- The former Taoiseach played a pivotal role in negotiating and implementing the Good Friday Agreement.
- Brexit Ahern believes the peace will hold after it was passed by overwhelming referendum majorities in both parts of Ireland.
- “I think the agreement will stand because it’s the will of the people,” he said.
The success of the 1998 peace accords in Northern Ireland can be measured in thousands of lives saved, said former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, as new tensions simmer ahead of the agreement’s 25th anniversary.
The former Taoiseach played a pivotal role in negotiating and implementing the Good Friday Agreement with the UK government under Tony Blair.
“The last 25 years, thankfully, we’ve had some problems but small (ones),” Ahern, 71, told AFP in an interview.
“We just hope that it keeps going the right way,” he said, with Northern Ireland again locked in political gridlock and prone to isolated acts of violence.
“I think the thing you’re most proud of… is that thousands of people are alive.”
The April 10, 1998 agreement ended three decades of sectarian conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland, known as “The Troubles”, that claimed 3,500 lives.
The negotiating teams under Ahern and Blair managed to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences pitting armed pro-Irish nationalists against Northern Ireland’s then pro-UK, Protestant majority.
The multiparty talks brokered by the US government ended in three weeks of “hectic”, “night and day” negotiations, Bertie Ahern recalled.
“It was always a process, and the last 25 years have been so much more pleasant and so much more comforting than the previous 25 or maybe the previous 75,” he added.
Twenty-five years later, while walls and watchtowers on the border have been torn down and British troops have departed, the province remains contested, albeit more peacefully these days.
But the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, and the emergence of a pro-Irish majority led by the Sinn Fein party, have upended political calculations in Northern Ireland.
For over a year, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing devolved government — a central plank of the peace deal — has been paralysed by a boycott by the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose hardline members were suspicious of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Since Brexit it has just been a roller-coaster,” said Ahern, who led Ireland from 1997 to 2008.
“I was totally frustrated and disappointed with the Johnson government,” he explained, referring to UK former prime minister Boris Johnson.
“We went through long periods where there was little or no dialogue between the EU and the UK.”
Ahern is hopeful a new deal with the EU, clinched by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, to reform post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland, will be enough to bring the DUP back to power-sharing.
“The core issues have been dealt with,” said the former Taoiseach, crediting Sunak with bringing “great energy” to the EU negotiations.
“Then I think they believed that they had a real partner,” he said.
But in Northern Ireland itself, old sectarian tensions remain.
‘Will of the people’
Last month, a senior police officer was shot in front of his son after coaching a youth football team. He remains critically injured in hospital.
Police suspect a dissident nationalist paramilitary group called the New IRA was to blame.
“There’ll always be, I think, some people on both sides who are opposed to the agreement,” said Ahern. “I think the best we can do is to try to get them to oppose it from peaceful means.”
“There’s still work to be done on that,” he continued. “The numbers are small… but any one incident is a problem.”
After leaving office in 2008, Ahern applied his negotiating experience to help manage conflicts in Colombia, Myanmar, Spain’s Basque region and others.
A return in February to his old political party Fianna Fail, from which he resigned in 2012 amid questions over a financial scandal, has prompted speculation of a possible run at the Irish presidency.
Despite the tensions in Northern Ireland and the ongoing fissures over Brexit, Ahern believes the peace will hold after it was passed by overwhelming referendum majorities in both parts of Ireland.
“I think the agreement will stand because it’s the will of the people,” he said.
“If you were to abandon the agreement then you’re abandoning the will of the people in the north and the south.”
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