“…if you want trouble again in the north play that game. It’s a dangerous game”

There’s been some focus on the comments at the weekend by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern warning about any attempt to “force” a border poll in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.  His remarks are placed in a wider context by the fuller quote in the Belfast Telegraph.

Speaking on Newstalk radio, the former Irish prime minister said: “The idea of a border poll… was put there when when I was conceding Articles two and three of the constitution and we were giving up the territorial right of the north and I wanted to copper-fasten in that if the day came where on the principle of consent people in the north – of all traditions – voted for a united Ireland then we would have agreement on that.

“It was not for some kind of sectarian vote or a day that the nationalists and Republicans could outvote the unionists and loyalists… if you want trouble again in the north play that game. It’s a dangerous game,”  he said.

It’s a more forceful iteration of his comments in 2008, on the prospect of a united Ireland under a single administration of government.

“That can only happen in the long term future. How long that will be I don’t know. If it is done by any means of coercion, or divisiveness, or threats, it will never happen. We’ll stay at a very peaceful Ireland and I think time will be the healer providing people, in a dedicated way, work for the better good of everyone on the island.

If it doesn’t prove possible, then it stays the way it is under the Good Friday Agreement, and people will just have to be tolerant of that if it’s not possible to bring it any further.”

Comments that were subsequently echoed in 2010 by his successor, Brian Cowen,

“The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe,” he told the latest issue of the Journal of Cross-Border Studies in Ireland.

Setting out his vision of economic co-operation between the two parts of Ireland in the era of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, he said: “We would be working the agreements we have, recognising the legitimacy of our respective traditions – one loyal to Britain, the other looking to Irish unity as a legitimate objective, but one that will only be pursued peacefully by common consent.

“Therefore there would be no threatening, exclusivist political philosophy which would make people defensive or insular or non co-operative.

“The genius of all of these agreements is that we are all on a common journey together where we have not decided on the destination. The problem with our ideologies in the past was that we had this idea about where we were going but we had no idea how anyone was going to come with us on the journey.

“We have now all decided: let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination – the destination isn’t really important in that respect. We can all work for what it is we would like ideally to see, but this is not something that can be forced or imposed upon people on either side of the island,” the Taoiseach said.

As I noted in both those posts, the reference point is the poet Michael Longley

“peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization.”

Like Heaney’s still-missing “tidal wave of justice”, what we have seen from the main political parties in Northern Ireland over recent years may be a lauding of the absence of war, but not a promotion of its opposite – a process that suits the repeated, and increasingly frequent, campaigns to elect “tribal tribunes” from both sides…