Ahern showed mettle and character, says Blair


PEACE PROCESS:FORMER BRITISH prime minister Tony Blair has paid a huge tribute to Bertie Ahern for his role in the peace process, describing him as “one of my favourite political leaders”.

In his autobiography, A Journey, published yesterday, Mr Blair also describes Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as an “extraordinary couple” adding that, over time, “I came to like both greatly, probably more than I should have, if truth be told”.

Mr Blair says that even before he took office he was working out a strategy to try to bring a resolution to the stalled peace process initiated by John Major and Albert Reynolds and he sent messages of interest to Sinn Féin.

“I met Bertie Ahern, also a leader of the opposition, and we got on immediately like the proverbial house on fire.”

He describes the background moves that led to the opening of negotiations at Castle Buildings in Holy Week, 1998, involving the British and Irish governments and all the Northern political parties.

Mr Blair recounts how at the opening day of the talks there was a hilarious moment when he addressed the press outside Hillsborough beginning with the comment. “Today is not a day for soundbites” expressing his eagerness to get stuck into the negotiations.

“Then – and heaven knows where it came from, it just popped into my head – I said, ‘But I feel the hand of history on my shoulder’, which of course was about as large a bite of sound as you could contemplate. In the corner of my eye I could see Jonathan [Powell] and Alastair [Campbell] cracking up.”

Mr Blair goes on to reveal that as soon as the talks began it became clear that he had “badly misjudged” unionist readiness to deal and he realised that Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble would not be able to agree to the kind of North/South institutions envisaged by the two governments.

“I next got hold of Bertie, who had just arrived. Bertie is one of my favourite political leaders. Over time he became a true friend. He was heroic throughout the whole process, smart, cunning in the best sense, strong and, above all, free from the shackles of history . . .

“His mother – to whom he was close – had just died, and the previous night he had watched over her body. It was good of him to come at all. Now here he had to contend with me telling him that the North-South part – ie the all Ireland part, so dear to his constituents – would have to be rewritten. It was not the news he wanted, but here’s where Bertie showed his mettle and his character.”

Mr Blair goes on to describe the ebb and flow of the talks. “When Bertie told the Irish side – for these purposes the whole spectrum of Irish opinion – the concessions he’d made, they revolted.”

One of the key decisions that led to a breakthrough he attributes to then northern secretary, Mo Mowlam, who when Sinn Féin threatened to walk away whittled the party’s long list of demands down to a small number of crucial ones.

“The point which she correctly identified did matter was the IRA men behind bars for various terrorist acts and killings. She took an extraordinarily forward position on this. Basically, she thought the issue was not of enormous consequences to unionism . . . She offered Sinn Féin the release of them all within a year.” Mr Blair agreed and told Mr Adams the prisoners would be released within a year.

However, after some of his key officials expressed deep reservations about the impact on British public opinion of allowing IRA prisoners out, he went back to try to renegotiate the deal with Gerry Adams. “In the end, I did something very ‘Tonyish’ and he did something very ‘Gerryish’: I privately assured him we would do it in one year if the conditions allowed, but, publicly and officially, it would be two. He agreed, and what’s more, never called in the promise or used it publicly to embarrass me.” After various squabbles a deal was tantalisingly close but Mr Trimble could not sell it to his team.

At that stage Mr Blair came up with the idea of sending a letter to the unionist leader. “The letter guaranteed that if within the first six months of the Assembly, Sinn Féin didn’t deliver on decommissioning, we would support changing the provisions within the agreement to allow exclusion. It was very typical of the intricate nuance of the negotiations: we didn’t say we would exclude, we said we would support changing the agreement so as to exclude.”

When the unionist accepted the letter the deal was done. “The next hours passed in a blur. We were beyond exhaustion, light-headed almost. George Mitchell announced the agreement. Bertie and I gave statements. There was general applause. At long last I was released from the hellhole Castle Buildings had become.”

The scale of what had been achieved only hit Mr Blair as he left Belfast that Good Friday on a flight from RAF Aldergrove. “I somehow got on to the plane and took a call from the queen to congratulate me. I think until then I really hadn’t understood the enormity of the achievement. I thought, I bet she doesn’t do this often and indeed she doesn’t.”

Mr Blair also has warm words of praise for Mr Adams and McGuinness.

“Either would have been a big political leader in anyone’s politics. They did not merely understand, they were supreme masters of the distinction between tactics and strategy. They knew the destination and were determined to bring their followers with them, or at least the vast bulk of them.”

He also remarks on how the Rev Ian Paisley, for so long the wrecker, took over and ultimately completed the process. “Ian Paisley was definitely a strange political figure, a product of the unique concentration of political circumstances in Northern Ireland. He is a genuine and committed Christian, a true God-fearing man; he is a passionate unionist; he is clever, shrewd, occasionally even sly.

“He had a great grasp of strategy and tactics and could spot the difference between the two.”