Brexiteers need ‘crash course’ in Irish history, says Ahern
Former taoiseach suggests British children should be taught subject to help combat ignorance
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern: ‘The decision to downgrade history in our secondary schools and to make it a non-compulsory subject [at Junior Cert level] was short-sighted and quite frankly ill-considered.’ File photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times
During a speech to mark the centenary of the 1918 general election – a seminal moment that led to independence – he also said he believed the “downgrade” of school history lessons in the State was “ill-considered”.
“It is important that we commemorate our past and that we also learn from it and, in this context, I want to say that the decision to downgrade history in our secondary schools and to make it a non-compulsory subject [at Junior Cert level] was short-sighted and quite frankly ill-considered,” he said.
“I know that the current Minister for Education [Joe McHugh] is revisiting this decision and I hope he will recognise that our young people learning about the suffering and loss and sacrifices that have taken place to give this country its nationhood emphasises the imperative of building for the future a just and peaceful island for everyone.”
In the talk at Wynn’s Hotel in central Dublin, Mr Ahern added: “In this regard, I am tempted to say that the compulsory teaching of Irish history should also be included on the syllabus in Britain.
“One of the many major disappointments of the Brexit debate is the sheer ignorance – and sometimes arrogance – of the realities of Irish history and Irish political affairs, as expressed by some Brexiteers.”
Mr Ahern said he could think of “a few former Eton and Oxford students” who had been “contributing vocally if not sensibly to the Brexit debate, who could do with a crash course in the lessons of Irish history”.
The former taoiseach, a central figure in the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, warned the UK’s decision to leave the EU must not be allowed to “unravel” the peace accord.
“Nobody here needs reminding that our generation has borne witness to the tragic results of a conflict that has cost thousands of lives and caused colossal damage and disturbance to the lives of many more people, holding back the natural progress of a whole society and indeed an entire island,” he said.
“It has been in human terms one of the most costly history lessons, one that we should have been able to steer clear of or at any rate cut short.”
The significance of the Good Friday Agreement should never be underestimated “and to use modern parlance it was a game-changer,” he added.
Mr Ahern said the ratification of the deal by “Irish people North and South” was the first concurrent act of self-determination in Ireland as a whole since the general election of 1918.
“The idea for concurrent referendums, North and South, and to build democratic consensus around the Good Friday Agreement belonged to John Hume and I was very glad to help implement this idea,” he said.
“John was always an astute politician with a huge intellectual depth and someone deeply read in Irish history. He saw the dangers of militant Irish nationalism being irreversibly wedded to a long expired and disputed mandate, given in the 1918 general election. He wanted to empower a new generation to write and shape their own version of history.
“And for John Hume and for me, this had to be underpinned by a fair and honourable accommodation between unionists and nationalists based on partnership, co-operation and mutual respect – in relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Ireland and Britain.”
Mr Ahern said it was “right that we never forget our history and we remember, a centenary on, those who fought for or campaigned to vindicate the Irish people’s right to self-determination.”
“But it is this generation’s duty to ensure that we leave a lasting political framework on this island, which will mean no one will ever again have to fight or die for Ireland’s sake and that all of the people on this island can live in peace, prosperity and harmony,” he added.