“Our understanding of Irishness and Britishness needs to change.”

In yesterday’s Sunday Business Post, Steven King, “a former adviser to former UUP leader David Trimble”, had an interesting perspective on the role of Bertie Ahern in the lead-up to the 1998 Agreement that the out-going Taoiseach was reminiscing about on RTÉ Radio.

It was early November and, as good young unionists, we were wearing poppies in remembrance of the dead of the world wars. Should we take them off in deference to our hosts, we wondered? We decided instead that, even if Fianna Fáilers ever achieved their dearest wish, we would not cease to recall those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

As we chatted amiably that evening to Maire Geoghegan Quinn about the upcoming divorce referendum, our poppies were snatched from our lapels by some backwoodsman: “That’s an offensive symbol.” One FF frontbencher after another came to apologise for the discourtesy, but I remember reporting Bertie’s apology back to Belfast: “Please forgive us. Our understanding of Irishness and Britishness needs to change.”

It is a testament to Bertie Ahern, 13 years later, that relations on the island and between the two islands have never been better. As Taoiseach, he did not simply seek the lowest common denominator. Yes, he has been a highly successful dealmaker but, in the Anglo-Irish arena at least, he acted out of a deep sense of principle as well.

Steven King goes on to mention a couple of the points noted in the post on the RTÉ interview with Bertie Ahern

From the Sunday Business Post

He understood that, even if unionists could not be shaken out of their convictions in the foreseeable future, that must not be allowed to stand in the way of new, better and changed relationships. It helped that he was comfortable in British company, not seeking to take offence when none was intended.

Other positive soundings led to the secret meeting between Trimble and Ahern at the protestant archbishop’s palace in Armagh, a few months before the 1997 Dáil election. A sense emerged, on both sides, of business being able to be done, even if Trimble took exception to Ray Burke, soon to be Ahern’s first short-lived foreign minister. Ahern, at least, was clear in his own mind: ‘”Irredentism is dead.”

That November, a subsequent meeting between Fianna Fáil in government and the UUP top brass at the Sheraton Belgravia hotel in London solidified the partnership. Ahern made it clear that he – not anyone in foreign affairs – was “the main man”. This time, secrecy was not an option, and some Northern nationalists grumbled about any process in parallel with the Stormont talks, particularly an “unholy” FF-UUP alliance, founded on a mutual loathing of the IRA.

That Ahern was so explicit, so far out from an agreement, about his preparedness to take any sting out of Article 2 and 3 and to support a Northern Assembly, was especially galling for deep green elements.

If Trimble and Ahern were convinced of the need for a deal, neither was certain how inclusive it would be. Back then, the DUP were still in splendid isolation mode, although they would eventually, after the referendum, adopt a half-way house position, nominating ministers in the assembly.

But what of Sinn Fein? Trimble was clear, in private, before the agreement: “I know everyone believes otherwise, and it would make things easier in some ways, but I want Sinn Fein in.” Even Ahern, who had direct lines of communications to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, was unsure in March 1998 whether they would buy into a new Stormont, but he was not prepared to give them a veto.

Having reserved their position on Good Friday, when the other parties and the governments indicated their assent to the pact, Ahern showed some steel. When Sinn Fein began toying with the idea of campaigning for a Yes vote in the North and a No vote in the Republic, Bertie laid down the law quite literally, warning the Provisionals that they would be hounded out with every ounce of might the Irish State could muster. In that knowledge and context, the DUP’s job years later was infinitely easier. Ahern had long since redefined modern democratic republicanism, away from a concept about territory to one about peoples.

Ian Paisley knew when he gave the Taoiseach the famous handshake that, whatever about Sinn Fein, this was one genuine Irish patriot with whom he would have no cause to regret being photographed. History cannot be run on the basis of ‘ifs’, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

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