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.