Ahern: nationalism’s adept navigator…

Bertie Ahern gave his speech in ancient most ancient part of the British Houses of Parliament yesterday, Westminster Hall. Frank Millar observes in the Irish Times today how history has a way of smoothing over some of the cracks and joints and parallel possibilities that faced, what could be termed as the two chief navigators of what has been, at times, viewed by opinion on both sides as a politically treacherous route to peace. It is easy, he suggests, to forget how much more complex and dangerous Ahern’s challenge was than Blair’s:

Unlike Blair, in Sinn Féin the Fianna Fáil leader had to deal with electoral competitors. He could often appear sidelined – whether because it fell to Blair to handle the ongoing crisis within unionism – or because republicans often set out to bypass Dublin and depict the process as essentially a negotiation between themselves and the British. There was also the sense of Ahern holding back at key moments while Mr Blair sailed optimistically forth – most notably during the crisis in autumn 2003 when the Taoiseach’s instincts told him that the offer then forthcoming from the IRA and Sinn Féin was not going to be enough to rescue David Trimble from the rising tide of unionist “rejectionism”.

And it was, of course, in rising above the concept of an “Irish peace process” and effecting the crucial engagement with the then Ulster Unionist leader that Ahern – in his own way as much a “moderniser” as Blair – came into his own. Lord Trimble yesterday confirmed his view that the essential first step in securing that engagement had been the Taoiseach’s willingness to take a more flexible approach to the Joint Framework Documents negotiated by Reynolds and then British prime minister John Major. These had envisaged cross-Border bodies with “executive” and “harmonising” powers which unionists feared – as republicans hoped – represented an embryonic all-Ireland parliament in the making.

Today it is taken as read that engagement with unionism in the quest for powersharing, equality and parity of esteem for Northern nationalists required the withdrawal of Articles 2 and 3 and the Irish constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. But that is not necessarily how it looked to many nationalists, even inside Fianna Fáil, back in 1998. Nor can it be stated often enough that, without it, there would have been no agreement with Trimble’s Ulster Unionists then – much less the Rev Ian Paisley’s recent celebrated trip to Dublin hailing a new era in North-South relations.

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  • Ian Descart-Sabrat

    Don’t really agree with Millar on this. Agreed, Ahern and Blair both deserve a lot of credit but just because the North is a bigger issue for the Irish Govt on the domestic agenda doesn’t mean Ahern had it tough while Blair had a cakewalk. For starters, while it’s accepted that the North barely registers as an issue for people in the UK, it is also true that it no longer occupies the hearts and minds of people in the Republic anywhere near as much as it used to, especially people under the age of about 40. People in ROI began to grow tired & weary of the whole ‘groundhog day’ nature of NI politics about 20 years ago in my opinion and when they saw that the GFA was yet another false dawn, they just started tuning out in droves. The attitude was that Unionists just do not want Taigs about the place and that anything suggested by either a Northern Nationalist party or the Irish Govt would be rejected, end of.

    (I personally am still cynical about the abandonment of the UUP in the North, I firmly believe the vast majority of Unionists really thought that if they switched party allegiances a la Jeffrey Donaldson, that Paisley would never share power with Nationalists in any circumstances no matter what was on offer. Those who believed so must be feeling pretty stunned and sickened right now, but that’s off the point I suppose.)

    Ahern is not subjected to anywhere near as much glare and public scrutiny as Blair is and the robustness of the political exchanges and the brickbats launched in terms of personal attacks in Westminster do not bear any comparison with the snoozefest that is Leinster House. Being a seasoned BBC and Channel 4 news viewer I can attest to that. And Blair has been under constant fire since he sent British troops into Iraq alongside the US. Ahern has never had to deal with that kind of pressure and constant, constant criticism. Ahern also has a lot of media lapdogs who steadfastly refuse to criticise this current government or anyone in it, let alone the Taoiseach, or to see anything wrong in anything they do ever. Blair has no such support in the British media that I can see.

    Furthermore it is a fact that Taoisigh and politicians who have to engage in the Northern situation are universally supported and spared from any criticism down here because the attitude seems to be ‘There but for the grace of God’ etc and ‘I don’t envy the poor bastard trying to deal with those f*ckin lunatics up there’.