Henry McDonald: Brexit might be why Bertie Ahern has joined the Brit and unionist bashing

One early Saturday morning almost exactly ten years ago I spotted this lonely looking figure wandering about the departure zone of Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2.

Monday, 29th November 2021, 12:12 pm
Updated Monday, 29th November 2021, 12:37 pm
Bertie Ahern in front of Lord (David) David Trimble and Sir Reg Empey in Belfast i 2018 on the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. In 1998 Ahern crucially agreed to water down the North-South arrangements which if stronger would have resulted in the Ulster Unionists not signing up to the deal. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The few travellers waiting for flights to Britain including a smattering of Irish fans of English football teams seemed to be unaware of his presence. He kept himself inconspicuous and moved about the near deserted glass and steel surroundings as if he didn’t want to be seen.

Yet this man had once mixed with world leaders including presidents and prime ministers.

He had played an important part in putting together an international peace treaty-settlement, which appeared to have ended a seemingly endless conflict. On his own turf he had made history by winning three general elections in a row. He was of course Bertie Ahern.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble and 'INLA: Deadly Divisions'

His diffident demeanour around the departure gates was a physical reminder about Enoch Powell’s dictum about all political careers ultimately ending in failure.

Unfairly perhaps Ahern was being blamed in the Irish media and by some political rivals as having blindly guided the Republic into the Celtic Tiger crash, the financial crisis and the loss of economic sovereignty when the country was taken over by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB).

Such was the fickleness of southern Irish public opinion that the ex-Taoiseach they used to affectionately call Bertie now risked physical assault even if he went for a quiet pint in one of his favourite North Dublin pubs. He had been attacked by a man in one of them and was occasionally verbally abused around the city.

That morning in Dublin Airport before I boarded my flight to Gatwick I decided to go over and say hello to the former Taoiseach.

I actually felt a bit sorry for Bertie. After all it couldn’t all be his fault that the Republic and its overheated economy had crashed and burned.

Everyone down south bar the very poorest sections of society seemed during the boom years to be participating in the party. Every second taxi driver that picked up you in Connolly Station for instance couldn’t wait to tell you about the third holiday home they had bought on the Costal del Sol or the Black Sea.

Whatever Ahern’s economic record he had one crowning achievement his neo-detractors couldn’t take away from him — Northern Ireland.

I had seen him working hand in hand with Tony Blair on Easter Week 1998 when their pragmatic powers of persuasion and negotiation secured the Belfast Agreement.

Ahern had lost his mother that week and went straight from her funeral back to the talks in Castle Buildings working strenuously to get the deal done.

In those talks Ahern crucially agreed to water down the North-South arrangements which if stronger would have resulted in the Ulster Unionists not signing up.

Essentially Bertie played a key role in creating ‘Sunningdale-Minus one’ – the ‘one’ being no Council of Ireland style cross border institution.

Later Ahern struck up a genuinely warm rapport with the Rev Ian Paisley, which lasted long after both men left office and was part of the benign mood music around the St.Andrew’s Agreement.

So, with all this in mind I went over to Ahern at his departure gate, introduced myself, shook his hand and struck up a conversation. I told him that despite everything he had played a progressive role in Northern Ireland especially in reaching out to unionists and clarifying to them that his administration had no interest in Fourth-Green field nationalist aggrandisement; that peace, co-operation and mutual respect was what it was all about.

I still believe that Ahern’s contribution to Northern Ireland was and is commendable. Which is why it seemed out of character when he made his tribally-loaded remarks about ‘loyalist ghettoes’ earlier this month.

Some commentators have suggested Bertie’s dismissal of unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol was him signalling to Sinn Fein and its southern electorate that he wants to run for the Irish presidency.

That prospect seems unlikely on two fronts. Sinn Fein will pick their own candidate who will be a titular independent but fall wholly under their influence. In addition, it is hard to see Fianna Fail nominating Ahern for Phoenix Park given that his candidacy will only recycle the era of economic bust and national humiliation.

There is perhaps another deeper reason why even Ahern has apparently jumped on the Brit/unionist bashing bandwagon of late: Brexit.

Even for those of us who didn’t vote to leave the EU it is troubling to hear so many voices in the Republic engaging a form of neo-nationalist hysteria over the democratic decision of the UK to back Brexit.

Nothing else it seems matters anymore but to punish the Brits (and by association their unionist allies) for walking away from the EU. Brexit seems to have flipped the brains of even some of the most pragmatic, cautious, normally pluralistic public figures in Dublin.

They simply can’t get over it.

In the meantime, relations between the unionist community and the southern Irish political class are rock bottom.

Let’s hope the next speech or intervention Bertie Ahern makes sees him return to type as part of a process to start repairing that relationship he once helped so carefully and intelligently to foster and nurture.

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