It’s the prerogative of elder statesman to tell it as it is without looking over their shoulder at the opposition inside and outside their own party. Bertie Ahern gave a reminder of just how good he could be. He spoke the language of stability in the fevered atmosphere of Leinster House. Micheal Martin please note. Speaking in the Seanad:
The last thing I want out of Brexit, the last thing, the very last thing, is anyone on about border polls. The only time we should have a border poll, in my view, and I’ll argue this for the rest of my life, is when the nationalists and republicans and a respectable, sizeable amount of unionists and loyalists are in favour, and on the basis of consent,” said the former Taoiseach.
“Having a sectarian headcount or political headcount is the last thing we should do,” he added.
Since Britain voted to leave the EU, he said people had been using the issue to say that now is the time for a border poll. While he said there are provisions in the Good Friday Agreement for such a poll, he said the timing must be right.
“This is not the time for that. There is a time for it, there will be a time for it. I think we should all do our best to get to that time by convincing people and winning people over – but don’t put it into this debate,” he told the Seanad this morning.
Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile said he took offence to Ahern’s use of the word “sectarian head count”.
“I don’t think that would be a sectarian head count, it would be a referendum like any other,” said Ó Donnghaile.
He agreed that talks on Brexit should not be hijacked by discussions of a border poll, but said there has been a “societal shift” in Northern Ireland.
“I’m not saying utilise it in cynical way, but I don’t think we should long or wish for unity – we should work for it,” he concluded.
On talks with the British on “non-trade issues” ( citizenship, the CTA and free movement), Bertie went on:
Under the Good Friday Agreement Ireland had the right to hold bilateral talks with the British on non-trade issues.
“The reality is it’s an international agreement and we have every right, every right, to bilaterally negotiate, not the trade issues, but on the other issues to be able to negotiate with the British. I don’t accept the argument that we’re precluded on those issues,” Mr Ahern said.
“I know Guy Verhofstadt, I know Michel Barnier, I know Jean Claude Juncker, I’ve dealt with these guys for 20 years, they don’t have a different view. The strength of our argument on the non trade issues is that the Good Friday Agreement allows it.”
Mr Ahern said he believed the British were “deluding themselves” that they’re going to be able to strike great trade deals with the rest of the world post Brexit.
Mr Ahern explained that the border issue with Northern Ireland will pose enormous difficulties if Britain leaves the Customs Union.
He said the only two options open if that happens were if the British government and EU negotiated some kind of special arrangement to ensure borders remained open.
He said that a second option would be placing the border between Northern Ireland and England, rather than between north and south.
Mr Ahern also said that without a trade deal there would be no Brexit agreement. Forty-four per cent of all British goods were sold into the EU at this time, with 16 per cent of all EU products exported into the British market place.
He said Britons were “deluding themselves that they’re going to make great deals” by sending out delegations to India and Australia. The UK needs to stay as close to the EU as possible, he said, because of loss of 5 per cent of trade from the EU would need a 25 per cent increase in other areas just to remain at status quo levels.
“It is undoubtedly the case that if a trade deal is reached then a transitional period of a number of years will have to be put in place post-March 2019 so as to allow any new trading arrangements to take effect between the EU and Britain,’’ he added.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London