As well as his report on the Taoiseach’s farewell [?] tour, Stephen Collins has a companion article in the Irish Times Opinion section – “American eyes turn away as we return to normality.” [subs req] In it he identifies a part of the Ahern legacy which was implicit in the Taoiseach’s RTÉ radio interview noted here.
Ahern’s political legacy is that not only did he work tirelessly to bring the peace process to a conclusion over the past 10 years, but that, under his leadership, peace unequivocally replaced de Valera’s vision of Irish unity as the goal of Fianna Fáil policy.
Of course, the party is still committed to unity as the ideal ultimate outcome but, in practical terms, peace and an agreed Ireland have replaced it as attainable goals.
The abandonment of the territorial claim to the North in Articles Two and Three of the Constitution was the culmination of a shift in Irish Government policy that had been under way for a long time. Ahern, though, managed to pull it off with hardly a murmur of dissent from his own party. It was a remarkable achievement, considering that many in Fianna Fáil appeared to be attached to the two articles as if they were holy writ.
Ahern’s achievement as a politician was to build on the process begun by Albert Reynolds in the Downing Street Declaration of 1994, and to reformulate his own party’s aspirations. The achievable goal of a settlement based on equal respect for the two political traditions on the island of Ireland replaced the unattainable goal of Irish unity, and nobody in Fianna Fáil complained.
A little over a decade after Charles Haughey had rejected the report of the New Ireland Forum, because it dared to put forward options other than a unitary state encompassing the 32 counties of Ireland, Ahern adopted a policy based on consent in both parts of the island as the fundamental principles of a settlement.
The successful conclusion of that policy, beginning with the Belfast Agreement and the intricate negotiations that eventually led to the establishment of workable powersharing arrangements, is undoubtedly Ahern’s outstanding achievement. One of the key factors in the success of the Northern talks was that Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair worked hand in glove. They established the good relations between the Irish and British people in a way that fulfilled at least one of de Valera’s ambitions, even if not in the manner he had envisaged.
And that’s one point on which I would add a caveat to Stephen Collins claim, after he acknowledges “the poor turnout” for Ahern’s speech,
President Bill Clinton’s direct involvement in the peace process is well known and appreciated in Ireland. And to be fair, President George Bush has proved much more supportive than anybody anticipated. His envoy Mitchell Reiss played a crucial role in the final stages of the talks that led to the agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
The fact that Ireland no longer seems to generate that level of special attention from the world’s superpower is a positive development. It means that we are now a normal, stable democracy, not very different from other well off European states, and we no longer need American patronage to deal with our own problems.
As I attempted to indicate in a previous post, it’s far too soon to say.
Living History 1968-74
A unique, once-in-a-lifetime 10-week course at Stranmillis University College Belfast featuring live, in-depth interviews with leading figures from this tumultuous era in Northern Ireland’s cultural and political history.
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