The historic value of Bertie-speak


THE NORTH:Bertie Ahern's negotiating skills were critical to the success of the peace process, writes DEAGLÁN  DE BRÉADÚN

ONE OF the senior negotiators in the peace process recalls an episode which epitomises the contribution made by Bertie Ahern. Tony Blair was chairing one more joint press conference at yet another delicate and sensitive stage of negotiations when a journalist came up with the type of awkward question that, if answered in blunt and unadorned terms, could cause the house of cards to collapse.

Clearly aware of what he was doing, Blair tossed the question to his Irish counterpart, knowing full well that Ahern would smother it in ambiguous and incomprehensible Bertie- speak. Observers said afterwards that, whereas each individual sentence was coherent and logical, the Taoiseach's statement as a whole was calculated to bemuse and mystify ("you would want to be Einstein to understand it"). But before the press corps realised what was going on, Blair had moved to the next question.

There was a similar occasion, doubtless one of many, when a visiting unionist delegation at Government Buildings was lamenting the alleged inconsistencies in Dublin's attitude to IRA violence. Again Ahern drowned the unionist complaint in a torrent of Bertie-speak and the meeting moved on to other business.

These incidents sum up Ahern's capacity to be all things to all men, never committing himself outright to one position or another, but relying on his good nature and popularity to move the process forward.

In a previous Fianna Fáil era, Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote that Jack Lynch needed to adopt a position that was visible in Ireland but invisible in Britain - and vice-versa. Bertie Ahern was a master of the black art of political shape-changing.

When it came to negotiations, the unflappable Ahern was always four moves ahead, a master craftsman in a field where there were many amateurs. Years and years of dealing with the trade unions south of the Border were excellent preparation for the long sessions at Stormont's Castle Buildings, Hillsborough Castle, Leeds Castle, St Andrews and all those other way-stations that marked the peace process.

He was initially a slow learner and, when interviewed as opposition leader in 1995, Ahern consulted a written note from an adviser before answering a question on the North. However, he managed to persuade the republican movement he was someone with whom it could do business and, when Blair and himself took power in their respective jurisdictions in mid-1997, the IRA quickly went back on ceasefire.

He reached his apotheosis during the lead- up to Good Friday in April 1998. Despite the fact that his 87-year-old mother Julia had just died, Ahern insisted on flying to Belfast for a meeting in the interval between the removal and the funeral. The show must go on; hardline unionist John Taylor was so concerned that he stopped the negotiations a few times during the night of Holy Thursday to ask the Taoiseach if he was all right and if he needed a break.

Ahern's approach demonstrated his level of commitment to the talks. However, like Tony Blair and, in his own way, Bill Clinton, he became caught up in the process and was clearly captivated by the knowledge that, despite all the massive difficulties and major obstacles, peace and an end to the killing were ultimately attainable.

WHILE IT WOULD be a mistake to ignore the contributions of so many others to the success of the process, Ahern's role in the lead-up to Good Friday was critical. The unionists were unhappy with the list of potential North-South bodies provided by Dublin, which came to about 100. At the same time, Irish-American organisations had taken a half-page newspaper advertisement urging him not to "buckle to British pressure" by diluting Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution; this reportedly had a "depressing effect" on the Fianna Fáil leader.

Indeed it has since emerged that moves were under way to mount a strong and well- resourced campaign to maintain the constitutional claim to the Nort,h but this fell through when Sinn Féin bought into the Belfast Agreement.

Thus there were significant pressures on Ahern to take a hardline stance on the North- South dimension of any proposed agreement, which could have become a rallying-point for unionist opposition, just as the Council of Ireland had been at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973-74.

If he had refused to give way on Articles 2 and 3 and concede the principle of consent, there would have been no chance of a deal.

Unionists claimed that Ahern moderated his position on North-South bodies after he was threatened with public denunciation by Blair. UUP leader David Trimble was quoted as saying he had witnessed the "ritual humiliation" of Ahern by his British counterpart. However, this is not corroborated by Blair's media guru Alastair Campbell who recorded that there was give and take on North-South bodies and that the unionists treated Ahern "with something close to contempt, and it was terrific the way he took it".

Of course, the agreement which was concluded on Good Friday 1998 was only the beginning. Many years of exhausting and tedious cajoling and negotiations were required before a potentially durable power- sharing arrangement incorporating the Democratic Unionist Party was established.

Whatever his faults and failings in other spheres, Ahern was never found wanting in his enthusiasm and willingness to go the extra mile for peace.

Future historians are likely to be fascinated by the relationship between Blair and Ahern, both pragmatists who were prepared to ditch traditional shibboleths to achieve the practical aim of halting violence. They complemented one another in that Blair was the phrasemaker who produced the appropriate "hand of history" sound-bites, whereas Ahern's strength lay in his instinctive grasp of the negotiating process.

Former Trimble adviser Dr Steven King says: "There would have been no Belfast Agreement without Bertie Ahern".

In a similar vein, Blair chief of staff Jonathan Powell has said of him: "There would have been no agreement in Northern Ireland if it had not been for his unadorned common sense." Ahern told the Dáil on April 2nd he would "submit to the verdict of history" and, at least in relation to the peace process, that verdict is likely to be kind.

Deaglán de Bréadún is the author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, published by Collins Press, Cork.