Bertie Ahern: “There are no solutions in the comfort zone of one’s own absolutist position…”

Bertie Ahern was in town yesterday to give a speech at the Mitchell Institute For Global Peace, Security And Justice. His experience at the sharp end of the negotiations which led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement has given him useful perspective.

Particularly how the Brexit vote has played havoc with what was already a very delicate community ecoculture:

…it was Northern Ireland that suffered most from poor perception of its complex concerns.

Because both communities had different fears.  Northern nationalists were angry that the fact that a majority voted Remain seemed to be ignored by unionist parties as well as being fearful of being isolated from the Republic and from the EU.

But in many ways it was the fears of unionists that got the least sympathy which is why I want to address them here, honestly and frankly, by making the following three points.

First, in the immediate aftermath of Brexit some of the language from Dublin in speaking to unionists lacked the empathy we extended to nationalists.

Second, while nationalist concerns were sympathetically covered by the European and American media as well as the pro Remain British media the same was not true of unionists whose real fears about being cut off from full communion with the UK were ignored, dismissed and poorly reported.

Just as the views of the Irish Government and the people was totally ignored during the Referendum in 2016 by the British press when they correctly highlight to danger of a Brexit vote.

Then he puts his finger on the underlying political weakness which then began to materialise:

…what I don’t get is the conclusion that apparently was being reached by both sides until very recently that they had the luxury therefore of giving up on each other and giving up on the task of finding solutions.

Churchill once said that “the human mind is incapable of rest, what it needs is change”. In terms of Ahern argument, successful politics needs forward momentum. In Northern Ireland he said…

…we have been moving backward this past few years. And that isn’t all.

In moving backward, we replaced political movement and progress with a vacuum. Which brings me to another maxim of life and politics – Nature abhors a vacuum. Put all that together and we are now in my view at a serious cross-roads moment.

We saw clearly in Creggan last month what some people want to do with that vacuum.

But…

…while the loss of life is at the extreme end of what happens in a vacuum, there have been other consequences as well. The growing backlog of decisions left unmade across a whole range of public policy areas in Northern Ireland from Education to Health to Infrastructure to the Economy to the Environment is slowly but surely decaying the fabric of public life here.

On my regular visits to Northern Ireland over the past few years I have noticed the settling in of a kind of fatalism about it all – that nobody was that surprised about the impasse between the parties and nobody seemed to have any great expectation that Stormont would return any time soon. Or even more worryingly, that it would make any difference if it did.

In order to facilitate that he said:

The first step is to accept that any step towards dialogue on this island is crucial to creating a climate of cautious trust. Here the positive response by the DUP and Sinn Fein talks on restoring the Assembly are a welcome and necessary condition.

But they are not sufficient conditions unless we remove the threat of border polls in the near future. If the removal of such a demand was matched by a similar move on the Irish language, we would get momentum and momentum is crucial making peace. The longer you don’t talk to an estranged neighbour the harder it is to begin.

And 25 years since the Ceasefires, and the 21 years since the Agreement…

…they have not changed the political fundamentals. That means that the requirements and challenges facing the political leaders of today are basically the same as those facing my generation over 20 years ago.

I call them the twin imperatives of the negotiator – (a) to represent the views of your own side fully and faithfully yes, but (b) also, and equally, to bring to bear a profound commitment to finding accommodation and agreement. Both imperatives are supposed to carry the same weight.

…the first of those imperatives – representing strongly the viewpoint of your own side – has tended increasingly and incrementally to predominate to the detriment of the second, the commitment to finding agreement. That imbalance needs urgently to be corrected and hopefully is being done in the current Talks.

Capturing the larger picture he then notes that “there are no solutions in the comfort zone of one’s own absolutist position”. He continues

I see the point-counterpoint of Northern politics as being between Partnership and Partisanship.

Partisanship is the traditional default position of expressing the views of your own side and doing so loudly, hard and often.

Partisanship is about victory – either implementing it or waiting for it.

Partisanship is about operating as if the other side doesn’t exist.

And finally…

My concern is that over the last few years more and more people have been slipping away from that truth and back to the old bunkers of Partisanship. Folks, we need to start getting real here.

For Unionism, that means actually taking on board what Parity of Esteem means.

And when you talk about “our Precious Union”, actually appreciating that your neighbours have an entirely different definition of the phrase and one that is just as legitimate as yours.

For Nationalism, that means recognising that writing off Unionism as unworkable-with is every bit as cancelling and destructive as any act of discrimination your forebears ever had to put up with at the hands of theirs.

That there is no such thing as “moving beyond Stormont” if we want a healthy, vibrant next Ireland for our children and children’s children.

That there is no skipping a step in the sequence.

The journey to a new Ireland cannot jump over the need for working on reconciliation and partnership in Northern Ireland, no matter how challenging and difficult that may be.

Saying “hump them, we’ll wait” is not the vision of John Hume. And it’s not the vision of Wolfe Tone who dreamed of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.

So, Stormont it must be, difficult as that is for many to contemplate.

 

Besides – and it is an important “besides” – power-sharing at Stormont is a fundamental pillar of the Good Friday Agreement, an Agreement, as I say, that tomorrow 21 years ago became the Will of the People of Ireland, North and South.

When I see commentators and others casually suggesting Stormont is done, over, I wonder by whose authority do they make that claim?

Or are they making the case for a kind of a la carte Good Friday Agreement – we’ll stick with the bits we like and ignore and walk away from the bits we don’t.

That’s not how serious, grown-up politics works. [Emphasis added throughout]