Use ‘fog-free’ time to get Stormont back on track, Bertie Ahern urges politicians
Former taoiseach calls for removal of Border poll threat and move on Irish language
Bertie Ahern told the audience at Queen’s University Belfast on Tuesday that the roots of the Northern Ireland conflict lie deep in history and “we ignore them at our peril”, adding, “The right thing to do with them is to treat them with respect and manage them carefully.”
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has told an audience in Belfast that Stormont politicians should get on with finding solutions that everyone can live with so power-sharing gets back on course.
Mr Ahern was speaking at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) on Tuesday evening after he was awarded an honorary professorship in peace studies at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.
Mr Ahern told the audience that the Brexit backstop is a safety net and efforts should be put into explaining this position to unionists fearful of it.
He said the main issue for the island of Ireland is that “the summer is not allowed to pass with no progress and forcing the issue of no-deal Brexit once again on to the table, as the end of October deadline approaches”.
He said in recent times the British “were afraid of the anarchy that would follow either failure to implement Brexit or failure to find a consensus to support the withdrawal agreement” and the Republic “was fearful of the consequence to our open economy of a British failure to find a parliamentary consensus not to mention the consequent threat of a hard Border”.
But he added that it was Northern Ireland that “suffered most from poor perception of its complex concerns”.
He spoke of there being a lack of empathy and understanding of unionists’ position in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
He was critical of the DUP’s “abrasive indifference to the concerns of Northern nationalists” and of Sinn Féin’s calls for a Border poll making the handling of Brexit “all the more difficult”.
On the difference of opinion on the backstop between some unionists and others he said there is “no point in pretending that because we see no problem with the backstop this means that unionists have no problem with it”.
“That is why, in the short fog-free space we now enjoy I believe we must do our best to look at every angle of approach to explaining our views to unionist fears around the backstop.”
Mr Ahern said he can not see any circumstances in which there would not be a trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom after Brexit.
“In that event there would in my view be no requirement for the backstop,” he said.
Mr Ahern’s Harri Holkeri lecture recognising the contribution the late Finish prime minister made to the peace process, was entitled Peace Process – In Light of Brexit Issues.
In the course of the lecture he welcomed DUP and Sinn Féin’s engagement in attempting to restore Stormont as part of creating a wider “climate of cautious trust”.
“But they are not sufficient conditions unless we remove the threat of Border polls in the near future. If the removal of such a demand was matched by a similar move on the Irish language, we would get momentum and momentum is crucial making peace. The longer you don’t talk to an estranged neighbour the harder it is to begin,” he said.
He spoke of the “transformation” that has taken place in the North since 1998, the lived saved in the peace process, the normalisation of life, and the surge in tourism.
However, he was critical of the slow progress in the political process but said he was not about to engage in “a long moan-fest about the current generation of leaders”.
“Is there anything more boring than an ancient hurler on the ditch muttering on about how the current crowd are useless?” he asked.
He noted the murder of loyalist Ian Ogle in east Belfast recently and the murder in Derry last month of journalist Lyra McKee who was fatally wounded when she was struck by a shot by a new New IRA gunman firing at police lines during rioting in the city.
He warned of the danger of political movement and progress being replaced with a vacuum.
He said the roots of the Northern Ireland conflict lie deep in history and “we ignore them at our peril”.
“The right thing to do with them is to treat them with respect and manage them carefully,” he said.
He added that the twin imperatives of the negotiator are to represent the views of your own side fully and faithfully but equally to bring to bear a profound commitment to finding accommodation and agreement.
He paid tribute to former SDLP leader John Hume and the “logic and truth” of his vision and referenced the vision of Wolfe Tone who “dreamed of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”.
He said unionism needs to take on board what parity of esteem means . “And when you talk about ‘our precious union’, actually appreciating that your neighbours have an entirely different definition of the phrase and one that is just as legitimate as yours.”
He said nationalism needs to not write off unionism as unworkable-with.
“There is no such thing as ‘moving beyond Stormont’ if we want a healthy, vibrant new Ireland for our children and children’s children,” he said.
He said the journey to a new Ireland “cannot jump over the need for working on reconciliation and partnership in Northern Ireland, no matter how challenging and difficult that may be”.
He urged the Stormont parties to provide real leadership. “Roll up your sleeves, get stuck back in there again and find solutions everyone can live with,” he said.
Last year’s honorary professorship was awarded to former Stormont first minister and ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson.