Bertie Ahern: Close relations, Brexit misfiring and why a border poll won’t happen even under a SF led government

I don’t know if you listen to the Rest is Politics podcast, but they recently started a new series in which they interview someone who has played a leading role in politics or public life. Yesterday it was Bertie Ahern. The whole thing is worth your time.

But for those without the time, I’ve clipped down to what I think are the most interesting (and from the point of view for future development) and the most important sections towards the end and transcribed them below.

One is the fact that for over a decade until just before Christmas no British PM attended any of the East West institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement. And the second is that anyone calling for a border poll must learn lessons from Brexit.

Alastair Campbell: Do you think these relationships Do you think it could’ve happened in the way it did if you hadn’t had the gelling that went on between you and Tony and Tony and Clinton and you and Clinton? There was a sort of gelling there. Do you think these relationships mean something? 

Bertie Ahern: It wouldn’t have happened if this was left to the process and to the system. Even with all our good people that we had with us, it wouldn’t have happened. At the end of day it was that we worked together. Normally, in that kind of negotiation, Tony and I should’ve been adversarial, we should have been fighting our causes and lines. And that’s what goes on all over the world and I’ve been with a few processes since and you see why very quickly why they don’t work. We were lucky that we got on well together. Can I quickly add that it wasn’t just ‘98, Tony and I had to live with this till 2007 until we got the institutions up and running. It was that permanent meeting [scenario], at European meetings, you know, formal ones, informal ones, being able to go backwards and forwards between Dublin and London. I would definitely hold the world record of Prime Minister that were in Number Ten. No one could get near me I’d say. About fifty or sixty times. 

Alastair Campbell: And where do you think we are today? We’re meeting on a day when there’s been a shooting of an off duty policeman in Omagh,  as you say people saying all the right things but a worrying sign. You’ve got Rishi Sunak trying to get some sort of deal over the line in relation to something that will replace Johnson‘s mess, and maybe just a feeling that we’re gonna have to normalise the institutions in Northern Ireland and up and running and down and not running. They’ve been down more than they’ve been up and running.  So just give me a rough take on where things are. And whether you’re optimistic I guess?

Bertie Ahern: Yeah I am optimistic, but if you ask me am I very optimistic, no. I do think this is doable and we have a short window of opportunity. It’s not months. I think we probably have a few weeks but no more than that. If that doesn’t work, I think it’s gone again for a considerable period of time and the Institutions are down. I hate to say it but I fear that the European Union will come back after the next election in the UK and maybe the next election in Ireland. That’s why I’m optimistic, because I don’t want that to happen. But at the same time we desperately need the institutions up. I mean Northern Ireland has a whole lot of difficulties, a whole lotta problems, and it desperately need to have people running the place day by day. Even if it is not perfect.

Alastair Campbell: You and I were at dinner last night,with IBEC and Deirdre Heenan, a prominent academic in the north, spoke very passionately and she said that for this talk now about the DUP this and the DUP that we in the north are basically collateral damage. How much do you think this is about or has been about the Tory party the current problems and also I don’t remember anybody ever suggesting back in 1998 that maybe one of the factors we have to think about going forward would be the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. How much do think the problems we are having now are a direct consequence of that?

Bertie Ahern: I don’t think anyone even dreamt it never mind say it. Though you know you cannot blame Brexit on everything but it certainly destabilised everything for the last six or seven years. We all tried collectively here, you know former leaders, present leaders tried to make those points in the year before the Cameron referendum and nobody really listened. We collectively failed to get that through into the equation. But all those fears have come true and it has been really difficult for the last few years. Now, we can’t blame Brexit because different things brought down the institutions but the momentum that we had gained over the years with businesses doing better, more exchanges between north and south, east west relationships going well with Irish and British officials working together. And then it all stops. The one that was the real horror show for me was when people sometimes say, were the institutions good enough in the Good Friday Agreement? Was what you designed good enough? And I say well they worked perfectly well, but what could you do when you couldn’t get a British Prime Minister to turn up for an east west meeting for a decade? I don’t want to be criticising anyone, but it took a huge effort even to get Rishi Sunak to turn up at that meeting in Blackpool before Christmas because I think he got it.

Alastair Campbell: He was the first Prime Minister to turn up in ten years.

Bertie Ahern: He was the first since Gordon Brown. So whe somebody says, “were the institutions not up to it?”  Well if you couldn’t even get the people to the meetings? And by the way I didn’t expect the British Prime Minister to turn up every month, but if he had turned up once a year that would have been enough, but not once a decade. So that has been hugely negative. And then all the arguments. You and I thought we were finished with the land border and the sea border. Europe had got rid of borders, so there was no borders. We would not have been talking about the land border or the sea border except for Brexit. So at that end of it, nobody can argue that it wasn’t Brexit. And that started an argument about irishness and Britishness. And what did we try to solve in the Good Friday Agreement? That you could be Irish and British. So any fair commentator has to say that the killer blow to us for the last seven or eight years has been Brexit. 

Alastair Campbell: We are onto the possibility of a new Ireland, but what is most commonly described as a united Ireland. Presumably you still want a united Ireland?

Bertie Ahern: Yeah, I’d like that but I would rather call it a new Ireland, because of the idea of a united Ireland is linked to my dad’s time where it was “they get out and we take over”, you know. And that’s the last thing you want now. The fear sometimes of unionist people is that Sinn Féin will come back and do what they did to them, and that’s all stuff that needs to be consigned to the bin, never mind history. I’m in favour of the work going on, looking at what would work and examining it. But having an early border poll would be a disaster and it won’t happen. What want to see is Institute working and we have to be conscious that the promise to Republicans at the time was that from time to time we could have a border poll. But I’m afraid from time to time has to be mean when you have the institutions up and running. 

Alastair Campbell: But what happens if Sinn Féin won elections in the north and its looking likely that that’s going to happen in the Republic as well? And Sinn Féin will have to promise a border poll as well. 

Bertie Ahern: They will promise a border poll there’s nothing wrong with that but they will equally have to say that the preparatory work will have to be completed and then when people understand what they are voting for. Like the problem that we have learned from Brexit and the Scottish Referendum is that unless the preparatory work is done you should save your money and not have a poll. And our position is even more complicated because we are dealing with hundreds of years of history. Unless there is a clear question to people with the backup arrangements. If you were to have a border poll, you wouldn’t pass it in the south because people would say “how’s that going to work?” forget about the money.

Alastair Campbell: Are you telling me the Irish would maybe ask the questions the British didn’t or didn’t ask them in the way they should have done in the Brexit referendum?  

Bertie Ahern: The problem with Brexit was that nobody had worked out what it actually meant. When Theresa May set out the terms it was January 2017 of what Brexit meant. The Single Market I reckoned she was going to say was out but then she said the customs union was out.  And I recently got on to the research at Dail Éireann and asked could anyone find any reference that was made anywhere in the campaign.

Alastair Campbell: They denied it, it never happened. 

Bertie Ahern: And then when they came back they said that any time it was raised people said “well what’s that got to do with the referendum?” As soon as that happened, I remember what Pascal Lamy who was head of the WTO said, as soon as you create a land border, wherever it is, you’re going to have to deal with all these issues, and here we are, six years later?


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