Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern praised the contributions of the Rev Ian Paisley and Tony Blair to the Northern Ireland peace process, drew inspiration from the life of the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, and argued energetically that Britain should remain in the European Union in a lecture on ‘Reflections on Peace in a Changed Ireland’, yesterday at Queen’s University Belfast.
Ahern’s lecture was the closing event of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice’s Spring Festival, and was organized in cooperation with the Chief Executives Club.
Ahern reminded listeners that for many years Northern Ireland ‘hovered on the brink of all-out civil war,’ acknowledging that while ‘politicians are often criticized … Northern Ireland has been served well by a generation of political leaders who put the cause of peace first.’
He spoke of economic regeneration, increased cross-border cooperation in a number of areas, and a growing tourism industry as ‘evidence of a new era in all-island strategic cooperation.’
For Ahern, Paisley and Blair ultimately emerged as politicians who put the cause of peace first.
He spoke of an almost immediate rapport with Blair upon his election as British Prime Minister in 1997:
‘It’s my belief that Tony Blair was a fantastic Prime Minister and made a fantastic contribution to solving the problem. … The process could not have triumphed without a British Prime Minister with conviction and perseverance.’
It took longer to build a relationship with Paisley, but by the end it had blossomed into genuine friendship. He described how at their first meeting, over breakfast, Paisley ordered a hard-boiled egg. Paisley then told journalists that he had chosen that meal to ensure that Ahern didn’t poison him. ‘It was his own way of taking a small step.’
Ahern added that he always found Paisley a very ‘mannerly’ man, and that Paisley would often apologize to him that he couldn’t shake his hand in public – yet. Later, Paisley would visit Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin with Ahern, and pray there at the grave of Ahern’s parents, who are buried in the republican plot.
During the question and answer session, Ahern was asked why he thought Paisley changed from ‘Dr No’ to ‘Dr Yes’ after so many years.
Ahern replied that he did not think that it was because of Paisley’s ill health and fear of meeting his maker, nor did he think it was a cynical power-driven decision because he could become First Minister.
‘In the end I think he was a politician of conviction. He would often say to me: “We’re Irishmen – he probably should have said Irish people – and Irishmen need to solve this problem.” And he paid a huge personal price for what he did.’
Ahern also offered sustained reflection on the importance of dialogue in peace processes, describing it as the only way forward. Here he used Craig as an example. Craig, he pointed out, had organized the signing of the Ulster Covenant to oppose home rule. But Craig also said while he would never himself sit in a Dublin parliament, he would not rule out the possibility that one day in the future Ulster might be persuaded to join a united Ireland, and if this was the democratic will of the people, he would do nothing to prevent it.
‘I’ve always made it clear that I passionately believe in a united Ireland. But it’s folly to try to coerce people into a united Ireland against their will.’
During the question and answer session, a local priest commented that the peace is still imperfect, with around 40 people under threat from dissident republicans in his area. Citing Ahern’s example of championing dialogue with everyone, he asked what could be done to engage with dissidents.
Ahern commented that it is impossible for politicians to talk directly with dissidents at this point, but that what he did in similar situations during his time was use intermediaries. He spoke about the contributions of people like Fr Alec Reid from Clonard Monastery, who served as an intermediary during some of the most difficult periods of the peace process. He added: ‘Alec would ring me up the week before the all-Ireland hurling final looking for tickets!’
Ahern also took the time to praise the contributions of the European Union to conflict resolution and economic development – not just on the island of Ireland but the entire European continent. The Irish Times report about Ahern’s lecture focused on his remarks on Europe:
He said the EU was the largest trading bloc in the world, adding it “is simply bad economics that will cost jobs and investment throughout Northern Ireland if a Brexit occurs”.
He added: “The EU does need to be modernised and it does need to change, but that is something that political leaders in Belfast, Dublin and London should be working together on. What Europe really needs is fundamental EU-wide reform, not a UK departure.
“A Brexit would be an obstacle to the cross-Border economic co-operation that is profoundly benefiting both states on this island. It would also hugely damage trade and investment North and South.
“The stark reality is that those campaigning for a Brexit are asking people to swap the benefits of membership of a single market with 500 million people in which Northern Ireland is now thriving for an uncertain future, where free trade will be curtailed and where new tariffs will undermine the competitiveness of Northern Irish exports.”
Disclaimer: I am a Research Fellow in the Institute