Ahern says verdict of history on him will ‘depend on who writes it’

Centenary of Irish Convention conference addressed by two former taoisigh

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern: “Ultimately Lloyd George wanted a unionist-friendly solution. I am certain about that.”  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern: “Ultimately Lloyd George wanted a unionist-friendly solution. I am certain about that.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said he will not get “knotted up” about the verdict of history because so much of what has been written about him is wrong.

He said others had asked him whether history would treat him favourably or unfavourably. “It depends who writes it,” he said.

Mr Ahern made the comments at a conference on the centenary of the failed Irish Convention of 1917, which sought to plot a way forward for Ireland post the Easter Rising.

He said such historical events were worth discussing and debating, but not worth getting “too excited about”.

“I formed that view because I have read so many books about things that happened in periods that I was involved in, and they do not bear any resemblance to what actually happened.”

The Irish Convention first met on July 25th, 1917, and its final report was signed in April 1918. It envisaged a federalised form of Home Rule for Ireland, but its recommendations were never implemented because the British government sought to link the introduction of Home Rule to conscription in Ireland.

Trinity marks centenary of Irish Convention

Mr Ahern said lessons had been learned from the convention which were implemented in the contemporary peace process negotiations.

Historic mistake

The British prime minister David Lloyd George had made an historic mistake, he suggested, by setting preconditions for talks that any settlement must include Ireland remaining within the British empire.

“He was quite prepared to play unionists and nationalists off against each other. He was not the first or last British prime minister to do that,” Mr Ahern said.

“Ultimately Lloyd George wanted a unionist-friendly solution. I am certain about that. The modern peace process is about no winners and no losers.”

Speaking at the conference in Trinity College, Dublin’s Regent House, where the original convention took place, Mr Ahern said the peace process, which brought about the Belfast Agreement, set no such preconditions.

Mr Ahern said that in accommodating the fears of unionists at the time Lloyd George, though extending an invitation to all interested parties, had made it easy for Sinn Féin to boycott the convention.

“A key lesson was to be as inclusive and comprehensive as possible,” he said. “If those who are involved in the conflict are not party to the negotiations, they will not be bound by the outcome...In our case John Major and Tony Blair opted for an inclusive process, including those associated with paramilitary groups, around the table. It proved the right things to do.”

Marriage law

Former taoiseach John Bruton told the conference that many of the issues raised by the convention still resonated today. These included should education be denominational? What philosophical and religious principles should govern marriage law? Should Ireland impose tariffs on imports from Britain? Should Ireland should be part of a customs’ union with Britain or not?

Mr Bruton said the convention was the first time unionists and nationalists had sat down together in Ireland to discuss the future of the country away from Westminster.

Yet Sinn Féin had boycotted it. It was ironic given that Sinn Féin meant “ourselves alone”, and that another 80 years would pass before it would learn the importance of understanding unionist concerns.

Mr Bruton said Sinn Féin had agreed not to participate because any solution would be within the British empire, yet the Irish Free State which arose out of the treaty was also within the empire.

He said by not participating in the Irish Convention, Sinn Féin had missed the opportunity to try and learn about the concerns of unionists. As a consequence “no serious thought” was given by nationalist Ireland to unionism.