Border poll would not have a ‘hope in hell’ of passing at present, says Ahern

Former taoiseach says thorny issues remain on any vote over united Ireland

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said a border poll would not have a “hope in hell” of passing without significant work on complex issues being done beforehand.

Speaking at the Oireachtas committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Ahern also said contributions this week by British prime minister Liz Truss were “unhelpful”.

Referring to her comments that British legislation on the Northern Ireland protocol would be the “bottom line” in negotiations, he said: “I was going to say the British prime minister but I don’t know who the British prime minister is.

“Quite frankly I didn’t think it was helpful, what the British prime minister of yesterday said,” he told the committee shortly after the news of Ms Truss’ resignation broke. “I never tried negotiations where I declared the bottom line before going into the negotiations.”


He said this decade is a realistic goal for a border poll to take place, if the work is done beforehand. He said he felt Brexit was a mistake and the British electorate had been “sold a pup” and had “bought a pup” as well.

He welcomed the fact that academic work is being done on the legislative and other underpinnings of a united Ireland, but said thorny issues remain.

Offering the examples of how questions about the economy would work, or how the Garda and the PSNI could be merged, as well as the courts, local authorities, the NHS and the HSE, he said they were “doable” but that “the preparation and the planning” had to be done.

Without adequate preparation, he said: “I’ll tell you what the result of the election will be now, and I won’t charge for the advice. It wouldn’t have a hope in hell of passing,” he said, pointing to the example of the Scottish independence referendum which saw the Scottish National Party “buried” on the question of the economy.

Mr Ahern appeared in front of the committee as part of its series of engagements with the architects of the 1998 settlement.

He also raised doubts over using a Citizens’ Assembly to thrash out issues. “To put the national issue that we’ve been talking about for 100 years into the hands of 100 people, I’m not sure about that,” he said. He said there should be role for political parties and other organisations, and for the Dáil.

He told Sinn Féin TD for Cavan Monaghan Pauline Tully that he didn’t think the British government had been intentionally undermining the agreement, but “they clearly haven’t been helpful in the course of this calendar year”.

He said he was not optimistic that sufficient headway would be made in negotiations to achieve a deal on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol before the supposed deadline by which an election must be called next week.

“Realistically it’s hard to see much happening before Friday week and we’ll see where that brings us,” he said. “Let’s be honest about it, I’d say in the timespan of the last ten days and trying to get the British government to focus on anything was probably fairly poor.”

The years since the Belfast Agreement have brought many dividends but have also seen “continuing political turbulence”, especially since Brexit, Mr Ahern told the committee. He pointed to Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in 2017, which laid the ground for a hard Brexit outside the customs union, as having created the conditions for the difficulties around the border.

In his opening statement, Mr Ahern told the committee that with the 25th anniversary of the agreement approaching it was necessary to “remind ourselves why it was necessary in the first place and the principles that lay at its heart”.

Foremost among these, he said, was its core value: “The respect for, and accommodation of, difference”.

“That was the spirit at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and it is clear to me that it must be the spirit at the heart of how current difficulties are resolved — whether one is talking about the Northern Ireland protocol, the restoration of the executive and assembly, legacy or the range of other challenges facing us.”

Mr Ahern said it was important to reflect on the agreement as a “living charter” which “continues to impact hugely on relations today” within Northern Ireland, as well as between Britain and Ireland and North and South.

He said the settlement was “hard won” and involved close collaboration between people who “could barely stand being in the same room together” with compromises on decommissioning, the release of prisoners and constitutional change.

“In some cases, we were asking people whose families had suffered personally in the conflict to accept the release of the person responsible for the murder of their brother, sister, father or mother.”

He said nothing about securing the agreement was easy and neither was anything about its implementation — but that it has made a huge difference. “Today, almost 25 years later, we can look back on a generation of peace, a generation in which the guns have been largely silent, a generation in which a life unimaginable over the previous three decades has been possible for everybody in Northern Ireland. To paraphrase John Lennon, peace has been given a chance, and the results have been remarkable,” he said.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times