Bertie Ahern: ‘Belfast Agreement provides path to restoring peace in the North’

Unnecessary politicking over the Northern Ireland protocol is a dangerous game

A clean-up operation under way in west Belfast following scenes of violent disorder over recent nights. Photograph: Rebecca Black/PA Wire

A clean-up operation under way in west Belfast following scenes of violent disorder over recent nights. Photograph: Rebecca Black/PA Wire

 

Today, on the 23rd anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol dominates the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland. It is a compromise born out of intense negotiations and political brinkmanship between the European Union and the UK, and it brings both challenges and opportunities. The means of meeting both are found within the agreement reached almost a generation ago – and in the protocol.

The protocol itself was not designed to define identity, nor to appeal to one community over the other. It exists to protect the integrity of the European single market. It is imperfect, but it presents practical solutions that its detractors wish to ignore. Valuable opportunities presented by the protocol for the people of Northern Ireland have been disregarded and it has instead become a lightning rod for division, paralysing politics and poisoning the atmosphere.

The agreement contains the practical solutions that I know will provide the framework and processes to lead us out of this hiatus and repair relationships

Real politics on issues that can deliver for people are on hold. Infrastructural investment, hospital waiting lists and reform of the education system languish in a vacuum. History teaches that every vacuum is filled, and so violence is spiralling again. Protests propel young people back on to the streets, re-enacting a past that all political parties, and both governments, strived to ensure this generation would never see.

Regrettably, a costly misstep by the EU was a catalyst for difficulty, but the problem now is compounded by unnecessary politicking, rather than peace-making. The EU’s move to activate article 16 was aimed at blocking the use of Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Britain. This raised the alarm politically, with the Irish Government, the UK government, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the DUP and other unionists all raising their concerns. Mistrust and division have resulted.

Dialogue is the only solution. The combined potential within the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol can provide a pathway to restoring peace and rebuilding trust. This is the only overarching framework for stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland. It is the means to restore stability in communities and in politics that represent them.

Read it again

Today on this anniversary I urge Northern Ireland’s leaders to read again the Belfast Agreement. It contains the practical solutions that I know will provide the framework and processes to lead us out of this hiatus and repair relationships. It has worked well in the past and is the basis for a better future.

Despite the political problems throughout the Brexit negotiations, in January 2020, we saw one positive chink of light – the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive. It was, and is a demonstration that no matter how fraught the political landscape may be, there is a solid bedrock for democracy in Northern Ireland and, provided it is nourished, it will flourish.

Unity with purpose is needed to quell the growing anger and to quiet the volatility that will invariably lead us back to an escalation of violence if left unchecked

That requires all three strands within the Belfast Agreement framework to be fully operational, not just in times of crisis but constantly. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council (to develop co-operation between both parts of Ireland), the British-Irish Council (to promote the relationship between Ireland and Britain) collectively hold the key to resolving the unnecessary violence that we have witnessed in Northern Ireland in recent weeks.

To restore trust and repair relationships there are three initiatives that can be applied under these strands without much effort. Firstly, all political parties in Northern Ireland must work together alongside their civic leaders and commit to speak as one voice. Unity with purpose is needed to quell the growing anger and to quiet the volatility that will invariably lead us back to an escalation of violence if left unchecked. They must collectively condemn the violence and create a pathway forward for all communities.

Secondly, it is incumbent on both governments to act as brokers of peace and assert their respective roles as custodians of the Belfast Agreement. After all, it is their responsibility to ensure that this agreement, which is underpinned by international law, prevails. An urgent meeting of the British-Irish governmental council should be arranged to provide the space for calm dialogue and creative problem-solving for the common good.

Marching seasons

Finally, since the 1990s enormously important relationships have been cultivated by ex-combatants and religious leaders on all sides behind the scenes. It is those relationships that have been successful in dealing with the complex difficulties of the marching seasons. Enduring partnerships have assiduously resolved tensions at a low level before they escalated to flashpoints. Mutual respect, trust and the respect of an alternative perspective for the greater good is what sustains these relationships. Community issues can be resolved from within. The Northern Ireland Assembly, Executive and both governments must encourage and foster those relationships at every turn.

A generation not yet born 23 years ago, cannot become the one that allows us to slip back to violence

It should not be forgotten that the protocol also provides important trading opportunities for Northern Ireland. Politicians should work together to capitalise on a unique opportunity that allows Northern Ireland-UK trade and direct access to the EU single market for local business. It is equally important that the processes provided for by the withdrawal agreement – the Specialised and Joint Committees – be utilised to establish clear milestones and work on what is possible, instead of focusing on what cannot be achieved. Committees provided for under the withdrawal agreement could also provide a place for problem-solving and building relationships. To his credit Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has been endeavouring to find practical solutions to resolve problems; he will require the assistance of EU leaders and the British government if he is to succeed.

Today’s planned protests are disquieting. A generation not yet born 23 years ago, cannot become the one that allows us to slip back to violence. However fragile the fundamentals of our hard-won peace may seem, it is a foundation for the future. Solid foundations need to be set in stone. The Belfast Agreement is the basis for peaceful politics and mutual respect across these islands.

Bertie Ahern was taoiseach from June 1997 until May 2008

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