Master of compromise Bertie Ahern warns against ‘evil hour’ Brexit border deal

Three former taoisigh raise urgent need for solutions to avoid hard border

Former taoisaigh John Bruton, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen at the Brexit conference in the Round Room next to Dublin’s Mansion House on Monday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Former taoisaigh John Bruton, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen at the Brexit conference in the Round Room next to Dublin’s Mansion House on Monday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned the Government not to leave Brexit talks to the “evil hour” of late-night deadlines where it could be pressured by France and Germany to compromise on the border issue.

Speaking at a conference on Brexit alongside two other former taoisigh John Bruton and Brian Cowen, Mr Ahern said that his fear was that running Brexit negotiations to avoid a hard border in Ireland “down to Halloween” and the October deadline for the overall agreement on a Brexit would be “dangerous.”

The former Fianna Fáil leader urged the Government to agree a deal on the Border at the next EU summit at the end of June because, based on his past experience of EU summits, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could be pressed by the EU, the French and the Germans to agree a last-minute, early-morning compromise at a critical deadline in October.

Former taoisaigh John Bruton (centre), Bertie Ahern (left) and Brian Cowen at the Brexit conference in Dublin’s Mansion House on Monday. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell
Former taoisaigh John Bruton (centre), Bertie Ahern (left) and Brian Cowen at the Brexit conference in Dublin’s Mansion House on Monday. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell

“That’s always how it works. I don’t think they should find themselves having a Halloween party at two o’clock in the morning,” Mr Ahern, taoiseach from 1997 to 2008, told the conference in Dublin.

The conference was organised by think tank, the Institute of International and European Affairs, and law firm McCann Fitzgerald at the Round Room next to the Mansion House in Dublin.

Mr Ahern, credited with deft skills in negotiation and recognised for his part in negotiating the Belfast Agreement, praised the EU’s negotiating team led by Michel Barnier who have “really fought the Irish case”. But he warned that “when it comes to the evil hour” in pre-deadline negotiations, trade-offs can come into play.

“I am not saying we’ll be abandoned but the art of politics and the strength in politics is compromise; it is not a bad thing, it is not an evil thing, it’s a good thing - that’s what happens in this game,” he said.

“I am just saying that we should be as far down that line as we can before it will ultimately come to the late night.”

Mr Ahern said that the idea of a return to any kind of border on the island of Ireland would be “a disaster” and that “you wouldn’t have to wait for violence” among border communities if one were to emerge.

“The communities on both sides of the Border with their bare hands will pull down any attempt to put anything up,” he said.

He rejected the view of former UUP leader David Trimble that the Government risked provoking violence from loyalist paramilitaries because of their negotiating stance on Brexit.

“I don’t think there is a danger,” said Mr Ahern, noting that loyalist paramilitaries were trying to “pull themselves away from violence, from criminality” and not looking for reasons to return to it.

Brian Cowen, who succeeded Mr Ahern as taoiseach, urged the need to find more specific solutions to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

He said that “constructive ambiguity can get you so far” in the Brexit negotiations but that there “comes a point where the concrete specifics have to be addressed.”

“We need to see some progress in concrete detail terms very soon rather than this general reassurance that there is a solution,” he said.

Mr Cowen that the “real problem” is that the Government “wants to maintain a good relationship with Britain post-Brexit” but that here needs to “some arrangement” or “some accommodation” for the island of Ireland, particularly to protect cross-border trade in agricultural products.

Criticising British Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Cowen pointed out that Mrs May had said that no UK prime minister could accept Northern Ireland being economically separated from the United Kingdom but that she agreed to this in December when she agreed to the so-called backstop to avoid a hard border.

“This level of inconsistency in terms of the approach doesn’t help to instil confidence that we can get a solution,” said the former Fianna Fáil leader who was taoiseach from 2008 to 2011.

Mr Bruton, the former Fine Gael leader who led the government from 1994 to 1997, said he did not believe the UK would reverse its decision on Brexit until it sees the impact of it, including queues of trading at British ports.

“Britain will never abandon the idea of Brexit until it is actually Brexited,” he said.

The three former leaders, who collectively account for 17 years worth of experience as taoisigh, warned about the damage to Irish-British relations in the wake of the UK’s 2016 vote to quit the EU next year.

Mr Ahern and Mr Bruton lamented the loss of contacts between the Irish and British officials at European meetings, while Mr Bruton described the “huge diversion” of civil service “talent” as a result of Brexit an “unmitigated tragedy” for Ireland, Britain and Europe.

Mr Ahern said that relations between the British and Irish in the Brexit negotiations had become “strained.”

Criticising inconsistent and inaccurate comments by the UK’s Brexit secretary David Davis, including his view that the Taoiseach was “in the pocket of Sinn Féin,” he said: “He doesn’t get it too well.”

Mr Ahern said that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference could become the vehicle where British and Irish officials meet more regularly when their interaction at European meetings ends post-Brexit.

“That is over and it is a very big loss. We need to find an alternative,” he said.