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Bertie Ahern never envisaged the threat that jeopardises it today.

The document is a world-class multi-layered blueprint for peace.

It addresses conflict, terrorism, state-sponsored attacks, political prisoners, victims, sectarianism, and hundreds of years of suspicion and tension between the governments of Ireland and the UK.

In its implementation, the Border separating the North and south was minimised and psychologically dissolved along with the presence of military guards enforcing the divisions. But now hard-line Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson represent a bigger threat to stability in Northern Ireland than a return of paramilitaries, he says.

"They've found out that the Good Friday Agreement is a threat to Brexit, so I worry more about those guys, and what they're willing to do in the name of ideology, as opposed to a return to the armed groups and gangs," he tells the Irish Independent.

"These people don't know anything about Ireland and care less."

Mr Ahern "thinks they're wrong" to consider risking the agreement for the sake of having their hard-Brexit. "And I think it's dangerous."

The former Taoiseach sees the anniversary as an opportune time to recall the dark days of the past, and the painstaking risk and negotiation that came with writing the agreement.

He sees it as a "commemoration rather than a celebration", but it's a "clever" document, and he's all over the world discussing it. He spends most of his time in the Middle East, Colombia or Ukraine meeting with government representatives or Hamas, or the Farc and right-wing paramilitaries, and showing them how peace can be achieved when everyone's objectives are brought to the table.

But extremist Brexiteers would be willing to throw away a hard-fought peace, and even return to the time when Catholics were second-class citizens, and Ireland and Britain's relationship was characterised with a distrust bordering on disdain.

"By saying what they're saying, it means going back to 'majoritarianism'," says Mr Ahern. "They tried to get this thing going that the Good Friday Agreement is the problem. But in fairness Labour and some members in the Tory Party like Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine put them in their box," he tells the Irish Independent from his stomping ground of Drumcondra.

He also says "in fairness", UK Prime Minister Theresa May "means what she says about a hard Border".

Back in mid-1995, through 1996 and early 1997, Bertie Ahern began privately meeting Tony Blair despite the fact that neither was in government.

They had a shared ambition to successfully deliver peace to Northern Ireland. They were both willing and determined to look beyond past betrayals and transgressions which influenced thinking on both sides, and committed to bring an end to state and paramilitary violence, and to build British-Irish relations. Primarily it was about saving lives, but Northern Ireland received a disproportionate amount of political capital from successive US administrations. Success would bring international recognition to the reputations of all involved.

"We met in the Gresham [hotel] and worked out what we would do and how we would handle it if we both got in to power.

"He was a certainty because he had an enormous lead in the polls at the time. His election was the first of May in 1997, ours was in June."

Straight away, the plan was to get the ceasefire back on and sign up to the Mitchell principles - basic principles of engagement prescribed by Senator George Mitchell in the peace process.

"We said we'll move straight in to talks in September. And from September to Good Friday we worked non-stop. Me and Tony would talk to (George) Mitchell, General John de Chastelain (the Canadian charged with overseeing disarmament in Northern Ireland), the Shinners (Sinn Féin) and the UUP, everyone.

"I was up to the North like a yo-yo, and over to Westminster."

There were several bumps in the road which threatened the thin line they were threading. "Loyalist Billy Wright was killed in December - the INLA got blamed, and were kicked out of the talks.

"Then UDP were involved in activities and they were thrown out of the talks, then some fellas that were involved with drugs were killed, and Sinn Féin was thrown out of the talks.

"So it was in-out, in-out, but it was almost March before we got back on track.

"We got to the Tuesday before Good Friday, and the Unionists had said 'they wouldn't touch the deal with a 40-foot pole'.

"Mitchell was panicking. Mitchell doesn't panic. Blair was getting frustrated. I was down here trying to organise my mam's funeral; listening to them on the phone. Then of course, the Shinners came in with 70 items and questions at 11 o'clock at night on the Thursday.

"Everything but the kitchen sink was on it. (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) Mo Mowlam went ballistic. She went bananas. Rightly so."

But he adds: "In fairness to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and the rest of Sinn Féin, they had to rein in the IRA; they had to fight the case for peace and decommissioning."

The transfer and licensed release of prisoners wasn't fully dealt with until 4am.

It was one thing dealing with it on the night but for 10 years afterwards, Mr Ahern said, he was dealing with relatives.

"I met them all, so many groups; nationalists, republicans; widows, RUC widows, IRA, British army widows. To our eternal gratitude to the families, they all went with it on the basis that if this was a lasting peace, they would take that sacrifice."

Irish Independent

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