Ahern threatened to walk away if unionists failed to take North-South council seriously

Taoiseach told UK government he had changed ‘my damn Constitution’ for peace

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the UK government during Northern Irish peace negotiations in 1998 he had “changed my damn Constitution” and would walk away if unionists were allowed regard the North-South Ministerial Council as a “chat show”.

In 10 days of intensive negotiations leading up to the Belfast Agreement on April 10th, the Irish government insisted that the council – which would bring ministers from North and South together to make all-island policy on areas of mutual benefit, including tourism, trade, food safety, language and culture – needed to be an integral part of the agreement and have real and wide powers.

While Ahern forged a reputation as a facilitator and “fixer” during his political career, he and the Irish government adopted a resolute and uncompromising stance on this matter in negotiations.

The North-South Council, which would in effect give Irish government ministers a say in relation to all-island matters, was the quid pro quo for the Ahern administration agreeing to hold referendums on article 2 and 3 of the Constitution, which formed the basis of the State’s territorial claims.

In speaking notes prepared for a meeting with Blair in London on April 1st, 1998, Ahern was to say: “Let me be very frank. I am in an extremely difficult position. Unionists are gaining a huge historical prize: the acceptance by nationalist Ireland, north and south, of the position of Northern Ireland within the UK. This legitimacy has been withheld for 70 years, indeed perhaps for hundreds of years.

“The equivalent on the other side would in many ways be a united Ireland.

“If nationalists were gaining a united Ireland, we would give Trimble a blank sheet on which to write his requirements. This is the scale of the problem I and the nationalists face. We simply cannot do without a deep agreement.”

Gun gone

He said the status quo with a few “add-ons” would not work, would be profoundly destabilising and send the SDLP and Sinn Féin into a spin. “We would not sign it,’’ he said.

In the April 1st speaking note, Ahern had also planned to say that Sinn Féin was on the threshold of signing up to “absolution”.

“If this happens, the gun will in my view be gone for ever from Irish politics.

“Unionists cannot be allowed to blow this prize, as they have done so often in history. We are putting our changes, our commitment in concrete. They must do so too.

“We can’t have concrete on one side, and sand on the other.”

In a telephone call with Blair on April 6th, Ahern said he recognised the situation that Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble was in with DUP leader Ian Paisley – who opposed the agreement – out doing “his ranting and raving”.

But when Blair asked him if he would explicitly agree to make the North-South Council cease to function if the Northern Assembly ceased to function, Ahern said if that happened too early the government would be left with nothing after he had “gone and changed my damn Constitution”.

The following day, Blair said Trimble was “giving everybody hell really” over the North-South bodies in the talks..

Conscious that Ahern’s mother, Julia, had died the previous day, Blair added: “I’m sorry for you. You don’t want to be thinking about it tonight and tomorrow morning.”

Ahern replied: “It’s okay. No better woman, she would want to see me trying to solve the problem.”

Talking shop

At a face-to-face meeting involving the two leaders and officials in the following days, the British government told Ahern that the plans for implementing the North-South bodies had driven the unionists “over the brink”.

In a note of the meeting, Ahern then recalled a history of unionist efforts to thwart cross-Border bodies over 75 years from the 1920s to 1973.

“He made clear that if Trimble was only prepared to contemplate ‘chat shows’ [in the North-South Council] it would be best to organise an exit strategy at this stage.”

The previous day, on April 8th, Ahern had raised with Blair the “emotive appeal of articles 2 and 3” and made clear that nationalists would not agree to amend them unless there was something substantial to compensate for their amendment.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times